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The annual Braggin' Rights game is still 12 days out, and a date with South Carolina State remains in between, but the Tigers should have all eyes on that December 22nd match-up with 13th-ranked Illinois.

It may be the most important game of the season.

Missouri has won the last three in a row, and this year's match-up will most likely be the first time the teams meet with top-15 rankings in ten years. If both win out before that game -- and some higher teams lose -- it could be the first time both teams meet in the top-ten since 2001.

But Missouri's ranking doesn't make this game more or less important. It's Illinois' ranking. Unlike previous years, where the Tigers would have a meaty Big 12 schedule remaining, Missouri doesn't have that conference gauntlet anymore. Instead, Missouri churns the not-so-deep pool of the SEC, where the teams were supposed to be strong at the top but drowning at the bottom.

However, that's not the case anymore. The Tigers have four games remaining against teams with RPIs inside the top ten -- Illinois (6), Texas A&M (8) and a home-and-home with Florida (4). A road game with Kentucky was supposed to add some strength to Missouri's schedule, but the Wildcats are currently unranked and boast an RPI of 95.

A year ago, Missouri played 11 teams with RPIs inside the top-50 at the time of their meeting. This year, that number drops to seven. The conference schedule also includes four games against teams with current RPIs over 200 -- last year, Missouri had two conference games against such an opponent, both coming against Texas Tech.

Anything can change, sure. Kentucky will move back up the rankings and help Missouri's schedule. The Tigers' home game with Bucknell will boost Missouri's RPI, which is currently 92. Yet as the schedule currently stands, Missouri has a projected strength of schedule of 65. That would be an upgrade over last season, where Missouri finished with an SOS of 94. That was mostly built on a cupcake non-conferene schedule, where Missouri played two teams with RPIs inside the top-50.

In the Big 12, however, Missouri could count on big-time conference games. This year, outside of Florida, there's no such guarantee. That's why the Braggin' Rights game is so important. Frank Haith can't rely on Kentucky to re-find its swagger, or Texas A&M to continue a strong start. A win against Illinois would resonate for a while at the start of conference play.

RPI isn't everything, but it factors into seeding for the NCAA tournament. That fact was made obvious a year ago, as 30-4 Missouri dropped to a two-seed and then received an early exit from the postseason. This season, it's unlikely a talented but inconsistent Missouri team gets that high consideration, but RPI could be the difference between a four or five seed and a seven or eight seed. That could make a big difference.

Missouri still has 20 games remaining after Dec. 22. But the Braggin' Rights game may just define the Tigers' season.

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