CHAMPAIGN — Forty minutes.
It sounds like no time at all, but putting together a full game of basketball has been a problem for Illinois this season. If the team wants to notch a win at 1 p.m. Saturday against UNLV, it starts with consistency.
Illinois (2-7) has led at the half five times this season and has been outscored 304-266 in the second half in seven games against high-major opponents — everyone except Evansville and Mississippi Valley State.
“We have been talking about second halves now," Illinois freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. "The first halves we have been good, we've played good defense and were not fouling. The last game, in the second half we started fouling and that stopped us from running and playing in transition. We have to focus to play 40 minutes."
The end of the first half of Wednesday's loss to Ohio State was the picture of what Illinois head coach Brad Underwood wants to do. The defense forced turnovers and the offense took advantage, leading to a 16-4 run to close the half with a lead.
In the second half, it stopped.
“We went in the locker room with a lot of energy and were ready to get back out there and play," Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. "That’s who we are. That first half was unbelievable. We know what we can control now. We’re still trying to figure out how to put two halves together. Obviously we’re really struggling in the second half. Right now our main focus is putting 40 minutes together and trying to win."
Underwood and his staff have contemplated everything from if the team gets to the arena too early to if they need to change up their halftime shoot-around. Anything to fix the second-half woes.
Some of the troubles have come against playing top competition, but some of it is self-inflicted. CBSSports.com ranks Illinois 7th in the country in strength of schedule. It's been a grueling non-conference schedule compounded by a three-day winless stretch in Maui.
“We’ve identified what our problems are and we don’t have a false reality of being 7-2 and playing nobody and not knowing," Underwood said. "We understand that our performance in the second half has changed. It’s been different."
The good news for Illinois is that Frazier, the leading scorer, has been cleared to play after taking a hard fall late in Wednesday's game against Ohio State. Frazier returned briefly to the game after being helped to the locker room with what has been diagnosed as a bruised tailbone.
“I’m still struggling to get my full speed back," he said. "My main focus right now is just getting better. I got the wind knocked out of me. I've never fell that hard before. I was pretty scared and I couldn’t breathe at the time."
It wasn't until the Illini played UNLV last year that Frazier really found his stride as a freshman. He scored 16 points in Las Vegas and followed that up by scoring in double figures in all but three of the team's final 21 games.
“He’s going through the same thing I went through last year, trying to figure it out at the college level," Frazier said. "He’s a great player. There’s no doubt that he’s going to figure it out. We talk every day. He has it in his heart. He’s a winner. That’s one of the things I like about him. I know he’s struggling right now offensively, but he’s one of the great players on our team. I know he can shoot the ball at any time. He’ll figure it out."
Beating UNLV (4-3) isn't a freebie, though. The Runnin' Rebels beat Illinois 89-82 in Las Vegas last year, but it's a different UNLV team that will make the trip to Champaign.
Gone are UNLV's two top scorers from that game, Jovan Mooring and Brandon McCoy. The Runnin' Rebels are younger this season, with just three seniors, including the team's top two scorers Kris Clyburn (11.7 ppg) and Shakur Juiston (11 ppg).
Underwood knows how badly his team needs a win with four non-conference games remaining before heading into consistent Big Ten play.
“We’ve got to go out and beat people," he said. "Winning is hard. We’ve got to go out and play it the right way and earn it. I keep talking about how nobody gives you anything. We’ve got to go earn it. All it takes is one and you get that feel good going again and confidence and a lot of things can happen when you’re confident."