CHAMPAIGN — There's a bitter taste left in the mouth of the Illinois basketball team.
A loss at home in overtime to Florida Atlantic has a way of leaving a lingering pungent taste. A complete cleanse of the palate won't be easy when the Illini (4-9) travel to Bloomington to play No. 21 Indiana at 6 p.m. Thursday (FS1) in the resumption of Big Ten Conference play.
Though the Hoosiers (11-2) will be without standout freshman point guard Rob Phinisee because of an injury, Illinois will have its hands full against an Indiana team led by a strong veteran in Juwan Morgan (16.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG) and a stellar freshman in home-state kid Romeo Langford (17.5 PPG).
Illinois has had two-a-days and practices where the team got up and down the court with segments that replicated in-game situations. An onus has been put on playing better on offense, particularly with the Hoosies ranking No. 19 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
After shooting 31.6 percent on Saturday against Florida Atlantic, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood has continued to emphasize the priorities that have been in place all season.
“We’ve got to become tougher, and that’s the one thing we’ve been striving to be, so we can be disciplined," Underwood said. "We didn’t run very much of anything with any precision in the Florida Atlantic game. You can’t go on the road and win if you don’t execute."
Underwood likened a good offensive rhythm to music. When things are flowing, there's a rhythm with each instrument playing off of each other at just the right times. Against FAU, the guitar was out of tunes, the drums were missing pieces and the strings snapped on the bass.
The Illini have watched film to see exactly how the band jammed in the past.
"Nobody knew when a guy was going to be open and when a guy was going to shoot because we were off in our execution," Underwood said of the FAU game. "We have guys over-dribbling when we don’t need to over-dribble, or missing screens when a guy is coming wide open, or delivering the ball a second late when we come off something and we’re open. That becomes out of rhythm and out of sync."
Until Saturday's 21-point performance, freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu hadn't scored more than 10 points in any game since Nov. 21 against Xavier and had shot 15-of-55 (27.2 percent) during a six-game span between the Xavier game and Saturday's game against Florida Atlantic.
He equated the stretch of scoring woes to his adjustment to varsity basketball at Chicago Morgan Park when he was a sophomore. Once he got settled in at Morgan Park, he took off.
“The one thing I know about my circuit is once I figure it out, it’s like a skyrocket," Dosunmu said. "I’m trying to get better and better each day, keep watching film and keep working on my game and trying to improve."
For as erratic as the offense has been, and how those offensive struggles, Underwood said, have a way of leaking over to defense, Illinois has continued to hang its hat on the ability to force turnovers.
Teams turn the ball over on 24.9 percent of their possessions, good for No. 6 in the nation, according to KenPom. It's something Indiana coach Archie Miller, like most other coaches that have crossed paths with Illinois, have taken note of. The Hoosiers turn the ball over an average of 14.5 times per game.
“It’s the whole key to the game," Miller said of limiting turnovers. "It’s not just us. It’s something anyone in the country who plays them has to deal with it. There will be five to 10 possessions in the game where you look out there and say, ‘This doesn’t even look like a basketball game.’ It’s a firestorm, so to speak.
"There are those plays where you have to be able to capitalize with numbers and you don’t make the silly mistake of over-dribbling or charging or just getting too sped up with numbers and not making the proper pass. Illinois thrives on defense. The whole key is being able to find ways to get quality shots and being able to find some numbers, which isn’t an easy thing to do if you haven’t played them."
Langford hasn't experienced the Illinois defense in person yet, but he's taken the college basketball world by storm in his first 13 games as a Hoosier. His 17.5 points per game leads the team, and he's connecting on 50.3 percent of his shots with 5.7 rebounds. He, like Dosunmu, was a highly touted high school player who elected to stay and play for his in-state school.
“Romeo is a terrific talent. He’s a guy, both of them have been on the national scene in their own states," Underwood said. "I have tremendous respect for him staying at home. He’s proven to be every bit as good as advertised, and I think Ayo has been. They’re two of the top freshmen in the league, and you throw (Ignas) Brazdeikis in at Michigan and you have three young guys making an impact on their team in the Big Ten."