CHAMPAIGN — There's a bit of familiarity with the precarious situation that the Illini find themselves in.
There have been flashes of potential on the basketball court, like climbing out of a nine-point deficit in the second half against Missouri last week to take a very brief one-point lead. Then, there have been flashes of inconsistency, like the 24-4 run in the final seven minutes that allowed the Tigers to snag a Braggin' Rights win.
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said the team went "cuckoo" in the losing stretch of the game — referring to playing "hero ball" at times.
Players had a few days to get away, go home and celebrate the holidays with their family, all while carrying a bad taste of a Braggin' Rights loss in their mouths. The Illini (4-8) reconvened on Wednesday and host Florida Atlantic (8-4) at 2 p.m. Saturday in the final non-conference game before Big Ten play resumes in full force next week.
Translation: There's less than a week's time to find that consistency, effort and focus that has led to second halves slipping away this year.
“Right now we’re playing 35 minutes of basketball unbelievably," sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. "I think with five minutes left in the game, our focus is nowhere to be found. We’ve had some defensive lapses where we’ve given up points and it’s transferring to offense where we can’t make a shot."
Second-half troubles have been a well-worn trait of Illinois this season. On more than one occasion, the Illini have played some of their best basketball in the first half before sliding away after halftime. Underwood has gone to great lengths to try to rid the team of the plague that has costs them wins, like shaking up practices to keep his team focused.
That's where some of the difficulties lie.
“In practice, towards the end of practice we lose focus a little bit and start giggling around and I think that’s where leadership needs to come in from me," Frazier said. "Just being more vocal because I know it’s not easy. Just being more vocal with these young guys and everyone else, we’ve got to stay focused. That’s what we’re doing right now — we’re not creating the habits in practice because you practice how you play."
Some of the problems on the court stem from a lack of communication — one person not executing what they need to do, Underwood said. Some of those issues are a result of a lack of communication and experience. It's a big hurdle to jump before Big Ten play.
“That’s the next step for us is being that disciplined and tough so we can execute when we have to," Underwood said.
Missouri took advantage of miscommunications and a lack of discipline in Illinois' ball-screen defense. Underwood said Florida Atlantic will test that aspect of the Illinois defense like it hasn't been tested yet this season.
Junior Kipper Nichols said the team misplayed a few ball screens that ended up costing them, and Underwood said there were seven plays in a row where the Illini made the wrong play that Missouri took advantage of.
"Coach gets us ready for every game. There’s no excuse for that so that’s on us," Nichols said of the cause of the defensive breakdowns. "We’ve got to do a better job, especially of communicating on the defensive end and especially in that type of atmosphere. We have to be loud and communicate clearly."
Florida Atlantic is the last stop before those communication breakdowns and miscues are magnified under the scope of conference play, but the Owls aren't an easy pass — even without leading scorer and rebounder Jailyn Ingram, who is out for the season with a torn ACL.
The Owls still have three other players — Anthony Adger, Xavian Stapleton and Jaylen Sebree — who average in double figures.
"Obviously they’re playing some good basketball. We’ve got to come out ready to go tomorrow and try to get a win," Frazier said.