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Christmas break exactly what Illinois needed

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A well-rested Illini squad is getting back at it in Champaign.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Good Ole’ Saint Nick has come and gone this holiday season, and it is now time for the Illinois Fighting Illini to once again hit the floors of the State Farm Center.

The Illini have been preparing for their next foe, the Grand Canyon Antelopes who are currently sitting at a 10-4 overall record, all week.

Leading the Antelopes in scoring are fifth-year guards Joshua Braun with 14.1 points and Casey Benson at 10.5 points per game.

“I think they’re one of the three or four best teams we’ve played to this point,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. “They have tremendous veteran experience with two fifth-year guards with Braun and Benson.”

Santa’s gift: A full week of practice — and no games

When the season is in full bloom, it is nearly impossible to string together a full week of practices without having two to three games during that stretch.

But at the bottom of Underwood’s Christmas tree was just that, a week’s worth of preparation that will have allowed him and his team to work on certain areas they were struggling with over the past month.

“An unbelievable blessing and much needed,” Underwood said. “There’s no substitute for practice. You feel like as a coach, sometimes there are not enough hours in the day to work on everything. Now we’ve been able... to focus and get back to the fundamental things.”

Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Trent Frazier used this break to get a new pair of headphones — and practice for 80 hours.

While Frazier admitted that the 80 hours is a little bit of an exaggeration, he says the extra days in the gym have been helpful.

“I think we’re getting really, really better,” Frazier said. “It’s really prepared us (for) tomorrow, coming in and playing Grand Canyon, they’re a great basketball team. I think we’re going to focus in today, go scout it and I think we’re going to be really good tomorrow.”

Finke brothers at odds

Former Illinois prospect Tim Finke, brother of junior forward Michael Finke, committed to Grand Canyon in early November. As a result, controversy may have been stirred up at the Finke household this Christmas.

On one hand, Tim gave his older brother a personal scouting report.

“He really likes the team, obviously the coach, Coach Majerle, with all his experience,” Michael said. “He said they like to run, get out and shoot.”

But on the other hand, there has been a little bit of friendly banter between the two regarding tomorrow’s matchup.

Michael told Tim that if he was going to show up to the game, Tim is not allowed to wear any Grand Canyon apparel and that he would give the future Antelope an orange sweatshirt.

“Just a little competitive talk here and there, he’s not playing so it’s a little different,” Michael said.

Early season breakouts simmering down

Junior guard Aaron Jordan and redshirt sophomore Kipper Nichols both got off to great starts to the season, but the two have come back to earth heading into the new calendar year.

Nichols has failed to reach double-digit scoring in five of his last six games, while also receiving only 10 minutes of playing time in the Illini’s last two contests.

Underwood said this is because of other players stepping up in the rotation.

“Other guys are playing better, you got to earn those minutes,” Underwood said. “Kipper’s a guy that has to continue to grow, continue to make less mistakes.”

While Jordan’s minutes are not down, his scoring average is, but Underwood is not worried about his sharpshooter’s lack in productivity.

Opposing defenses are pinpointing Jordan on the perimeter, trying to limit as many long ball attempts from him as possible.

Underwood says this improves the spacing for Illinois on the offensive end and opens up more room for penetration into the paint.

“Space is a wonderful thing for offensive basketball,” Underwood said. “When you can space the floor with shooters, it makes everyone else’s job a little better. You have to pick your poison.

“I’m not worried one lick because he just made like 17 in a row in practice yesterday.”