Southeast will resume practice on Christmas night in preparation for unbeaten Illinois.
Southeast Missouri State coach Gary Garner hopes that, when his team resumes practice Christmas night, it can build on a strong second half from its most recent game.
Garner knows that the reeling Redhawks need to emphasize any positive they can these days.
The Redhawks (4-6, 1-4 Ohio Valley Conference) fell into 10th place in the 11-team league with Wednesday's 82-72 loss at Jacksonville State. It was their third straight OVC defeat.
But Garner was at least encouraged that the offensively challenged Redhawks shot 51.7 percent from the field in the second half as they nearly made up all of a 17-point deficit.
"We really worked to get good shots in the second half. That's probably the hardest we've worked to get good shots all season," Garner said. "I think it's something we can build on. We can use it as a positive."
Southeast players headed home for Christmas Thursday. They'll return to Cape Girardeau Sunday for a practice that night as they prepare for one of the nation's premier teams.
The Redhawks will play at sixth-ranked Illinois (12-0) Wednesday night in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPNU.
The Illini, second in last year's NCAA Tournament, have the nation's third-longest home court winning streak at 27 games. They will be the highest-rated Division I team Southeast has ever faced.
"They're one of the best teams in the country, no doubt about it," Garner said. "They're almost impossible to beat on their floor."
Illinois features one of the nation's most stifling defenses, allowing 55.7 points per game as opponents are shooting 39.5 percent from the field.
That can't be good news for a Redhawks squad that has struggled with its offense for really the first time under Garner, who is in his ninth season at Southeast.
The Redhawks are eighth in the OVC in scoring (65.3 points per game) and 10th in field-goal percentage (40.5), although they rank second in 3-point percentage (38.6).
No other Southeast squad averaged less than 69.5 points per game and shot less than 45 percent for a full season under Garner.
"It's really disturbing, but hopefully the second half at Jacksonville State was a sign that we're going to come out of it," Garner said. "The big thing is to consistently get good shots, and we did that in the second half."
Southeast has also struggled with turnovers for one of the few times under Garner, averaging 17.6 per game and ranking last in the OVC in turnover margin (minus 6.4).
"We're turning the ball over too much, which is something our teams don't normally do," Garner said.
The floundering offense and turnover problems have combined to pretty well negate what has statistically been strong defense and rebounding by the Redhawks, after Southeast struggled in that area the past few years.
Southeast is second in the OVC in field-goal defense (41.4 percent), third in scoring defense (67.7 points per game) and second in rebounding margin (plus 3.6 per game).
If the season were over now, the Redhawks would have given up the fewest points per game and the lowest field-goal percentage since Southeast's NCAA Tournament team of 1999-2000 allowed opponents 61.6 points and 38 percent shooting.
On the rebounding front, Southeast hasn't had this big a margin for a season since the 1998-1999 team was denied an NCAA Tournament berth on a shot at the buzzer in the finals of the OVC Tournament.
But right now the Redhawks have little to show for the improved defense and rebounding that Garner felt were the major keys entering the year.
"If you had told me we'd be limiting teams to what they're shooting and scoring, and we'd be rebounding the way we are, I'd have thought we'd be doing really well," Garner said. "But right now it's basically all about our offense. That's the thing that is really holding us back.
"We just have to get our offense going if we're going to have any kind of a season."
* Freshman guard Eric Jones has made a strong recovery from the ankle sprain he suffered on Dec. 10 and should be available for the Illinois game.
Jones had already scored a season high 12 points against Tennessee Tech when he went down in the second half. He has missed the last three games.
* Senior guard Roy Booker is third in the OVC in scoring (19.9 points per game), fifth in 3-point percentage (39.2) and fifth in free-throw percentage (79.7).
* Junior college transfer forward Andrais Thornton in third in the OVC in rebounding (7.6 per game) and first in offensive rebounding (2.9 per game).
* Sophomore point guard Paul Paradoski is sixth in the conference in assists (4.2 per game) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio (42 assists, 24 turnovers).