CHAMPAIGN — Before practice Monday, Meyers Leonard took a basketball and fired it against a padded wall.
"Fastball," the former right-handed pitcher explained.
Then there was Tracy Abrams joking around with Devin Langford, and another player distracting Nnanna Egwu as he participated in a television interview.
So the Illini aren't completely in the dumps in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
But they are feeling the pressure leading into tonight's showdown against No. 9 Michigan State at the Assembly Hall (6, ESPN). It's evident in their body language after calls that don't go their way, the bummed-out locker room after Saturday's heartbreaking loss at Minnesota and in their words.
"I think some of our guys take losses pretty hard," Sam Maniscalco said. "And I think in a way that's a good sign because it shows the losses really hurt. It's that feeling in your gut where food doesn't taste the same (and) you don't sleep as well."
The senior added, "The biggest thing is to stay positive. We have to stay positive and ignore what might be said around us."
Considering the February schedule, which includes road games at No. 16 Indiana, No. 20 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State, a win tonight is critical. Illinois (15-6, 4-4 Big Ten) only hosts one more ranked opponent at the Assembly Hall — Michigan on March 1.
The loss at Minnesota seemed to be particularly damaging to their psyche. Illinois held a five-point lead with just over two minutes left in regulation before losing 77-72 in overtime.
"You always wonder if you play a game like that and you do everything but win the game how it will affect you," coach Bruce Weber said.
"We've hit a rough patch," said Brandon Paul, who had 28 points and 15 Matto points, the highest individual total on the hustle chart since at least the 2007-08 season. "But we've got to keep on fighting."
There is a sentiment, at least among various NCAA tournament bracketologists, that the Illini are sliding into bubble territory again. A win tonight would be huge in that respect. It would give Illinois seven wins against RPI top-100 teams — the same number as heavyweights like Kentucky, Ohio State and North Carolina.
"A loss, however, and a trip to Bubbleland becomes a very real possibility," said Yahoo! Sports bracket guru Brad Evans.
CBSSports.com and CollegeRPI.com bracketologist Jerry Palm said Monday that Illinois currently has the sixth-best tournament resume in the Big Ten.
"We've had three letdowns in a row," Leonard said. "We should've won at Penn State. We should have taken care of Wisconsin at home. And at Minnesota we had some unfortunate things go down. We probably should have put them away earlier. I don't think we have any added pressure. We've just got to come out and play."