The rest of the country is aware of the internal strife in Champaign, where the Fighting Illini have been bickering amongst themselves for the last month rather than only focusing on battling against opponents.

AP voters dropped Illinois from the Top 25 for the 1st time this season on Monday, putting the Illini 4th among “others receiving votes.” It’s a steep drop from the week previous, when Illinois had been at a season-best-tying 16th. But the week featured not only a ho-hum loss to a seemingly lesser Missouri team in the Braggin’ Rights rivalry game, but continued infighting between coach Brad Underwood and his players.

“That was horrible. As a coach getting these guys prepared, I didn’t do a very good job,” Underwood said after a 22-point loss to the Tigers, Illinois’ 2nd defeat in 3 games. “They out-toughed us. They out-fought us. They took our ball. They out-executed us.”

So what gives?

Underwood’s brash style isn’t meshing with his transfers, such as former Baylor Bear Matthew Mayer, who thrived previously in a perhaps more relaxed environment in Waco. Underwood’s in-your-face approach probably isn’t for everyone — it’s not like his style is a secret, so transferring players should have known — but he does produce results. In the last 2 seasons, Illinois has finished runner-up and No. 1 in the Big Ten standings, respectively, plus advanced to the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament.

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But getting this talented Illini team to gel might be his biggest challenge yet. The Fighting Illini will restart their post-Christmas schedule vs. Bethune-Cookman on Thursday night, then play at Northwestern next Wednesday.

Illinois’ exit from the Top 25 means only 3 Big Ten teams remain. Purdue held on to the top spot in the country for the 3rd consecutive week, while Wisconsin checked in at No. 15 and Indiana at 16. Four Big Ten teams are receiving votes: Maryland (27th), Illinois (29th), Ohio State (30th) and Michigan State (37th). The Big Ten has had as many as 6 teams ranked in 3 weekly polls this season: Nov. 21, Nov. 28 and Dec. 12, after starting the preseason with only 3 programs in the Top 25.

Michigan State getting key player back?

Michigan State forward Malik Hall could make a much-needed return to the Spartans’ lineup this week.

The senior has been out since mid-November due to a foot injury, which he thought first occurred during the win over Villanova on Nov. 18. Originally, it was thought he could miss 3-4 weeks. But after MSU’s win over Oakland last week, coach Tom Izzo said the Spartans were eyeing a return vs. Buffalo on Friday, which would give Hall a tune-up before the resumption of Big Ten play.

“The plan is to hopefully (have Hall) start playing in the Buffalo game depending (on) how everything goes and then what happens when he goes home, whether we can keep him rehabbing and keep him getting in better and better shape,” Izzo said after beating the Grizzlies.

Healthy during MSU’s 1st 4 games this season, Hall averaged 12 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Jackson-Davis shut down

Meanwhile in Bloomington, Trayce Jackson-Davis is shut down until at least Jan. 5, when Indiana travels to Iowa for the Hoosiers’ Big Ten restart.

The IU schedule has allowed for coach Mike Woodson to try to rest his star forward, who has been nursing an injured back since — it seems — Indiana’s win at Xavier on Nov. 18. Jackson-Davis played against Kansas on Dec. 17 and scored 13 (with 9 blocks and 6 rebounds) in the Hoosiers’ loss, but IU decided to hold him out of the win over Elon (Dec. 20) and Kennesaw State (Friday). IU doesn’t play again until facing the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, but then the schedule comes quickly, with a game 3 days later vs. Northwestern in Bloomington.

Of course, Iowa is dealing with its own injury situation, as star Kris Murray has missed 4 straight games with a foot injury, the last being an atrocious home-court loss to Eastern Illinois, one of the worst defeats in college basketball history, given the Panthers were a 31.5-point underdog.