You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. It’s a cliché, but it has been a familiar refrain for Illini fans these last few years as they’ve watched the team miss the NCAA Tournament. Right now, the cliché doesn’t fit Malcolm Hill, but if people don’t start paying attention it sure might.
Hill, the senior guard frequently described as “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker” for Illinois due to his ability to do any and everything, put fans on notice with his first two performances this season. He opened the season with a ho-hum 21 points and 8 rebounds in an 82-61 win over Southeast Missouri, and then went supernova with a 40-point, 12-rebound performance in a 79-64 win over Northern Kentucky.
Most noteworthy, however, is how the Illini (2-0) fared when Hill was anything less than a star. Illinois stumbled out of the gates against SEMO, facing as much as a 7-point deficit (with 6:37 in the first half). Then, at halftime of on Sunday, Illinois trailed the Norse 33-31 only after coming back from down 8 with 3:27 left in the half. In the two first halves, Hill was a pedestrian player. He was a combined 3/11 (27%) for field goals despite playing all but 4 of those 40 minutes.
In the second halves of each game, Hill was responsible for 36 and 60% (16/44 and 29/48 vs. SEMO and NKU, respectively) of the team’s entire offense. He propelled a team that was putting together weak defense and marginally effective offense to victories it might not have otherwise earned – hell, victories it did not earn just one year ago.
Perhaps the memory of losing to the likes of North Florida and Chattanooga last season is what ignited the superb effort from Hill. No matter the inspiration, though, what is obvious is that this Illinois team has a thing or two to figure out before it can hope to compete with the likes of West Virginia, NC State, or any Big Ten team (except Rutgers, lol Rutgers).
Defense is the biggest area of weakness for the Illini after these first two games. Illinois is counting on its deepest frontcourt in years to make a difference this year, but Illinois looks a little lost defending the lane. In fairness, Leron Black has two games left on his suspension, but he’s only a quarter of the equation. Against SEMO, the Illini won the rebounding battle 37-22 but just managed to tie the Redhawks in points in the paint with 26 apiece. Sunday, against Northern Kentucky, Illinois lost the rebounding battle (badly), 43-32, but did manage to win points in the paint 28-20.
No fan wants to see the Illini trailing Southeast Missouri or Northern Kentucky, but there’s a good reason the directional schools are brought in for these early season games. Likewise, it’s probably good that Illinois doesn’t have much time between games this time of year. With two more coming up this week (Tuesday vs. McKendree and Friday vs. Detroit), the Illini have a chance to address their issues on the floor against true competition, not practice squads.
It’s a rather safe bet that Malcolm Hill will continue to impress for Illinois this season, as he’s on a mission to make the Big Dance before he graduates, but it’s on the rest of the Illini to help him out, and significantly. There were encouraging signs from guys like Michael Finke (12 points, 7 rebounds vs. SEMO; 10 points, 11 rebounds vs. NKU), Maverick Morgan (16 points vs. SEMO), and Tracy Abrams (13 points vs. SEMO), but none of them offered the same kind of propulsive offense as Hill.
It gets harder from here, and if Illinois’s role players don’t step up and shoulder some of the burden with Hill it could get ugly, too. And no one wants to look back at a nearly meaningless win against Northern Kentucky to remember the good times.