The curious career of Malcolm Hill
After four years, Malcolm Hill is almost right back where he started — committed to Illinois with a head coach he didn’t expect to have in charge.
When Hill first met John Groce in 2012, he wasn’t sure if there was a spot for him on the Illinois basketball team.
The then 17-year-old Hill was eating out with his parents and Groce on the C-U campus when he asked Groce if there was still a scholarship for him.
Groce wanted to know if Hill would take two scholarships.
The 6-foot-6 guard from Fairview Heights, Illinois, was never a fan of the recruiting process, as traveling for school visits was draining for the young athlete.
He verbally committed early to the University on September 12, 2011. He was 15 years old and about to start his junior season of high school basketball at Belleville East.
But at that time, Groce was not the head coach for Illinois — Bruce Weber held the position.
Weber and his coaching staff spearheaded Hill’s recruitment early on, during his sophomore year of high school.
“To me, it was no brainer,” Weber said. “He had size. He had a good body, and then he could score the ball in a lot of different ways, and he’s a good quality young man. Good family, good mom and dad.”
As a four-star recruit on 247sports.com and rivals.com, Hill was receiving interest from a lot of schools. He was considering offers from Southern Illinois, Missouri, Kansas State, Illinois and Xavier.
Weber realized that Hill’s growth and development in his AAU, Southwestern Illinois Jets, and high school games was only going to attract more offers.
He also realized there was something more to Hill’s game that the stats couldn’t reveal: a temperament and humbleness on the floor.
“Even though he might have had games 36, 40 points or whatever, he didn’t showboat or make big deals,” Weber said. “He just played basketball. He kept doing what he did. You always appreciate that as a coach.”
But Weber never got to fully appreciate Hill’s game as his coach.
On March 9, 2012, nearly six months since Hill’s verbal commitment, Weber was fired. The Illinois head coach of 9 years went to coach at Kansas State.
Hill wasn’t the only recruit under Weber at Illinois before he was fired. Jalen James and Michael Orris had committed to Illinois as well, but the two decommitted after Weber was fired.
He said the opportunity to play for his state school was something he couldn’t pass up, and he seemed destined to play for Illinois from a young age.
“I just remember coming to the camps when I was a little kid,” Hill said. “I remember Dee (Brown) was still a player and I just looked up to those guys when I was a kid.”
So Hill stayed with the program, despite not knowing who his new head coach would be.
Twenty days after Weber was fired on March 29, 2012, John Groce was introduced as the 17th head coach in program history
Hill checked Groce’s accolades and was impressed by the tournament runs that he had put together at Ohio, and the near victory over North Carolina in the 2012 Sweet Sixteen.
Groce was just as impressed with Hill, realizing he needed the guard on the roster.
Hill, his parents and his AAU coach Patrick Smith came to campus for an unofficial visit to meet Groce.
“(I remember) getting to know him better at that point, what he wanted to do, what his goals and dreams are,” Groce said. “Then I remember sitting on the couch with him, just he and I towards the end of that visit, talking.”
Hill followed the visit with a phone call to Groce: He was in.
However, once his freshman year rolled around, Hill started having doubts. He went into assistant coach Jamall Walker’s office and asked if he could be redshirted because he wasn’t confident he was ready.
The coaching staff thought otherwise.
Hill played in all 35 games and started 12 his freshman season, putting up 154 points. As a sophomore, Hill began to break out of his shell, doubling his minute load and averaging about 14 points per game.
Hill has consistently shown improvement and development since his freshman year.
“He’s certainly up there in the guys that I’ve coached during my career, both as an assistant and head coach,” Groce said. “Because of that investment, he’s experienced some dividends from that and really improved and grown and gotten better, but I think a lot of it just starts with the listening aspect. When we sit down and talk, he has great ideas; he thinks well. We’ve had some interesting conversations over the years.”
About five years since his phone call to Groce and after four years of playing basketball for Illinois, Hill is in almost the same place he started.
Groce was fired from Illinois this past weekend while Weber is coaching Kansas State to his third NCAA tournament appearance with the Wildcats.
Despite never having the chance to coach the player he sought after, Weber has continued to follow Hill through the years. Any time Hill has a big performance, Weber tries to send a text.
With the senior season Hill has put together, it’s easy to imagine his phone being blown up. Hill’s 17-point average has helped propel him to 1,804 points — eight points from the No. 3 spot on the all-time scoring list.
In fact, he’s chasing his idol Brown, whom he looked up to at Illinois camps all those years ago.
“The fact that my name will go down as one of the top scorers to ever play for Illinois, that’s pretty cool,” Hill said. “I would have never thought that, especially coming in as a freshman. I never thought I would even be good enough to even play here. It just shows the hard work and dedication I put into the game.”
He added that he’s excited to see his name next to Brown’s.
While the route Hill took to where he is now may not have gone as expected, nothing will take away the impact he has had on the Illini.
“I might not have the best resume when it comes to wins or stuff like that,” Hill said. “But, I just want to be remembered as the guy who gave it his absolute all and just gave everything I had to the program.”