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Illinois fails to make NCAA tournament for another year

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Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) looks to pass the ball after grabbing a rebound during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Feb. 21.

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) looks to pass the ball after grabbing a rebound during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Feb. 21.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) looks to pass the ball after grabbing a rebound during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Feb. 21.

Lucas Wright, Staff writer

For the Illinois men’s basketball team, the 2016-17 season was one filled with as much action off the court as on it, with many storylines marring what was actually happening on the hardwood for the Illini.

During Illinois’ final stretch of the Big Ten schedule, fans and players were focused on a trip to the NCAA tournament — a call that never came for the Illini.

While Malcolm Hill was cementing his legacy as the third all-time leading scorer in Illinois men’s basketball history, the firing of head coach John Groce overshadowed the senior’s story.

Even though the team rallied around interim head coach Jamall Walker during the NIT to make a run to the quarterfinals, there was still more buzz around the recruiting class and hiring of Brad Underwood off the court.

Many are looking to the future of the Illinois program, and for good reason, as the incoming class includes 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith.

Years from now, this year’s team could easily be overlooked. But, there were some highlights worth noting, even if on the individual level.

Leading the way for the Illini, Hill continued the run he began during his strong junior campaign. In the team’s second regular season game, Hill broke out for 40 points and 12 rebounds, and nearly single-handedly carried Illinois past Northern Kentucky. Hill scored a record 603 points and grabbed 180 rebounds this season, putting him at over 1800 points and 600 rebounds during his career at Illinois.

The Illini took a 10-3 record into conference play, and quickly plummeted in the standings, dropping to second-to-last — ahead of only Rutgers. Sitting at 4-9 in the Big Ten, the Illini rebounded, rattling off four-straight victories, including wins over Northwestern and then Michigan State on Senior Night.

After a heart-breaking defeat at the hands of Rutgers to finish off the regular season, a clubbing courtesy of eventual Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan and the firing of Groce, the focus for Illinois shifted to making a run through the NIT.

With the loss in the quarterfinals to the University of Central Florida, the speculation for the offseason manifested.

Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman hired Underwood to lead the Illini for years to come. Incoming freshmen Smith, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have voiced their intent to help bring Illinois back to the pinnacle of college basketball. With a young roster and Underwood’s up-tempo style of play, the Illini have the potential to be a run-and-gun offense with some real fire power early as next season. While Hill’s name will most likely live on through Illinois history, names like Tracy Abrams and Maverick Morgan will most likely fade into the background.

Despite the down year, it should be remembered that this team fought through adversity and helped set the foundation for what is to come from the Illinois basketball program.

lswrigh2@dailyillini.com

@LucasWright95

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