Malcolm's in the middle of it all

By Alex Roux

Like many freshmen on the first day of college, Malcolm Hill was lost.It was more than two years ago that 17-year-old Hill had wandered the halls of Krannert Art Museum before giving up his hopeless search for his first class. He stopped to ask for directions.

It was just minutes before the first 9 a.m. Monday classes of the year were set to begin, and the 6-foot-7 Illini basketball player was told that he was in the wrong building. Hill’s face sunk. It was a classic “welcome to college” moment for Hill, at the time a freshman from the St. Louis suburb of Fairview Heights, Illinois.

It wasn’t his first rude awakening, and it wouldn’t be his last.

“I had so many ‘welcome to college’ moments way before that,” Hill said as he recalled the memory with a chuckle. “My freshman year was pretty rough, just like any freshman.”

Hill arrived on campus before the start of Illinois head coach John Groce’s second season in Champaign; he was a member of Groce’s first Illini recruiting class. At just 17, he was a baby compared to some of the grown men on the team at the time. In practice, Hill had to go up against upperclassmen like Rayvonte Rice, Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams, and they quickly let him know that high school ball was over.

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“They were just dogging me,” Hill said. “(I was) skinny me, trying my best to guard them. I had to talk to my (high school) coach; I was like, ‘I don’t even know why they recruited me.’”

Hill was concerned that Groce would redshirt him during his freshman season. He was a wing in high school, but with Rice and Bertrand holding down his position in the starting lineup, Groce wanted to have Hill play the four spot.

A long-armed, lanky slasher in high school, Hill tried his best to put on as much weight as possible so he could bang with the big boys in the post. He wasn’t thrilled about playing in the frontcourt, but he knew it would be his best chance of seeing the floor as a freshman.

At times, Hill looked like Bambi on ice in the paint, trying to adjust to his new role and body. He scuffled through the first half of his first season, going scoreless over a four-game stretch and only cracking double figures once. His budding talent was apparent, but he was struggling to put it all together.

He finally began to break through when Groce inserted him and fellow freshman Kendrick Nunn into the starting lineup on Feb. 9, 2013, at Penn State.

Hill scored 11 points, Nunn dropped 19 and the Illini snapped an eight-game losing streak that day. It was Hill’s first true breakout game at Illinois. The second came during his sophomore season against Maryland.

By the time his sophomore campaign got underway, Hill’s jumper had smoothed, his handles had tightened and his self-assurance had soared. He also beefed up to 235 pounds.

Having already established himself as one of the best players on the 2014-15 team, Hill was called upon to play an even bigger role when Rice went down with a wrist injury before Illinois hosted Maryland. He answered with an eye-popping performance against the No. 11 Terrapins, scoring 28 points and snagging seven boards in a 64-57 win.

“That game probably gave me the most confidence in myself,” Hill said. “That’s one thing the coaches told me, you’ve just got to be more consistent like that every game.”

That level of dominance would be nearly impossible to replicate on a nightly basis, but Hill still had a phenomenal sophomore season. He averaged 14.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game (an increase from 4.4 points and 2.4 rebounds per game his freshman season) and was an All-Big Ten Third Team selection. He failed to reach double figures in scoring just four times.

Now a junior, Hill’s transformation from overmatched freshman to the face of the Illini program is nearly complete. But he cringes when the media or fans say that the 2015-16 version of Illinois basketball is Hill’s team. He thinks if he were to say that, it would sound selfish, especially when his teammates are grinding alongside him.

But a thumb injury that will sideline Nunn for up to eight weeks has left no doubt; this is Hill’s team, like it or not.

Nunn, who says Hill is like a brother to him, was supposed to be the other half of the two-headed scoring monster. But with Nunn, Abrams and sophomore Leron Black also injured, Hill knows he might have to have a Maryland Game almost every game to keep the Illini above water. He believes he can do it, too.

Hill’s faith isn’t blind. His hard work has strengthened his personal conviction, and he hopes it can take his game to an even higher level.

“I think my work ethic is just a little bit different,” Hill said. “I think every basketball player works hard. It’s just, ‘what separates the basketball players that work hard?’ I think I can separate myself from just the typical, hard-working basketball player.”

Hill’s offseason routine includes twice-a-day workout sessions with team graduate assistants James Haring and Walter Offutt, who push Hill to exhaustion. He says he wants his workouts to make him feel dead afterwards, and even then, it isn’t enough. Hill exercises to the point that his coaches have to tell him to stop.

“I don’t ask Hill to live in the gym,” Groce said. “I tell him he needs to take a day off. You know, it’s 6:30 in the morning and facilities guys are telling me that he’s running on the track.”

Hill has lost nearly 15 pounds since last season, slimming down to 221 pounds as a result of his workouts and a change in his eating habits. He didn’t like the bulked-up version of himself, which he said made him feel sluggish on the court.

While it’s a challenge for coaches to keep Hill out of the gym, they’ve been even harder on him at times in an attempt to coax him out of his even-tempered demeanor.

“I thought there were times in the first two years when I needed him to not be so laid-back, to be aggressive, to attack, to turn the switch on,” Groce said of Hill. “And I think now his habits are so good that that switch is on every day right now.”

Groce knows Hill’s game is now at an all-conference level, but still wants more out of him from a leadership standpoint. His cool, relaxed temperament that is now constantly on display in media interviews tended to to betray him on the court and in practice. But he’s taken Groce’s wishes to heart.

“Anything I see that I feel needs to be pointed out, I’ll speak it out,” Hill said. “As a freshman, I would see things but stay quiet. (Now) if somebody does a good thing or messes up, I speak on it or give them a pat on the back. I didn’t really do that my first two years.”

Illini newcomer Mike Thorne noted that along with Nunn and Abrams, Hill was one of the team’s established leaders when he joined the squad last spring. Thorne credited those three for helping him learn the Illinois playbook and the nuances of the campus. That’s exactly the kind of influence Groce is looking for out of his upperclassmen.

But despite Hill’s maturity on the floor, the fifth-year transfer from Charlotte has recognized that his younger roommate has some goofy tendencies.

“He’s a big kid,” Thorne said. “He plays Nintendo 64, I look at him, he’s playing Super Mario Brothers every day for hours outside of the basketball court. In his free time he’s always playing video games, he has the humor of a kid, he’s just a big child. On the court he’s a man.”

Hill’s influence in the newcomer’s acclimation process wasn’t always squeaky clean.

“Malcolm’s a great roommate,” Thorne said, then broke into a grin. “But he’s a little dirty.”

Luckily for Hill, he might be able to afford a cleaning service in the near future. has him going as high as the No. 51 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, with two seasons of eligibility remaining to raise his stock. Former Flyin’ Illini Stephen Bardo told reporters at Big Ten Media Day that Hill is going to be a pro, and Groce agrees.

Groce sees the resemblance between Hill and Evan Turner, who he coached as an assistant at Ohio State. Turner, currently a member of the Boston Celtics, could play any position on the floor as a Buckeye and is regarded for his size and versatility, even in the NBA.

Even though Hill admits it’s hard to tune out NBA chatter, he brushes the discussion away. Again, he doesn’t want to be selfish, he says. He’s just worried about the team.

Somewhere along the path from anxious freshman to poised junior, Hill reached a state of supreme comfort and confidence both on and off the court. He attributes a big part of his maturation simply to settling in at Illinois.

“To be honest, I think that’s why I’m playing really well right now,” Hill said of his comfort level. “I’m happy. I don’t really have any problems with anybody or anything. School’s going well.”

His mom even gets upset when he visits her and the rest of his family back home because he talks about Champaign like he grew up there.

“I tell her, ‘I’m about to go back home,’” Hill said. “I don’t refer to Fairview Heights anymore. I refer to Champaign as home.”

With the season fast approaching, the just-turned-20-year-old Hill gives the impression that the Illini’s fate is well within his control.

Despite the fact that the walls are already caving in around him in an avalanche of injuries, he holds firm when proclaiming that the Illini will weather the storm.

When Hill says the Illini will be fine, he says it like he believes it. He has to believe it. That unwavering confidence has helped get him to this point, far removed from that wide-eyed freshman lost in the halls on his first day of college.

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