Unpredictability of Illinois basketball continues

Illinois+Leron+Black+%2812%29+goes+up+for+a+layup+during+the+game+against+North+Carolina+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Tuesday%2C+November+29.+The+Illini+won+88-74.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Leron Black (12) goes up for a layup during the game against North Carolina State at State Farm Center on Tuesday, November 29. The Illini won 88-74.

By Lucas Wright, Staff writer

Editor’s note: At the time of publication, Men’s Basketball was still competing.

It has been a roller coaster of a season so far for the Illinois men’s basketball team. The Illini have recently rebounded from what seemed to be free-fall — a three-game losing streak — and are now trending up with a three-game winning streak to get to 8-3 on the season.

All in all, it’s difficult to know what to make of this streaky Illini team. At its peak, it knocked off a perennial NCAA Tournament team — Virginia Commonwealth University, but at the lowest of the lows it dropped a home game to Winthrop, a game that Illinois led the whole way before Winthrop forced overtime.

“I think we knew that was going to be a challenge coming into the game, but I thought that’s what we needed,” head coach John Groce said after the loss to Winthrop.

The team’s play has been inconsistent as a whole, but the cornerstones of the Illinois offense have surely emerged.

Malcolm Hill, the team’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder has began his senior season in the stellar fashion many expected to see out of the 6-foot-6 guard. Hill is averaging just under 20 points per game, and he notched a 40-point performance earlier in the season against Northern Kentucky, which is tied for the fifth-most all-time by an Illini.

Hill has shouldered the load of the offense at times in the season, but as he has shown early on, it is a task that he is up for.  After his latest scoring outburst against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis on Tuesday, teammate Tracy Abrams said he is more than capable of carrying the offense at times.

“He’s a great player, one of the best players in the country,” Abrams said. “For me, it’s just the rhythm of the game. I just put the ball in his hands. How the game was flowing he was making plays, we’ve just got to get him the ball.”

Along with Hill, redshirt-sophomore Leron Black has come on of late, averaging 13 points and eight rebounds.

Black has formed something of a tandem with Hill, with Black dominating the mid-range and low-post areas of the floor, complementing Hill’s stellar perimeter play.

It’s not only Black’s offensive stats that are helping this team though, according to Hill.

“He just brings a whole other dimension to the game. I say it all the time, every team has that one crazy person,” Hill said. “He’s our crazy guy, but not in a bad way though. He brings so much energy and physicality.”

Possibly the most important stretch of the year is on deck for the Illini, with the team hosting Central Michigan on Saturday.

Central Michigan University is home to the nation’s leading scorer — Marcus Keene — who is averaging over 31 points per game.

Illinois will then face off with Brigham Young University at the United Center in Chicago before finishing up the non-conference schedule with the Braggin’ Rights game Missouri on Dec. 21.

The current three-game win streak the Illini possess has them heading in the right direction, but if they want to enter Big Ten play at 10-3, Groce knows exactly what the team will have to do, and it stems from Illinois’ win over Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Our toughness and our fight was exactly where we needed it to be,” Groce said after the win. “We’ve just got to bring that to every practice and bring that to every game”

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