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Illinois basketball relies on Hill, Thorne early in season

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Illinois basketball relies on Hill, Thorne early in season

Mike Thorne Jr. beats a defender and makes a shot off the backboard during the game against North Florida at Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday.

Mike Thorne Jr. beats a defender and makes a shot off the backboard during the game against North Florida at Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday.

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Mike Thorne Jr. beats a defender and makes a shot off the backboard during the game against North Florida at Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday.

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Mike Thorne Jr. beats a defender and makes a shot off the backboard during the game against North Florida at Prairie Capitol Convention Center on Friday.

By Eli Schwadron, Staff writer

Hill averaged 14.4 points per game over his sophomore campaign, which included 27 points and a game-winner versus Penn State and a career-high 28 points in a win over Maryland.

It’s no wonder opposing defenses are now keyed in on the 6-foot-6 guard, who shot a combined 9-for-29 from the floor this weekend. But “guard” doesn’t encapsulate everything head coach John Groce is asking him to do.

“I’m asking (Hill) to be the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker,” Groce said. “Be a captain, be efficient scoring – if you don’t mind, could you play four positions tonight? Guard the other team’s best player on most of the possessions. Push the ball on offense, be the first guy back on defense to stop their break, and go buy everybody popcorn while you’re at it.”

Despite a poor shooting percentage, Hill’s per-game averages are solid — 16.5 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG in 36.5 MPG through two games.

With point guard Jaylon Tate sidelined with an open dislocation on his right pinky, Hill has taken over the primary ball-handling role. Additionally, Hill is sometimes tasked with guarding power forwards and centers.

“He can handle it, he’s got broad shoulders,” Groce said. “He’s gotten to that point in his career as an individual player (where) he wants to win, and anything we give him, he just kind of rolls with it right now. He’s defended every position on defense. That’s unheard of.”

Hill played a major role in leading the Illini back from a 14-point halftime deficit Sunday afternoon against North Dakota State. He dished four of his game-high five assists in the final 20 minutes and drained a momentum-shifting, midrange jumper to knot the game at 57 with six minutes remaining in regulation — the first tie since the first minute of the first half.

Center Mike Thorne Jr. was on the receiving end of a few of Hill’s assists. The graduate transfer has been a force down low, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds on 63.1 percent shooting.

Thorne’s frontcourt mate Leron Black returned to action Sunday after sitting out one month with a meniscus tear.

“(Leron) has a special (quality) — it’s hard to put your finger on it — if you’re playing with him, you think you can run through every wall in here and knock it down,” Groce said. “I didn’t know if he was gonna be able to go until right before the tip, to be honest.”

Meanwhile, center Maverick Morgan posted a career-high 10 points against the Bison. He’s 8-for-10 from the field through two outings and has shown strides on defense as the main communicator in the team’s 2-3 zone.

“We call it the air traffic control,” Morgan said. “That would be me or Big Mike, in the zone, we’re the back guy, we see everything, we’re calling out corners, cutters. We have a more significant role as far as talking in zone as we do in man-to-man.”

Freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands has been another pleasant surprise just 10 days removed from his first practice coming off a stress fracture. He dropped 15 points against NDSU, including eight in a span of under four minutes.

But Groce said he wants people to temper their expectations about his top recruit.

“(In the exhibition against Illinois-Springfield), he shot it well,” Groce said. “One of my biggest fears was everybody was gonna reincarnate him as the next Steph Curry.”

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