Lineup change gives Hill and Nunn a boost of confidence

Malcolm Hill gets nervous before each basketball game. He always has.

But rarely has he ever felt nervous on the court. That is, until this year. Early in his first season at Illinois, he felt nervous about making plays and making mistakes. State Farm Center and its 16,000 fans can do that to a freshman.

Those on-court nerves are gone.

Sunday head coach John Groce gave Hill and fellow freshman Kendrick Nunn their first career starts. It was a road game at Penn State that ended in a 60-55 Illinois win, its first in more than a month.

Hill played 23 minutes and scored 11 points, both career highs.

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“I wasn’t nervous at all like I was before,” Hill said. “I was more confident on the floor.”

Nunn scored a game-high 19 points on 31 minutes of play, also career highs. If he was nervous, he didn’t admit it.

“That was big for me,” Nunn said. “The expectation I always have for myself is to get things done when I’m on the court.”

Groce made the decision to start Nunn and Hill in the place of seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey on Friday, two days before the game. Ekey said Groce had come to him a few weeks prior to that and told him that he was kicking around the idea in his head.

Groce wasn’t worried about nerves from his freshmen. He was worried about defense. He said he liked Nunn and Hill’s offensive aggression for about the past month, he was waiting for the defense to catch up.

“Early on in the season they were kind of out there trying to survive,” Groce said. “Now they’re helping us defensively. I think they have an understanding of what we expect them to do.”

Groce worried about changing rotations, mixing veterans with youth. He and his staff talked about it often in the days leading up to the decision.

Before practice Friday, Groce approached Bertrand and Ekey and told them he was making the switch. In the midst of an eight-game losing streak, something needed to change.

“I explained to Joe and Jon that it’s a great luxury when you have guys — seniors — (coming off the bench) who have seen things and been through things before,” Groce said. “I basically asked those two to make a sacrifice.”

He was asking a double-digit scorer and his best 3-point threat — not to mention his only two seniors — to come off the bench behind a pair of freshmen.

Bertrand and Ekey were on board.

“I wasn’t putting my head down or anything,” Ekey said. “I just want to win.”

Groce also approached Nunn and Hill that Friday afternoon before practice and before the flight to State College, Pa.

“You’re starting,” he told Nunn. “Be ready.”

That was all Nunn needed to hear.

Nunn and Hill were ready. Nunn knocked down four 3-pointers, none bigger than a long ball from the corner to put the Illini up four with 20 seconds to play. Hill scored his 11 on 4-of-9 shooting, also adding three points from the charity stripe. 

From the bench, Ekey scored nine points. Bertrand did not score and played just 13 minutes, his lowest total since Dec. 19, 2011, when he played six minutes against Cornell. Three days later he had his breakout performance against Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game, scoring 19 on a perfect 9-for-9 shooting.

For the next year and a half Bertrand excelled as Illinois’ sixth man. He’s back in a familiar situation. His teammates say his confidence hasn’t taken a hit.

“He’s a vet, he understands,” Tracy Abrams said. “He’s gonna work it out, he’s gonna be fine.”

“Those guys have played well,” Groce said of Bertrand and Ekey. “We just needed those other two, and hopefully even more guys, to start catching up.”

Bertrand had scored 11 the previous game against Wisconsin and 20 before that against Iowa.

But Sunday was Hill’s, and especially Nunn’s, breakout game. The benched veterans told the youngsters to be aggressive and stay confident.

Hill said the start showed that Groce had confidence in him, which in turn gave Hill the confidence to just go out and play. He has learned to turn his nerves into positive energy, into adrenaline.

That adrenaline will have to carry over into Illinois’ next matchup.

Groce and the staff are leaning toward starting the same lineup Wednesday at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers (12-10, 4-6 Big Ten) have lost only one Big Ten home game in their new arena, while Illinois (14-10, 3-8) is looking to pull itself out of the Big Ten’s cellar. Nunn doesn’t have lofty expectations for Wednesday.

“Just to win. That’s all I’m looking for,” he said.

And like always, Hill will probably be nervous. But not when he steps onto the court.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.