Hill epitomizes Illinois basketball’s improvement

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Hill epitomizes Illinois basketball’s improvement

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a shot during the game against Coppin State at State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini won 114 to 56, with Hill shooting 66.6 percent with 13 points.

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a shot during the game against Coppin State at State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini won 114 to 56, with Hill shooting 66.6 percent with 13 points.

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a shot during the game against Coppin State at State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini won 114 to 56, with Hill shooting 66.6 percent with 13 points.

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill takes a shot during the game against Coppin State at State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini won 114 to 56, with Hill shooting 66.6 percent with 13 points.

By Sean Neumann

It’s no secret Illinois basketball’s biggest strength is its depth.

The Illini have already had players hit double-digit scoring 10 times in its first two wins — none more noticeable than sophomore forward Malcolm Hill, who did so in both games.

Sunday’s performance impressed Illinois coach John Groce after a 80-71 win over Georgia Southern Friday.

“If you have 24 assists on 41 field goals, you’re really being unselfish and moving and sharing the ball,” Groce said after Sunday’s 114-56 win. “Tonight’s story was the defense and the way the guys in our locker room responded to our film session.”

One of the guys Groce was particularly hard on was Hill.

The sophomore turned the ball over three times Friday night, shooting 33.3 percent with four missed shots.

“I told him I felt like someone jumped in his body Friday night that wasn’t him,” Groce said. “I want him to compete.”

Sunday night was different. Hill shot 66.6 percent and racked up 13 points in Illinois’ 58-point win.

“I just love the way they responded,” Groce said. “We have a competitive group, and they have a lot of pride.”

So competitive that Hill called himself out during the press conference and said that he played too soft during the win over Georgia Southern.

“I was more physical and aggressive,” Hill said about his change in performance and attitude. “I really just focused on playing hard on the defense end and getting a lot of rebounds.”

And Hill got a lot of rebounds. He brought down nine rebounds to bring his team-leading total to 16. After two games, the sophomore nearly has 20 percent of the 85 total rebounds he had in 35 games last season.

While Hill is tied for seventh in the Big Ten in rebounds per game early on, the Illini have quickly dropped to 12th in the conference, allowing opponents 38 rebounds per game.

Hill said the team came into the season opener with a cocky attitude after a 29-point exhibition win over Quincy the weekend before. 

Illini players caught themselves walking around the court and not getting ready in set defensive positions.

“I think we had the ‘too-cool’ mindset,” Hill said. “We were feeling ourselves a little bit, and we have to get out of that funk. We can have that sometimes.”

Groce has tried to start breaking the Illini out of the “too-cool” mindset. His attempts even goes as far as not letting the players text on their phones when they go out to eat.

Hill said the Illini coach often tells them, “talking is cool” to get them to talk more. 

Groce has held up Nnanna Egwu as the most vocal player on the team. However, Egwu has been quiet on the stat sheet in the team’s first two games.

The senior has just three rebounds in 45 minutes this season, causing a need for players like Hill to step up until Egwu gets into the rhythm and begins producing like he’s expected to in his final year with Illinois.

When players aren’t performing at the level Groce expects them to be at, it’s easy to tell. Whether the coach is screaming,

kicking or slamming something down along the sidelines, his feelings are clear.

Hill said Groce’s tendency to yell at players in order to teach them lessons initially bothered him his freshman season.

“That was probably because I was a little more immature last year,” Hill said. “I’ve got a year under my belt this year, so I expect him to expect a lot out of me and help other guys.”

But Hill doesn’t want Groce’s voice out of his ears in his second season.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Hill said. “If I’m not getting yelled at, that probably means they don’t expect a lot out of me.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @neumannthehuman.