Big Ten

Illini turn to Malcolm Hill to spark point guard spot with mixed results

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Illini turn to Malcolm Hill to spark point guard spot with mixed results

This season doesn't look to be extending too far into March for the Illini.

A third straight season without an NCAA tournament appearance seems the most likely outcome after Illinois dropped to 11-14 overall and 3-9 in the Big Ten with a 58-56 loss at Northwestern on Saturday night. But there are still games left on the schedule, and John Groce is still looking for ways to improve his team.

Saturday, that meant trying something a tad more drastic to shake up what has been a problem spot for the Illini all season: point guard.

With Tracy Abrams sidelined for the second straight season with an injury, the point guard position was once again thrown into disarray. Jaylon Tate, for the second straight season, has shown he's not quite ready or capable of being a productive collegiate point guard, and last-minute grad transfer Khalid Lewis, well there hasn't been much production from him, either.

So Groce turned to Malcolm Hill, his best player, on Saturday, not just to continue to do what he's been doing all season — he's the conference's third-leading scorer — but to try to bring some life to the point guard position. The results were mixed against the Wildcats. Hill handed out eight assists and grabbed 13 rebounds, but he also had his lowest-scoring game of the season, putting up just seven points.

“We put him in a different role," Groce said after the game. "He did a good job of making guys better, rebounding, and I thought he was pretty good defensively. I actually played him a little bit more than I wanted to total-minute wise. … I saw 36 (minutes) on there, it’s probably a little much. But at the end of the day, I thought he did some good things.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Tre Demps' hot streak pushes Northwestern past Illini]

If the goal was to spark point production across the board, it didn't really work. The Illini had their third-lowest scoring game of Big Ten play, and Hill had his lowest-scoring game since last February.

That being said, it's not like Groce would have received much more from Tate and Lewis. Those two are averaging a combined 5.7 points per game on the year. Saturday, they played just a combined 20 minutes.

Groce wasn't ready to commit to this being his strategy moving forward, and it looks like there's still as much uncertainty surrounding the point guard spot as there has been all season.

“It was today. (Northwestern) played a lot of zone. We had worked this week on our week off of having the option to play any of the three guys. We’re going to need all three of them to be available to us. I thought today as the game unfolded — and I kind of felt that way going into the game — that Malcolm could do a good job for us there," Groce said. "And (he) did some good things: eight assists, rebounded it well. Thought he did some good things for us there. … I didn’t think (Tate and Lewis') minutes weren’t quality minutes in the 20 that they played, but I just made a decision that I felt like it was best for us to do that today in this particular game. We’ll see how that plays out moving forward.”

Certainly the point guard woes over the past two seasons now for the Illini aren't really anyone's fault. Not only has Abrams been hit with back-to-back season-ending injuries in the preseason, but Groce has tried endlessly to recruit a top-flight point guard. While he usually got the Illini onto recruits' list of finalists, the big names chose to play elsewhere. Te'Jon Lucas, a Milwaukee native, is finally the point guard recruit Groce was able to land. He'll be in orange and blue next season, but he recently broke his foot during an awkward fall at a high school game that was played, ironically, in Champaign with Groce looking on.

[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Fighting Illini gear right here]

So Hill is the option for now. And while Hill, who truly is one of the Big Ten's best players, racked up the stats Saturday night, he couldn't aid in point production, his typical forte. That, though, was by design. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins talked after the game about his team's focus on shutting Hill down. And it worked.

“Malcolm Hill’s a really tough cover, man. We spent a lot of time the last three days trying to defend him, a lot of time. And that’s out of our respect, he’s one of the great players in this league," Collins said. "I thought our guys executed. Even though he had some rebounds and assists, him not being able to throw up a 20- or 30-point night I thought was a huge key to the game.

“The first thing was no free throws. I think he had 99 free throws in the conference coming in. … The first thing was not fouling. I say this in a very respectful way, he’s got like an old-man game, he’s super crafty. He plays angles, he uses his body, he works off your body weight. He’s just a really smart, crafty player. And as soon as you start leaning, he gets to the line. We wanted to keep him off the line. We wanted to send help from certain guys if he did beat us. And we wanted to make him a passer. Those other guys made some shots, but we just wanted to take away him throwing up that 25-, 30-point night because that’s when they become really dangerous.”

Just as he was entering this season, Hill will be the biggest key to the Illini's success next season. He'll be a senior looking to make his first NCAA tournament appearance. And all eyes will be on him, from Illinois fans and observers to opposing head coaches gameplanning for how to stop him. This was one game in a season that won't end with postseason glory. But next season could be different, and it's moments like these that could pay off down the road.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.