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.”
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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.
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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.