February 9, 2014. This will be the date we, as fans, look back on and say we saw the future of Illinois basketball take center stage. On this night, two freshmen started for the first time and helped turn around a season that seemed all but lost.
Malcolm Hill is one of these freshmen. Malcolm scored 11 points replacing Jon Ekey in the starting lineup to help the Illini defeat Penn St. in Happy Valley. This victory ended an eight game losing streak and jump started what would be an exciting end to the season.
Here is an interview with him after his first start (what a humble kid):
The question everyone had on their mind was, "Why did this take so long?" John Groce's consistent answer on waiting to start the freshmen was making sure they were ready. I think that's a fair and smart answer. After losing to Purdue at home and the losing streak becoming official at three, there isn't a game we can confidently point at and say the freshmen would have changed the outcome.
MSU at home? At OSU? At Indiana? Iowa at home? Wisconsin at home? Maybe the home game versus a beat up, but still very talented Spartan squad. Maybe. The PSU game, in my opinion, offered the best opportunity to put the pressure on these kids without ruining their confidence or development.
However you look at it, it's a double edged sword. You can analyze each scenario and situation until you find yourself living in a van down by the river, but the end result of the season can't be undone.
So let's take a look at Malcolm's season. Malcolm appeared in all 35 games starting the final 12. He averaged 4.4 points per game shooting just above 38 percent from the field. He was reliable from the charity stripe making 77 percent of his 61 free throw attempts. He pulled down 2.43 rebounds per game, and totaled 4 blocks and 10 steals on the season.
Malcolm also hit 34 percent of his threes, but what's most encouraging is that he made 9 out of his last 15 from three point land. If Malcolm can be consistent from the outside, he becomes that much more difficult to guard.
Malcolm brought the intangibles to the team that Jon Ekey just happened to lack. Malcolm proved he could create his own shot on offense. He could draw a foul and get to the line. He was able to handle the ball a bit which essentially allowed him to play at the three and the four. He always had a knack for the ball and put himself in great position for an offensive rebound (he had 21 on the season).
As much potential he had on the offensive end, he was also sometimes rather careless and inconsistent with the basketball. A nice drive and bucket would be followed by a wild drive and turnover or an ill advised pass to nobody. The mistakes are fixable, though - him being a freshman and all.
On the defensive end, I think Malcolm made great strides as the season went on and his confidence grew. His spacing on the floor vastly improved with each game, and he was able to guard multiple positions. Of course, becoming more comfortable with the system and adding strength this off-season will only help him continue improving.
Malcolm ended the year with a couple team awards. He received the TNT Award as well as the Most Improved Player Award. Both, of which, are well deserved.
As I mentioned, if Malcolm continues his maturation in John Groce's system and hits the weight room hard this summer, the sky is the limit for him.
I'm looking forward to watching him grow along side the next player on our season review list...
G - O, ILLINI GO!