Avoiding summer fatigue key for Illinois junior Malcolm Hill

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With last year’s leading scorer Rayvonte Rice out of eligibility and point guard Tracy Abrams lost to a season-ending injury for the second consecutive season, juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn will once again be key players for Illinois in 2015-16. And while the points they produce will be key, so will the minutes they play.

Last season Hill and Nunn led the team in minutes played per game, with Hill averaging a team-high 30.6 mpg and Nunn not far off at 30.2 and it’s likely that they’ll meet (or exceed) those numbers this year. And when it comes to Hill, the Illinois coaching staff wants him to get ready for the upcoming workload by getting in a little more rest according to Marcus Jackson of the Champaign News-Gazette.

Hill’s had a busy summer, which included the team’s trip to Italy and time with USA Basketball in Colorado Springs, so the directive to spend some extra time on recovery is understandable. But given Hill’s work ethic, staying away has proven difficult for him even with the aid of the video game “Mario Party 2.”

The video game distraction is working, to a certain extent, but Hill still isn’t taking this time off very well. He’s itching to get back in the gym to get ready for what he hopes to be a big junior campaign.

“I kind of got yelled at by Coach Paris (Parham),” Hill said. “He yelled at me for working too much.”

The point of the Illinois coaches is for Hill to preserve his body now, so that he doesn’t wear down toward the end of the season. It’s a feeling, though, Hill said he has yet to experience in his collegiate career. As a freshman, he averaged 14 minutes per game and didn’t begin seeing major minutes until the final stretch of the season.

As was noted in the story it’s better to have to tell a player to dial things back than it is to have to light a fire under them to work harder. And that kind of work ethic can rub off on one’s teammates as well, which is key when considering the fact that of Illinois’ three scholarship seniors one (Abrams) is injured and two others (Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne Jr.) weren’t even part of the program a season ago.

Hill can step forward as a leader for this group, both statistically and in the intangibles department, and that’s something that needs to happen if the Fighting Illini are to end their two-year NCAA tournament dry spell.

Illinois’ leading scorer could return Thursday night vs. Michigan

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After suffering a broken left wrist early in Big Ten play, Illinois senior guard Rayvonte Rice was suspended right around the time that he was expected to return to game action. With Michigan visiting Champaign Thursday night, it’s possible that Illinois will have its leading scorer on the court for the first time since their loss at Ohio State January 3.

According to Mark Tupper of the Decatur (Illinois) Herald-Review, Rice is expected to make his return on the same night that Illinois will honor its 2004-05 national runner-up team.

“Source tells me Ray Rice will play for tonight vs. Michigan but Aaron Cosby will not. That would be interesting. We’ll see,” Tupper tweeted Thursday afternoon.

The return of Rice would be big news for Illinois, as he’s averaging 17.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on the season. Rice put up those scoring numbers in an efficient manner too, shooting 51.5% from the field, 48.3% from three and 80.3% from the foul line. One of the changes in Illinois since Rice left the lineup was the emergence of sophomore Malcolm Hill, who has been one of the most improved players in the country.

On the season Hill is averaging 14.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest, shooting 48.2% from the field, 41.7% from three and nearly 78 percent from the charity stripe. He’s scored in double figures in nine games since Rice suffered his wrist injury, including a 28-point performance in a win over Maryland in the first game post-Rice.

Illinois has won six of the nine games they’ve played since Rice went down, and Hill is a big reason why. If those two can mesh together, head coach John Groce will have a nice one-two punch to rely on as Illinois looks to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth.

Malcolm Hill, solid defensive effort push Illinois past No. 11 Maryland

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After losing their first two Big Ten games, Illinois entered Wednesday night’s contest against No. 11 Maryland faced with the added task of accounting for the loss of leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. With the senior guard averaging 17.2 points per game, one would assume that a collective effort would be what the Fighting Illini needed if they were to knock off a Terrapin squad that entered the game labeled by many as the second-best team in the Big Ten.

While there were many contributors against Maryland, it was Malcolm Hill’s 28-point effort that made the biggest splash offensively and a collective effort on the defensive end resulted in a 64-57 win for John Groce’s squad.

Hill, who also grabbed seven rebounds on the night, made nine of his 18 shots from the field and did a good job of finding quality looks both inside and out. Illinois shot just 36.4% from the field as a team, a figure that will have to improve moving forward, but they made up for this by outscoring the Terps by seven from the foul line (17-10) and putting together one of their best defensive efforts of the entire season.

Maryland, a team that entered the game shooting 46.2% from the field, made just 36.5% of its shots in Champaign. Illinois showed both man and zone looks at different points in the night, and senior center Nnanna Egwu was excellent when it came to both defending his man and helping keep the Maryland guards (most notably Melo Trimble) from turning the corner in ball-screen situations too often. Egwu finished the game with 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, and his role defensively becomes even more important with the loss of Rice.

Without their leading scorer Illinois has to tighten things up defensively and after having issues in their loss at Ohio State, with the Buckeyes shooting 60 percent from the field, that was going to be a point of emphasis with or without Rice on the floor. Instead of allowing the loss of Rice and their 0-2 start to conference play to impact them negatively, Illinois buckled down defensively and kept the Terrapins in check.

So what does this mean for Maryland? Mark Turgeon’s team is still right in the middle of the conversation for the second-best team in the Big Ten, with Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa all being factors as well. But Wednesday’s defeat shows that, like those other teams, Maryland doesn’t have a large margin for error.

Trimble scored 17 points but just three of those came from the foul line for a player who’s been better than any in America at getting to the foul line, and those attempts came in the final minute of the game. With Dez Wells (six points) quiet off the bench and Jake Layman attempting just six field goals (making four and scoring ten points), Maryland found itself in an uphill battle against a team motivated to pick up its first conference victory.

That shouldn’t rule Maryland out of the conversation; they may very well still be the second-best team in the Big Ten despite this loss. And if anything’s to be taken from theses results, it may be that a clear-cut answer to the “second-best team in the Big Ten” question won’t be known for quite some time.

Aubrey Dawkins, zone defense help Michigan overcome 13-point deficit to beat Illinois in overtime

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The day was suppose to be dominated by Michigan’s new head football coach, Jim Harbaugh. The arrival of Harbaugh spiked ticket prices for Tuesday’s matinee Big Ten opener against Illinois with Harbaugh addressing the Crisler Center crowd — many of whom dressed in Harbaugh’s trademark Khaki pants — at halftime.

However, the star of Michigan’s 73-65 overtime win over the Illini was freshman wing Aubrey Dawkins, son of Stanford head coach, Johnny Dawkins.

Aubrey Dawkins scored a game-high 20 points off 6-for-7 shooting from three. To put that in perspective, the 6-foot-6 freshman entered Tuesday afternoon appearing in 10 games, scoring a grand total of 15 points. He had missed his previous eight attempts from three, the last make coming against Nicholls State on Nov. 29.

The Wolverines trailed by 13 in the second half, struggling to get offensive support from Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin, who combined for 1-of-16 shooting to begin the game. Although, midway through the second half, Irving caught fire with back-to-back 3-pointers, aided by better ball movement from Michigan. Dawkins followed with two triples of his own. An 18-5 run gave Michigan a 56-55 lead with Caris LeVert accounting for nine of those points (three points, three assists).

LeVert ended with 19 points with five assists. Irvin added 13 as did Ricky Doyle, who scored eight of his baker’s dozen in the second half.

Late in the second half, Michigan switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense, which caused problems for the Illini. Add in a 3-for-11 performance from Rayvonte Rice. The leading scorer for Illinois ended with a season-low eight points, as Malcolm Hill paced the Illini with 19.

During Michigan’s run, Rice took zero shots, not looking as assertive as you’d expect someone averaging 17.7 points per to be. With the shot clock off and the score tied, Illinois drew up a play for Rice to replicate the buzzer-beater he hit against Missouri earlier this month. He came off a high-screen on the 2-3 zone defense, but LeVert raced over to close out on Rice, forcing a difficult look.

In overtime, a drive by LeVert created an open, endline three for Irvin, followed moments later by a wide-open look for Dawkins on a defensive lapse for Illinois, giving Michigan a two-possession lead.

This was a good win for Michigan after taking its lumps in the non-conference. The win will help overshadow Walton’s 0-for-8 performance, forcing John Beilein to rely on Spike Albrecht for 25 minutes. While the zone defense was effective, Michigan’s man-to-man was not. While the win helps the Wolverines put that four-game losing streak in the past, it could be the start of a difficult stretch for Illinois.

The Fighting Illini will be road warriors to start conference play, with four of their first five conference games — Ohio State, Nebraska, Northwester — on the road. The only home game in that stretch: Jan. 7 against No. 12 Maryland. Illinois has a second home game on Jan. 18, hosting Indiana.

The top 15 most improved players in college basketball

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source:
Ty Wallace (AP Photo)

 MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

Ty Wallace, Cal: I’m firmly entrenched on the Ty Wallace bandwagon, having said repeatedly that there is no player in the country as underrated as Cal’s star point guard. Look at this stat line: 19.3 points, 8.8 boards, 4.2 assists and 46.9 percent shooting from three.

Justin Anderson, Virginia: Anderson’s emergence into Virginia’s leading scorer has been the biggest surprise of the season for me. Always known as a great athlete and teammate, Anderson is now averaging 15.1 points and shooting 60.0 percent from three. He’s not a go-to guy, but he’s been Tony Bennett’s most valuable weapon thus far.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein is starting to live up to his potential this season, becoming the nation’s most versatile defender while anchoring on college basketball’s best defense. A 7-foot-1 center, he can switch ball-screens and has been tasked with stopping an opponent’s best wing scorer at times this season.

source: Getty Images
Robert Upshaw (Getty Images)

Robert Upshaw, Washington: Washington’s emergence as a top three team in the Pac-12 can almost entirely be credited to Upshaw, who has become the nation’s premiere shot-blocking presence. He’s averaging 4.6 blocks in just 20 minutes and has completely changed the way that Washington is able to defend. I’d argue he’s one of the ten most valuable players in the country right now.

Christian Wood, UNLV: Wood is playing like a first round draft pick, averaging 13.9 points, 9.6 boards and 3.0 blocks for the Rebels. He had 24 points and 10 boards in UNLV’s win over No. 3 Arizona on Tuesday night.

Terry Rozier, Louisville: Rozier has done much of what was expected of him this season. His scoring is up to 16.5 points from 7.0 as a freshman, and while he’s not shooting quite as well from the perimeter this season, his percentages are up overhaul and he’s turned into one of the nation’s best, and most important, secondary options.

Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse: Someone had to become a scorer for Syracuse this season, and thus far in the year it’s been the senior big man that’s done it. He’s averaging 16.5 points and 8.7 boards, a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating season for the Orange.

Zach Auguste, Notre Dame: Auguste has always had the potential to be a big-time scorer in the paint for the Irish, and he’s finally reaching it this year. Auguste’s averaging 14.8 points through the first month, although it will be interesting to see what happens when the Irish start to play some tougher competition.

Levi Randolph, Alabama: Randolph has become a go-to guy for Alabama as a senior, as he’s now posting some impressive numbers: 16.5 points, 4.9 boards and 3.1 assists for the 8-3 Tide.

Dylan Ennis, Villanova: Who saw this coming from Ennis? He’s Villanova’s leading scorer, their most dangerous three-point shooter and one of the best defenders on the roster.

Stefan Nastic, Stanford: With so much of Stanford’s front line graduating, Nastic’s role has been dramatically increased this year, and it’s paying off. Nastic is averaging 14.5 points and has become one of the better low-post scorers on the west coast.

Justin Moss, Buffalo: As a sophomore, Moss averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 boards playing behind Javon McCrea. As a junior, those numbers have bumped up to 17.3 points and 10.2 boards. Oh, and he did this.

Malcolm Hill, Illinois: Hill started a handful of games as a freshman, but as a sophomore he’s moved into a major role for John Groce. His scoring has bumped up to 12.8 points this year, as the Illini look like they could contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: Jones has developed into the star we expected him to be as a sophomore, averaging 16.5 points and 7.1 boards.

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: The Spartans have been a disappointment through the season’s first month, but Valentine has been terrific. These numbers are nothing to joke about: 14.5 points, 5.5 boards, 4.3 assists, 50.0 percent from three.

Malcolm Hill puts together efficient performance in Illinois’ intrasquad scrimmage

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With senior point guard Tracy Abrams out for the entire 2014-15 season after suffering a torn ACL, what the remainder of the Illinois backcourt does will have a major impact on the Fighting Illini’s fortunes. Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice returns after averaging 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game last season, and he’ll once again be the team’s primary scoring option. But he’s going to need help on the perimeter, and while transfers Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby provide additional Division I experience, Illinois’ three sophomore guards will be important as well.

Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate were all part of the Illinois rotation last season, with Hill and Nunn moving into the starting lineup during Big Ten play. Of those three Nunn was the most effective offensively, as he accounted for 6.2 points in 19.5 minutes of action per game. Sunday afternoon the team held an intrasquad scrimmage, and it was Hill who was their most productive scorer.

Hill scored 18 points, with all of those points coming in the final two quarters of the scrimmage, and teams he played on (they switched things up after each period) won two of the three periods. Hill averaged just 4.4 points per game as a freshman, but it should be noted that four of his five double-digit scoring performances came in Big Ten play.

Hill shot 6-for-9 from the field Sunday, and his improvement as a shooter (38.3% FG, 34.1% 3PT as a freshman) is something that has to occur if the Fighting Illini are to improve as a team.

Also reaching double figures during the scrimmage were Rice (17 points) and senior forward/center Nnanna Egwu (16 points). Rice capped the scrimmage with a three-pointer in the final seconds, which can be seen in the video above. What can also be seen in that video is Egwu knocking showing off some range from beyond the arc in pick-and-pop situations. Whether or not that’s a sign of things to come remains to be seen, as Egwu was just 5-for-23 from distance in 2013-14.

Egwu averaged 6.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a junior, and given Illinois’ lack of experience inside (three of their six front court players are freshmen) he has to lead the way. Nunn did not participate in the scrimmage as he has yet to be cleared for full-on scrimmaging after undergoing a procedure on his left knee this summer.