Climbing the Hill

Freshman Malcolm Hill bounced back against Penn State. Why he got extra minutes and the reason he was so productive started with solid performance in practice.

CHAMPAIGN - Quickly, name the Illinois leaders in percentage of possessions used this season.

It's the stat that tracks when a player's actions end a possession, either making or missing a shot or turning the ball over. It shouldn't be hard to name the first two Illini players on the list -- that's right, Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams, both at 26.4 percent.

Who is third? It's not Joe Bertrand, Jon Ekey or Nnanna Egwu. Nor is it backup point guard Jaylon Tate or the surging sixth-man Kendrick Nunn.

It's freshman Malcolm Hill, currently used on 22.3 percent of the possessions he's on the floor. That means when he's out there, the 6-foot-6, 210-pound guard/forward is an engaged and active part of the game plan.

The problem though had been that Hill wasn't on floor all that much.

Before Saturday's game against Penn State, Hill saw four minutes of run in each game against Oregon, Missouri and Illinois-Chicago. That bumped to five minutes versus Indiana.

He didn't score a single point in that time frame and shot only one time. One offensive rebound, two steals, a turnover and three fouls were all the he had to show for those four games. So, what did Hill do in the lead up to Illinois' second Big Ten game against the Nittany Lions?

"I thought he decided in the last couple days, 'Hey, I've got to play better. I'm better than this,' " Coach John Groce said. "And boy did he turn it on, and he got rewarded for that."

Hill played 18 minutes, posting eight points (his second highest total of the season) and two offensive rebounds. His offensive rating, 180, was the highest mark for an Illini player all season, boosted by hitting both of his shots from the field, sinking all four of his free throws, dishing an assist and not committing a turnover.

The production was the result of more playing time. The added run came from his performance in practice.

Groce told his young talent to A) hang in there B) to believe in himself and C) simply play better.

"He made the conscience choice," Groce said. "I tell the guys all the time, the greatest gift God gave us is the ability to choose. He chose the last two days (before the game) that he was going to be a monster in practice. He played like that and got more minutes."

This isn't to say Hill's turned the preverbal corner after one good showing. A freshman's climb is never over, particularly in the grind of the Big Ten.

The hope, though, is this is solid evidence that Hill can handle a rough patch and respond in a positive manner.

"Maybe going through that, my hope is that maybe it makes him mentally tougher," Groce said.

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