CHAMPAIGN - John Groce isn’t quite as honest in front of a microphone as his predecessor Bruce Weber.
The former Illini coach was brutally honest with the media, sometimes honest to a fault. He sometimes "threw under the bus" easygoing players like Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey, which altered public perception of those players’ effort and drive.
The current Illinois coach isn’t quite as candid. Groce is smoother and more controlled with his message. But he says enough for observers to read between the lines.
Following the Illini’s 80-68 win over Western Carolina, questions about junior star Malcolm Hill were left dangling between those lines.
In his post game press conference, Groce credited Leron Black’s toughness for playing through knee soreness. Black fouled out in nine minutes and went scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting.
“A lot of guys wouldn’t have played” with his soreness, Groce said.
Groce gave high praise to Aaron Jordan’s demeanor and approach. The freshman guard bounced back from just 3 points in 17 minutes over the previous three games combined to score eight points and play his best defense in 17 minutes against Western Carolina.
"It's a great example of what happens when you have a great attitude," Groce said of Jordan. "I notice him during games. He's up all the time when guys make plays, even in games he doesn't play. That's pretty rare at his age to do that.
"It all starts with his attitude. His attitude is unbelievable. He cares about other people and the team. He's happy for other guys' success. I think when you have a free mind like that and you can ... get over yourself, I think that's a huge thing. And I think that's really hard for a freshman."
Groce praised Kendrick Nunn’s unflappability. Despite 50 points in his first three games since returning from a thumb injury, Nunn did not start on Saturday. He wasn’t one of the five best defenders against Notre Dame based on coaching grade-outs of the film.
But Nunn sat for just the first 1:22 and played 36 of the next 38 minutes because he played one of his best games as an Illini, scoring a career high 27 points on 14 shot attempts, to lead Illinois (4-5) to a much-needed win over the Catamounts (3-5).
"He's so tough, mentally," Groce said. "Jiminy Christmas. ...That kid doesn't pout. He doesn't say anything. He just rolls. His mental toughness is just at another level. That's what I love about him. ...He's always behind me. He's the best.
"Most of the time, he's the same guy, regardless of circumstance. That's really what mental toughness is. That's why I always tell people Ken is so tough. He's just tough. Aaron's got that deal where hopefully where he's learning and watching Ken in terms of his disposition and how he's handled things."
Then there’s Hill.
'Needed more out of him'
Due to injuries to Nunn, Black, Jaylon Tate, Tracy Abrams and now Mike Thorne Jr., Hill has carried a heavy burden early this season. He’s second on the team in scoring (16.2 ppg) behind Nunn, second in rebounding (5.4 rpg) behind Thorne, first in assists (3.9 apg) and first in steals (1.7). He has been the Illini’s best player this season, even with Nunn’s recent emergence.
He must continue to be the Illini's best player if Illinois is to bounce back from the program's worst start in 48 seasons.
Hill has disappeared at moments since Nunn’s return four games ago. Hill did not attempt a shot in the final 16 minutes in an 84-73 loss to Iowa State. He did not attempt a shot from the 12:51 mark to the 0:27 mark of Wednesday’s loss to Notre Dame, and then he scored 10 points in the final 27 seconds.
When asked why he struggled to find shot attempts, Hill has given odd answers. On Wednesday, Hill said “he didn’t know how to answer that question” and that he’s just looking for good shots within the flow of the offense. When asked a similar question on Friday before practice, Hill said: “Like I said at the press conference, I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t really have a comment about that.”
OK, move on.
But then on Saturday, Hill sat on the bench for the first 7:21 of the second half -- Jordan started the second half, while Black and seldom-used freshman forward D.J. Williams entered the game before Hill -- due to what Groce called a “coach’s decision.”
Why did Hill sit for so long, even while Western Carolina made a run to tie the game 50-50 with 12:39 left?
“That’s between me and Malcolm,” Groce said.
To Hill’s credit, he made a big impact once he came into the game, hitting two big midrange shots to help spur a 14-1 run that clinched the win for Illinois. Hill finished with a season-low 10 points and five rebounds in a season-low 27 minutes. A solid game, for sure, for a player who has scored double digits in every game this season. But Illinois needs more than solid from Hill.
"Malcolm's a good player,” Groce said. “He's done a lot for us. Jeez, rebounds, assists, steals, guard. He's a terrific player and terrific kid. I just thought we needed more out of him than what he gave in the first half. But he's going to be fine. He's really good. He made some big plays for us when he got back in there. Huge. Huge shots. Rebounds. I thought he did some really good things that helped us win the basketball game down the stretch."
Heavy burden for a star
Groce is an intense coach and an intense man. It’s tough for even some staff members to match the energy of the coffee-chugging coach. Groce embraces adversity and challenges. Like a wild animal, he seems more dangerous when backed into a corner.
He’s recruited players who match that personality, especially Nunn and Black.
Hill is different. He’s laid back. Like McCamey, that can sometimes be confused for lack of effort. Hill is a deep thinker and one of the more enjoyable personalities Illinois basketball has had in the past decade.
Hill is a smiler, not a snarler (like Nunn and Black). He is a not a natural vocal leader. He leads by example and by scoring on the opposition.
But Groce has asked for more from his star, a role Hill seemed to enjoy last season when Rayvonte Rice was injured and suspended. Yet, while Rice took most of the criticism for the Illini's lack of success once he returned, he played better than Hill or Nunn as the Illini were blown out the final five halves of the season as they again missed the NCAA Tournament.
Groce wants more out of Hill as an upperclassman. He wants Hill to make this "his" team. Groce wants his teams to be known as tenacious, never relenting. Great players like Hill shouldn't disappear for key stretches.
The pressure on Hill is ratcheted up now. The highly skilled scorer is in the spotlight. And while his production so far this season has been great, he now faces increased scrutiny, especially after he fails to get a shot in 29 critical second-half minutes of two critical games and then his coach sits him for an important 7:21 stretch. Such is the life of a college basketball star.
The Illini coach admits he’s “rode (Hill) hard here early.”
Groce said he’s sure the team will enjoy its rare off day away from basketball on Sunday, a day away from his intensity. Maybe Hill needs a day to relax more than any.
Groce is riding Hill and Nunn, both somewhat reluctant leaders. Nunn, who leads the team with 19.3 points per game, appears to be taking a slight step forward in that regard. He's showing consistent aggression and tenacity.
"I've learned a lot from sitting out and observing our team and now playing and getting back," Nunn said. "Leadership role is a big challenge, just getting guys to match my energy level and get guys to tag along with me."
If you read between the lines, Groce seems to suggest that Hill still needs some work in that area.
“I’ve got a high standard for both those guys,” Groce said. “I’d like more. They know that. We talk about it a lot. I want them to take ownership of the team. I told them there’s a reason their teammates voted those two and Tate and Abrams as captains. So they’ve got to take responsibility now and help others. The way you do that, I think, is by leading by example of course. But it’s also by leading by voice. I need both from those guys, and we’re going to try to get more out of them in those areas because I think they can even give more.”
Hill has given the Illini a lot and will continue to give them a lot.
But if he’s going to make his first NCAA Tournament, the Illini are going to need even more from him.
That's a heavy burden for the easy-going Illini junior. But it's a burden fit for stars.