Malcolm Hill was on an entirely different level. The junior forward has had a number of strong showings during his career, but he was better than ever on Saturday against South Dakota. Hill caught fire at the offensive end on his way to a career-high 34 points on just 16 shot attempts. He was 4-of-7 from deep and 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Hill also tallied 11 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals during his 32 minutes of action. Illini head coach John Groce has asked Hill to do a lot this season, and he is answering the call when you look at the numbers. Hill is tied with Denzel Valentine at No. 2 in the Big Ten with 18.5 points per game. He has registered the most points, assists, steals and blocks on the team - and he is the top active rebounder with Mike Thorne Jr. sidelined. The Illini have a number of flaws, and the injuries have added even more of a challenge. But they have a chance when Hill and Kendrick Nunn (10 points) are playing at a high level.
Hill's 34 points the most by an Illini since Brandon Paul. Illini fans remember well the night Paul put up 35 points on the road against a top-10 Gonzaga team. That was one of a few signature wins that vaulted Illinois into the NCAA tournament during Groce's first season. Hill's outing on Saturday was just one point shy of Paul's mark, and it was the highest point total for an Illini player since then. Beating South Dakota at home doesn't carry nearly the same weight, but that doesn't take away from Hill's ability. Groce is asking Hill and Nunn to do much of the same that Paul and D.J. Richardson did in 2012-13, and probably even more. The Illini were not particularly deep that season, and they needed their best players to show up in order to compete. They did just that, as the Orange and Blue registered six wins against top-50 teams in the KenPom rankings - which made up for a stretch of seven losses in their first nine Big Ten games. The NCAA tournament isn't even on the radar for the Illini right now. But when you have a one-two punch that is about as good as any, there is hope that the Illini can make some noise against quality teams in the Big Ten.
First five minutes were the best yet. The Illini hit the ground running on Saturday, as they opened up a 16-3 lead through the first five minutes. It all started at the defensive end, as the Illini executed and made things difficult for the Coyotes. South Dakota was 1-of-6 from the field with four turnovers through their first nine possessions. Groce said that was the best stretch he's seen from his group this season, and it was a step in the right direction for a team that has been accustomed to slow starts. The Illini surged with their effort and intensity, which was a product of having a week in between games. Illinois kept the momentum rolling through the duration of the first half, as they shot 59.4 percent from the field and 60 percent from deep. They carried a 55-36 lead into the locker room, which marked the first time they were up double digits at the half this season.
Defensive lapses still an issue. Hill admitted that the Illini relaxed when they got out to a big lead and had things going offensively. This isn't the first time this team has let their guard down at the other end. The Illini were outscored 43-36 in the second half, which marked the third straight game they've given up at least 40 points in the final 20 minutes. South Dakota shot 51.5 percent in the second half, and they hit 40 percent of their attempts from deep. The Coyotes hit 11 threes on the game, but they also had a variety of easy looks in the paint. Groce wasn't shy in saying that his team lacks a killer instinct at that end of the floor. That seems to be a recurring theme, and it's not one that comes off as acceptable. More pride and consistent effort should lead to more desirable results.
Khalid Lewis is finding his comfort zone. Lewis didn't have a team at the beginning of August, but now he is looking right at home. The transfer point guard has taken significant strides over the last two games, as he has posted eight points, 14 assists and just one turnover during the stretch. Lewis has had just two turnovers during his last 107 minutes played. Groce has rewarded him with 20-plus minutes in each of the last three games, and he played 28 minutes on Saturday - compared to just 10 minutes for Jaylon Tate. The Illini may continue to roll with Tate in the starting lineup, but that could change if Lewis continues to show he deserves the bulk of the minutes. Point guard play will be crucial as the competition heats back up, and Lewis has looked like Illinois' most capable option of late.
No questioning JCL's stroke. After back-to-back scoreless outings against Western Carolina and Yale, some began to wonder about the status of Jalen Coleman-Lands' jumper. But for those who have witnessed him for a large sample size, it seemed like only a matter of time for him to heat up again. That's what the Illini have seen during his last two outings. On Saturday, Coleman-Lands hit four threes for the second straight game - on his way to tying a career-high with 17 points. His confidence has never wavered and you can bet that will stay the same during Big Ten play. The question is whether he can make winning plays at the defensive end, while also providing a consistent scoring punch. Coleman-Lands is no stranger to high-level competition, and if the Illini are going to put things together in the Big Ten, they'll need him to play like he's been there before.