Malcolm Hill is the Illinois version of Denzel Valentine -- and Hill may just mean more to his team. We'll find out with Valentine out the next two to three weeks for No. 1 Michigan State following minor knee surgery (by the way, it's very interesting that Illinois plays at MSU on Jan. 7 -- near the end of that two- to three-week timetable for Valentine). Hill isn't as good as Valentine. The Michigan State senior shoots a higher percentage than the Illini junior from two (52.9 to 51.4) and three (40.0 to 34.7), has double the assist rate (44.7 percent to 22.0 percent) and a much higher defensive rebound percentage (24.5 to 15.7). While Hill blocks more shots and has a lower turnover rate, Simply, Valentine is a better shooter, distributor and rebounder -- a better all-around player. But that's no shot at Hill. After all, Valentine is playing like the best all-around player in college basketball right now (rated No. 1 in the KenPom player ratings). Yet, Hill is playing like the Illini's Denzel Valentine. Hill leads Illini active players in points (18.5 ppg), rebounds (5.8 rpg), assists (4.0 apg), blocks (0.9 bpg) and steals (1.5 spg).
Yet, John Groce continues to ask for more from Hill -- because the Illini need the junior to continue to play at an elite level for Illinois (7-5) to have any Big Ten success. Without Mike Thorne Jr., Leron Black and Tracy Abrams, Groce needs his remaining stars -- Hill and Kendrick Nunn (18.4 ppg), two of the top four scorers in the Big Ten -- to play at a ridiculously consistent star level. I asked Groce following Saturday's game when or how it clicked for Hill that he must be an all-around force (and not just a scorer). "He's playing at a high level. There's times when I want even more out of him, as crazy at this sounds. I know the stat sheet shows that he produced at a pretty high level, but I need him and (Nunn and Jaylon Tate) and those guys who can been here a while, I need them to spearhead our defensive effort as well. ...Obviously, he's talented. I just don't want him relaxed. I always want him on edge, so I'm in his ear. A lot."
Illinois is a good offensive team. The Illini shoot a high percentage from two (50.0) and three (37.7 -- good for 67th among 351 Division I teams) and are elite at taking care of the ball (13th in D-I in turnover rate). Of course, the lack of Thorne and Black makes the Illini a poor offensive rebounding team (280th).
But this team has to find a defensive identity. Illinois has weak post personnel, so they'll likely have weak post defense the rest of the season (currently 280th in block percentage, 247th in two-point FG% and while the team currently is 57th in defensive rebound percentage, that number likely will continue to fall without Black and Thorne). So Illinois' defensive identity must come on the perimeter. With Hill and Nunn needing to play 30 to 35 minutes, consistent full-court or three-quarters pressure doesn't seem like a viable option. The Illini switch to zone to keep offenses guessing, but exclusive zone probably isn't smart for a team that struggles to defend the three (Illinois 317th in 3FG% defense) and rebound. But the Illini can still be very aggressive in man-to-man the half-court. The Illini have very active hands, especially Hill, Nunn and freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands. The Illini identity should be to play aggressive on the perimeter, force turnovers and close quickly on threes. The Illini have shown spurts of doing this well: Providence, the first half against Notre Dame and the first five minutes against South Dakota. The Illini -- especially the freshmen (Coleman-Lands is really inconsistent in his rotations and help defense, and D.J. Williams has the length to be a future shutdown defender) -- just need to bring that kind of focus and effort consistently.
Khalid Lewis is starting to gain comfort in the Illini offense. The fifth-year transfer has six games of a 100-plus offensive efficiency rating this season, according to KenPom. Four of those have come in the last five games. During those 107 minutes, he has 19 points, 17 assists and just two turnovers. To put that turnover total in context, Lewis had two turnovers in each of the previous six games before this five-game stretch. Lewis now just plays his role. He hasn't forced shots but has shown the willingness to attack the basket when needed (he had two runners and four free throws against UIC). He also offers a bigger, more athletic body than Tate on defense. Remember, Lewis only arrived at Illinois in August, after the team's European trip. He told me in October that he still didn't know his teammates or the system all that well. He seems to have figured it out. Even if he's just serviceable at this level, thank goodness the Illini have him.