For Illinois to win Big Ten games, it needs great play from its two potential all-league players: Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Realistically, to win conference games with a limited roster, the Illini need their star duo to be efficient and combine for about 40 points.
It's been a rough start for Hill, who is averaging 12.5 points in the first two games while shooting 7-for-24 from the floor and 2-for-8 from three -- and because of it, a rough start for Illinois (8-7, 0-2 Big Ten). Hill struggled to get into any kind of rhythm in a 75-73 loss at Ohio State, going 4-13 from the floor.
So how does Illinois get Hill going on the offensive end?
The simple answer is Hill just needs to hit a few more shots. The Buckeyes did not do anything out of the ordinary to defend Hill. A lot of credit needs to go to Jae’Sean Tate who guarded Hill for the majority of the time Hill was on the floor. Right out of the gate the Illini got Hill a very good look on a 3-pointer when Tate went under a screen on a pass that came out of the post. At times, Hill looked tired -- because he and Tate were expending so much energy guarding each other at a high level -- and it seemed to affect his shot. When you guard as hard as Hill did in the first half, you are going to wear down a bit. The second factor was Hill was going to the offensive glass hard and battling under the boards. Malcolm did a great job of crashing the boards early and often in the first half. Only one time did the ball find him on those crashes, and it resulted in a three-point play for Hill. Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way and you don’t get the break you may deserve. If just one or two more of those crashes to the board result in a basket or two, it is a completely different stat line for Hill and it might have resulted in a different outcome for the Illini.
The good news for Hill -- who is in a mini-slump -- and the Illini is he can score in so many ways. He is capable of making threes, pushing it himself in transition, posting up, taking the defender off the bounce and getting to the free throw line. It is important for Hill and Illinois to use these tools at the proper time.
Tate was making it really hard for Hill to get deep position in the post. When Hill did catch it in the post, Tate bodied him up and used his strong body to make it difficult for Hill to score down low. When this is the case, I really like when the Illini get Hill in motion to the top of the key. The Illini do this in a couple of different ways. First, the Illini can screen down for Hill when he is on the block and bring him up the to top of the key where he can drive either way. Tate is not able to keep up with Hill when he makes a quick move after the catch. The second way to get him there is when the ball is reversed from the top on the key to the wing and the player that just passed the ball screens away to the opposite wing where Hill is at. This brings him up to the top of the key again where he can go right or left with a quick move. The key to both of these options is there is movement and a screen involved to give Hill a step on the defender and the option to go either way once he catches it at the top of the key. The Illini did this a few times, but Hill just couldn’t get one to fall.
There were not many times Tate was not guarding Hill. But when he wasn’t or when Hill has a smaller defender on him, that is when Hill needs to use his post-up game. Again, getting him to the post is most effective with movement. Set a back screen when Hill is up top or on one of the wings, or set a cross screen for him to move him into the post from the opposite block. This makes it much harder for a double team to come as apposed to just standing in the post and throwing it in to him, where a weak-side defender can see the play developing in front of him and go help out in the post.
The third way to get Hill going is to let him bring the ball up quickly after he gets a rebound or to hit him with an outlet pass after a rebound and let him attack in transition. Hill is a very good ball handler and makes good decisions in transition. It is also very difficult for a typical four man to pick him up in transition when he has a head of steam coming at him. This is not something four men get a lot of practice defending.
In order for the Illini to get into the win column in Big Ten play, they will need more production from Hill. By putting Hill in good positions and taking advantage of mismatches, the Illini can get Hill going on the offensive end. Hill is too good of a player to stay down too long. If the Illini can get Hill into these positions, it is up to him to make some shots.
Sean Harrington is the basketball analyst for IlliniInquirer.com and also serves as a color analyst for ESPN. He played for four NCAA Tournament teams at Illinois, from 1999-2002. He also served on coaching staffs for Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Rob Judson and Bruce Weber. Follow him on Twitter @smharrington24.
Sean's +/- Big Ten standings
Rules of +/- standings. When you win at home you get a “0." When you lose on the road you get a “0." When you lose at home you get a minus-1. When you win on the road you get a plus-1. This evens out the unbalanced schedule during the season. Usually it takes a plus-4 to get a share of Big Ten title or plus-5 to win it outright. Usually, all positives have a good shot at the NCAA Tournament. Usually, even is a Bubble team.
Standings after games on 1/4/16
Michigan State +1
Ohio State 0
Penn State 0