The Illinois loss at Northwestern on Saturday is an all-too familiar outcome for this season, but at least the look on the court was very different at times. With the Illini coming off a bye week, everyone was wondering if the Illini would do something different with the extra time between games. They sure did. Illini coach John Groce used guard/forward/do-everything junior Malcolm Hill as a 6-foot-6 point guard. Hill ran the show for most of the game and finished with seven points (a season low), eight assists (a career high), five turnovers (a career high) and 13 rebounds (a career high) in a loss. That's some positive and some negative. So, does the change improve the Illini offense?
Hill has the skills to run the point. With his 6-foot-6 frame, he is able to make passes that a smaller point guard simply can’t make. His height allows him to see over the defense and get the ball to the right position, either by throwing over or around the defense with more ease than a smaller player. Hill also sees the floor well and has a very good skill set that includes passing and basketball IQ. Hill at point guard means the ball is in Hill’s hands more often -- and that is never a bad thing. He is very good at scoring in transition and creating for others in the open floor.
Looking around the country, the bigger point guard is working for other teams. This season, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger moved the smaller Jordan Woodard to shooting guard and made the taller Isaiah Cousins the point guard. Michigan State's Denzel Valentine is another bigger point guard that has had a terrific season. LSU freshman Ben Simmons is going to have a chance to win National Player of the Year (and become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft) and is playing the point at 6-foot-10.
Teams are going to have to play the Illini differently with Hill at the point guard. Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis simply are not scoring threats, unlike Hill. Illinois likes to run the double-high ball screen to start possessions, and they use ballscreens throughout the offensive possession. Teams now must adjust to Hill. With Lewis or Tate running the point, defenses would go under the ballscreen as they were not afraid of Tate nor Lewis shooting off the screen. The big man would not help, and he would stay with the player setting the screen. This stopped the Illini big to get a clean roll to the basket. Because the big stayed with his man, there was no defensive rotation. Each defender could stay with his own man, limiting openings for Illinois' offense.
Now, when Hill comes off the ballscreen, the defender has to go over the ballscreen and the big defender has to show or hedge. This gives the Illini big a clean roll to the basket. If the weakside defense does not rotate over to take the big away, it is an easy basket for the Illini big. It is also easier for the 6-foot-6 Hill to throw over the opposing big who is helping or hedging. If the weakside defense does rotate over to take away the big rolling, it now opens the replace wing that flashes to the top of the key for an open shot, which in most cases would be Kendrick Nunn or Jalen Coleman-Lands -- both extremely dangerous shooters.
Hill playing point guard also helps the Illini on the offensive boards. When the defensive big has to help on the ball screen, it frees up the Illini big on the roll. On a missed shot, the Illini big will either now have a smaller player on him from a rotation or the big defender will be coming from behind, which would give the Illini big inside position on the boards. Maverick Morgan benefited from this on several occasions on Saturday, putting in two putbacks.
Playing Hill at the point also opens up more time at the 3 and 4 positions. This will give freshman D.J. Williams more playing time, which he's earned. Williams has looked good as of late and continues to give the Illini a good spark off the bench. He played a career high 20 minutes on Saturday and had six points. Over the last three games, Williams has played 50 minutes, scored 20 points and added six rebounds. He also gives the Illini more length and athleticism on defense.
Hill did not score in double figures for the first time this season, but he missed some good looks at the basket. If he shoots closer to 45-50 percent, he will be in double figures while still getting all the other players involved. Five turnovers is too high for a point guard, but these numbers will go down as the team gets more comfortable to the offensive change. A few of those turnovers were clearly guys just not being on the same page just yet.
The Illini staff could and maybe should have moved Hill to point guard earlier. But the staff probably felt like they needed the bye week to get everyone some reps in their new roles. It is encouraging to see that the staff is trying to mix things up.
Overall, switching Hill to the point is a good look for the Illini. I am looking forward to watching this develop over the next month of the season.
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 through 2/13/16
Michigan State +2
Ohio State +2
Penn State -2