Illinois’ Malcolm Hill is averaging 18.2 PPG and 6.4 RPG in a final season that has so far been nothing short of outstanding. His contributions have been consistent with his talent, but the difference for head coach John Groce this season is that additional weapons across his lineup have mitigated the team’s need to exclusively rely on the senior. Illinois struggled early but has since improved to 9-3 with two of its losses coming against top-30 teams. In a winning streak that is now at five games and includes victories over NC State, VCU and BYU, the Illini have done a much better job in taking care of the ball, have improved defensively, and have had six different players score in double figures. Removing the need for Hill to carry the team on his back enables Illinois to enter Big Ten play next week in good position to end its three-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Turnovers were a factor in all three losses, coming to a crescendo when the Illini coughed it up 22 times each in losses to Winthrop and West Virginia — even more troubling was that Illinois seniors (Hill, Jaylon Tate, and Maverick Morgan) were the primary culprits. An average of 12.8 turnovers per game during the winning streak still isn’t great, but it’s an improvement on the 19.0 miscues per game they averaged in the three losses. Another issue that has improved during the last five games is that Illinois has decreased opponents’ three-point field goal percentage from 44.6 percent in the losses to 30 percent since. The Illini have also had three different players lead the team in scoring (Hill, Tracy Abrams, and Leron Black), with several other double-figure scoring outputs coming recently from Jalen Coleman-Lands, Morgan and Michael Finke. Illinois’ improved scoring balance illustrates that the team has options when Hill is struggling.