Malcolm Hill did not see Tum Tum Nairn’s shot bounce away from the rim, sealing Illinois’s dramatic 73-70 win over Michigan State. Levelled by a brutal screen, the senior spent his final competitive seconds on Lou Henson Court face down. A few minutes later, after shaking hands with the Spartans, high-fiving the Orange Krush, shedding a tear in an interview, and hugging his mom, Hill put his face down on the floor again, this time to kiss the block I at midcourt.
I hope fans loved watching Malcolm Hill play as much as he loved playing for the Illini.
On Senior Night, there was simply no one better than Hill on the floor. He led all scorers with 22 points, in the process passing Brian Cook as the fourth-highest scoring Illini in history. Illinois has a minimum of two games left. If they can force more than that, Hill will certainly pass Dee Brown for third all-time.
And Hill should. As good as Brown was, to my mind Hill is better.
I don’t care for postgame press conferences because I don’t think anyone says anything interesting in them. So, I usually skip them. Because covering the Illini isn’t my full-time job, I don’t get to attend player interview sessions during the season. That really limits what exposure I get to the players, which means, I see them more as a fan would, maybe with a more discerning eye, though that might just be my ego getting the best of me.
So, when I think about Malcolm Hill, I don’t think about him being nice to me or giving me a good quote or anything personal. Rather, I think about the guy who did everything on the court that was asked of him, things above and beyond his primary duties, way beyond what might have been asked of him in different circumstances. I think about Hill taking on those extra responsibilities and putting the team on his back. Doing it quietly, in a workmanlike fashion, not getting the accolades that might have come his way otherwise and even missing out on some team achievements through no fault of his own.
Then I think back on the last 15 to 20 years of Illini basketball, what I can remember first-hand. When I do, I don’t think of Brown being the best in that span because he had so much help. Ditto Frank Williams. Demetri McCamey was underrated, but he didn’t dominate the way Hill does, which also goes for Brandon Paul. Likewise, Rayvonte Rice was too much of hero-ball guy. That leaves Hill.
Hill is the greatest Illini basketball player I’ve had the honor to watch.
So far, he’s been down in the valley of Illini history, not having touched the floor in an NCAA Tournament game and in danger of becoming the first four-year player to not play in the Tourney since the 1970s. But he’s led his team out of that valley and the Illini are still climbing.
I can admit that I was wrong back on January 31st, when I wrote that a Tourney bid for Illinois was “not going to happen, nor will a magic run to a Big Ten Tournament championship.” After winning five of their last six, Illinois is right in the thick of the hunt for an at-large bid. I’m not smart enough to say definitively that it was senior leadership, or coaching, or the schedule that led the Illini to the point. But I can say that Illinois’s resume is remarkably similar to many Big Ten teams considered in the Tourney or at least on the same side of the bubble:
Illinois (KenPom #64): SOS = 17, RPI = 56, vs. RPI top-50 = 5-8, vs. RPI 51-100 = 5-4
Team A (KenPom #36): SOS = 65, RPI = 50, vs. RPI top-50 = 4-6, vs. RPI 51-100 = 6-3
Team B (KenPom #27): SOS = 35, RPI = 47, vs. RPI top-50 = 4-8, vs. RPI 51-100 = 7-3
Team C (KenPom #51): SOS = 10, RPI = 41, vs. RPI top-50 = 6-7, vs. RPI 51-100 = 5-4
Team A is Northwestern, B is Michigan, and C is Michigan State, all currently in the field of 68 in projections by ESPN, USA Today, CBS Sports, and SB Nation and all teams Illinois has beaten.
With the win Wednesday over the Spartans, Illinois is also right on track to crack the field of 68. Though the work is not done. Every game is a must-win, and even if Saturday at Rutgers seems like a breeze, it will be more difficult for Illinois than anyone wants to admit. But a win there is still likely not enough. If records stand, Illinois avoids playing Wednesday of the Big Ten Tournament and will get Iowa for a third time this year in the first round. Beating any team three times in one year is a tough row to hoe, but besting the Hawkeyes again is what most experts expect Illinois will need to do to dance this year.
Am I confident Illinois can make it? No, but my predictions for Illinois have a worse rating than the President’s Truth-o-Meter.
What I want, though, is for the best Illini player I’ve seen to get to the tournament. Malcolm Hill has left everything on the floor for Illinois, and he’s done it because he loves doing it. He deserves to not have the legacy of being the best Illini never to make the Tourney.