John Groce’s lineup switch Sunday put an end to the Illini’s eight-game losing streak, but it might have had an even bigger effect in the long-term.
Freshman guard Malcolm Hill might have found his mojo.
Hill and Kendrick Nunn, also a freshman, were inserted into the starting lineup ahead of Sunday’s game against Penn State in place of seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, and it led to the career days for the youngsters, the key figures in the Illini’s first win since Jan. 4. Nunn had a team-high 19 points, with Hill also scored in double figures with a season-high 11 points.
Hill had a great day, and he credits his insertion into the starting five with him rediscovering his confidence.
“It actually let me get more confident,” Hill said after practice Tuesday. “I was actually more confident on the floor, I wasn’t really nervous at all like I was before. So it was a good thing for me.
“For the first time in a long time I felt like my old self, which is a good thing for not only me but this whole team because hopefully with me and Kendrick stepping up big, we can give this team a big lift.”
Hill hasn’t necessarily made a big splash this season, averaging just 3.6 points per game. He’s played better when his playing time has increased, scoring seven or more points five times in Big Ten play. But his output has been sporadic at best, as he’s scored two or zero points in those six other Big Ten contests.
But Sunday was a breakout performance, and it could help shake off the mental cobwebs he’s had all season.
“I get game day nervous all the time, it’s just what do I do with that nervous energy? Like in the beginning of the season, I’d get on the court, I’d be nervous to make a play or make a mistake,” Hill said. “And now I turn that nervous energy into positive energy or I turn it into good adrenaline to make plays.”
In addition to the vote of confidence from Groce and the coaching staff he received with a spot in the starting lineup, Hill said he also received some advice from the guys he replaced, Bertrand and Ekey. That advice, he said, was a key to Sunday’s win.
“They said, ‘Be more aggressive, stay confident, don’t be afraid to make plays,’” Hill said. “And we all talk to each other, we don’t have anything to be nervous about, never be tentative on any plays. And that’s what we all did, that’s why we stepped up and won.”
Hill and Nunn both figure to remain in the lineup when the Illini head to Lincoln to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Wednesday night. If Hill’s confidence can remain high, the Illini could reap some big-time rewards.