CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Malcolm Hill will be considered one of the greatest players in Illinois history when his career ends later this month.
The senior guard ranks fourth on the program’s all-time scoring list with 1,775 points and could pass Dee Brown’s 1,812 with a few more games in the postseason, which begins Thursday against Michigan at the Big Ten Tournament.
There is something Hill and the other seniors would very much like to do: Make the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois hasn’t qualified for the tournament since it lost in the Round of 32 during the 2012-2013 season, John Groce’s first year as coach. Making the tourney every year is expected by Illini fans and was something that brought Hill to Illinois from suburban St. Louis.
Instead, the program is in rare and unwelcome territory: The Illini haven’t missed an NCAA Tournament appearance in four straight seasons since Lou Henson’s first five years at Illinois from 1975-1980.
The Illini came close to qualifying in the Groce’s second year and Hill’s first at Illinois, winning five of their last eight games of the season, but a 19-14 record wasn’t enough to go dancing. A year later, the same thing happened when Illinois went 19-13 and last year’s Illini suffered too many injuries and departures on the way to a 15-19 finish.
It might seem as though Hill’s dream of playing deep into March has eluded him.
That’s not how he sees it.
“I don’t really think about the NCAA Tournament like that, that’s just going to put more pressure on me and the team,” Hill said. “The only thing we can control is the game against Michigan.”
Sixth-year senior Tracy Abrams played in two NCAA Tournament games (during his sophomore season in 2013) and his voice has been louder than any other player’s this season. After sitting out two seasons with injuries, the 25-year-old Abrams has seemed like an extra coach, giving advice about what this time of the season is like.
“You can’t really look ahead. That’s been a big thing I’ve trying to help the young people understand,” Abrams said. “You want to be focused on what you have on task. We’re going to be ready.”
Hill and the five other seniors know their final games are at hand. Beat Michigan and Purdue awaits. A loss means a long wait until Sunday’s tournament bracket is announced.
For now, Hill and his teammates will embrace the one-game-at-a-time mentality that coaches wear out each season and one that Groce has used as his team won five of the last seven games of the season.
Hill isn’t worried about how he will be remembered.
“I don’t think of it as this could be my last two games as a Fighting Illini,” Hill said. “I’m just thinking, team wise, what I can bring to the table against Michigan. I think everyone else is thinking the same thing, too.”
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