Illini basketball

Help Wanted

Malcolm Hill drew a charge from JayVaughn Pinkston

Malcolm Hill can’t do it alone.

Sure, after watching this team play eleven times, the idea of giving Malcolm the ball on every possession seems tempting. But here’s the thing: In the first half against Villanova, Malcolm scored 14 points. Then they noticed him.

If Rayvonte Rice hadn’t suffered his worst game as an Illini, if The Legend of Aaron Cosby had replaced Aaron Cosby in the line-up, Illinois would have given Villanova a game.

Nnanna Egwu was a monster on the boards. Kendrick Nunn acquitted himself at the two-guard spot. It’s the rest of the team that was the problem. Even Jaylon Tate caused problems, because the defense sagged into the paint whenever he took the ball on the wing.

Despite his nine rebounds, eight points and two assists; even Nnanna got in Malcolm’s way. The two of them were trotted into the media room following the game, and that tells us that John Groce felt Egwu played well enough. But Malcolm and Nnanna were not on the same page on court.

As they lined up for Villanova free throws in the first half, Malcolm yelled across the lane at Nnanna, angry style. “We just TALKED about that!” Before Nnanna could respond to Malcolm, referee Pat Driscoll (who played “Gopher” on The Love Boat) got in his face to issue the type of warning that referees issue to Nnanna.

I asked a Stupid Journalist question about the incident, which tells me I’ve now fully succumbed to Stupid Journalism. I should have asked “what was Malcolm yelling at you in the lane?” But Groce probably would have interrupted and cut me off. You could tell that he was about to pop. I highly doubt that he would have made any players available for comment, were it his decision. (The Big Ten requires it, and  the Jimmy V people were running the show.)

We can assume that the Malcolm-Nnanna disconnect concerns help-defense. Groce said the Illini played defense “selfishly.”

Still, the Illini were in the game, well into the second half.

The collapse came right when Illinois should have seized control of the game. Ahmad Starks had just connected on his only made three of the night. That tied the game at 38. Villanova was shaken.

The Illini got the ball back on consecutive Wildcat turnovers. Aaron Cosby missed a three. Then Ray tried to no-look a pass under the basket to Maverick Morgan. Morgan didn’t anticipate the pass, and moved away from it. Two Wildcats pounced on the ball.

On the next trip, Ahmad Starks tried to no-look a pass to Morgan.  This time, there were two Wildcats already in the way. Another turnover. On the third trip down, Illinois turned the ball over a third straight time.

That was it. The Wildcats recovered emotionally from the onslaught of Illini effort. They composed themselves, and went on an eight point run. Illinois tied the game once more at 50, but that used up whatever fuel was left in the tank.

Ray’s pass wasn’t terrible. It just didn’t fit the recipient. Ahmad’s pass was terrible. It had no chance of succeeding.

John Groce was blunt. He described his team as “not a team.” He said they were selfish on defense. He resisted fingering individual players, as per usual. His tone suggested the next few days of practice will be “demanding,” and perhaps rubbing right up against the cusp of “demeaning.”

If you’re into superstition, you can blame the players’ families for this one. For every set that attended, their corresponding Illini performed poorly, or not at all.

The Cosbys came. Aaron shot 1-for-8. Rhonda & Laronda came. Ray played out of control. The Starkses made the trip. Ahmad spilled four turnovers to go with his four assists, and connected only twice from the field.

Contrast Machanda Hill, who missed her first game of the year. Malcolm tallied a career high.

I don’t blame the LaTulips for coming, but Mike got only a minute of PT.

You could also blame Bill Geist’s “lucky” orange shoes for casting a spell on the Illini.

I sat on these shoes for much of the game, beacuse @TheGarden puts courtside seats everywhere, no matter the likelihood of beer spilling on expensive equipment.

Geist said he’s had the shoes for about thirty years. He wears them only to Illini games. His son Willie, and Illini alum Kevin Miller came together, and sat within earshot of the Illini bench.