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Malcolm Hill: The Illinois Fighting Illini X-Factor

Malcolm Hill's improvement from freshman to sophomore year was a huge boost to the Fighting Illini last season, and as a result, he will be the go-to-guy next year.

Malcolm hill goes in for a lay-up against Purdue
Malcolm hill goes in for a lay-up against Purdue
Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

With the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Rayvonte Rice, Illinois must look for a new scorer and someone who will emerge as a leader during next season's campaign. While Tracy Abrams comes back from a torn ACL for his senior year as a member of the Fighting Illini, the extent of his capabilities is questionable. An influx of transfers and freshmen also yield question marks, but if there's one guy that will most likely be the go-to-guy next season, it has to be Malcolm Hill.

Malcolm Hill was the epitome of Illinois head coach John Groce's core philosophy "Toughness and Togetherness." As a freshman, Hill admitted to being nervous playing college hoops for the first time. Though he started his freshman year coming off the bench, Malcolm grew into a poised and confident player by the end of the season. He got his first start at Penn State in February of 2013 where the Fighting Illini snapped an eight game losing streak.

Hill's improvement from his freshman to sophomore season is most obvious in his points per game. Hill averaged just 4.4 points per contest his first season, but jumped up to 14.4 during his sophomore year. Hill also improved his rebounding average by about two per game and averaged 6% better from the floor his second season. Hill went from a player off the bench who contributed here and there to a competitor and X-factor on the court.

During a stretch of the season where Rayvonte Rice was out with both an injury and a suspension, Hill was the guy who John Groce called upon to deliver night-in and night-out. With the weight of the team on his shoulders, the sophomore delivered with a number of impressive performances to get huge wins. Illinois went 6-3 without Rayvonte Rice in the lineup and this was the point in the season where Malcolm Hill was playing his best basketball.

A huge home win over Maryland featured a commanding 28 point performance from the sophomore. Malcolm nearly matched that total with 27 in a home game against Penn State, including a game-winning basket. Arguably one of his best performances of the season, though, came in East Lansing where the Fighting Illini took down the Spartans on their home floor to score a huge boost heading into the end of the season.

Unlike the past season, depth shouldn't be a problem for the Fighting Illini as long as players stay healthy. That being said, there will be a lot of weight on Malcolm Hill's shoulders heading into next season. The junior will be the go-to-guy in the biggest moments. He will be called upon to deliver for John Groce and help not only himself, but his teammates. Malcolm Hill's improvement has been unmatched by nearly any basketball player in the NCAA. While it's unlikely he'll elevate himself another 10 points per game next season, it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see his totals go up when he assumes the roll of the leader and go-to-player.

Expect great things out of Malcolm Hill heading into next season. The sophomore, soon-to-be-junior, will certainly have his hands full the way the Big Ten is shaping out to be, but if the Fighting Illini want to see the NCAA Tournament, it starts with him.