In the weeks leading up to the 2016-’17 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.
Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the wings for Illinois. The Illini have seen their struggles as of late, but if they can stay healthy and not get in trouble off the court, things could be set for a considerable improvement in 2016-17. A lot of that will stem on how well their star wing Malcolm Hill plays this season, with the All-Big Ten wing set for a huge senior season.
BTPowerhouse Preview - Illinois Wings:
Additions: Kipper Nichols
Top Player: Malcolm Hill
The second-team All-Big Ten wing Malcolm Hill had an impressive junior season for an Illini team that struggled considerably throughout the season. As a junior Hill averaged 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. The versatile wing showcased the ability to be a playmaker on offense for the Illini, easily the team’s most prolific scorer and biggest threat on offense. When Hill wasn’t being one of the most consistent scoring options for Illinois, he was able to help clean up on the boards and could even run the offense from the point, racking up more than three assists per game.
That versatility to help and facilitate the offense is huge for Illinois. While Tracy Abrams returns this year after serious injury issues the past two years, Abrams will have to stay healthy for an entire season. His backups the past few years have been decisively limited on offense so having Hill help out in the backcourt gives Illinois a guard that can run the point if need be and be the main weapon on offense.
One aspect of Hill’s game that could use improvement, though, is his three point shot. Sure, 31.4% from deep isn’t the worst level of production, especially for an Illinois team that struggled to shoot the ball. But it is a considerable drop off from his sophomore season when he shot 38.9% from deep. Hill can score inside and is always a threat to attack the rim, helping him draw fouls with ease (he averaged 6.9 free throws per game last season). If he can add some consistency from the perimeter, Hill could be set to be one of the top players in the conference this season once again.
Returning for his sophomore season is D.J. Williams and the Illini could really benefit if Williams can build off of a dire freshman season. In a backup role averaging 11.0 minutes per game, Williams could only muster 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds per game. He committed more turnovers (2.8 turnovers per 40 minutes) compared to assists (1.3 assists per 40 minutes) and struggled from three (16.7% on 12 attempts). He only shot 2.1 field goals per game, hitting on 40% of his attempts, and didn’t really produce much on the court for the Illini.
Williams playing time increased throughout conference play, reaching double digit minutes during the last nine regular season games after only hitting that mark six times prior. His production didn’t improve much, though, scoring 40 points in 147 minutes over that nine game span.
Limited last year was 6’7” forward Leron Black, who played in only seven games before succumbing to a season ending knee injury. Black did receive a medical hardship waiver so he’ll still technically be a sophomore this season from an eligibility standpoint. As a freshman he averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in a backup role. Black isn’t a super flashy scorer, averaging 46.3% from the field and not having an outside shot, but he was an asset on the glass and a quality enough backup that Illinois will be happy to get back this season (though he’s more of a frontcourt option).
Also in the mix this season is Kipper Nichols, who transferred from Tulane and will have to sit out the fall semester per transfer rules. That means the 6’6” forward will miss the first month or so of the season, but is expected to return for the BYU game about a week before Christmas. Nichols brings both the ability to attack the rim and shoot from mid-range, adding some versatility to the wing. He still hasn’t played any actual minutes on the court, though, so he may have to work his way into the rotation this winter.
The Illini have one of the most talented players in the conference in Malcolm Hill and if he can at least match his production from last season then the Illinois will once again have one of the top wings in the conference. The question is how they will fill out the rest of the minutes at wing behind Hill.
While they do return all of their options from last year, D.J. Williams had a disastrous freshman season and Leron Black is returning from knee surgery. If either player can improve this season it will go along way to adding some much needed depth to the Illinois roster. It will be intriguing to see how quickly Kipper Nichols will get up and running once he’s eligible in December, as Nichols could actually work his way into the rotation by the time conference play begins. Considering how things panned out last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Nichols becomes the second option here by conference play.