If Malcolm Hill looked in the mirror at his 17-year-old self, the Illinois senior guard wouldn’t recognize the face staring back at him.
"I went through my freshman struggles you know," said Hill. "I didn’t even think I was good enough to play at this level when I first got here as a freshman."
Walking onto the University of Illinois campus in 2013, his eyes were quickly opened to the world of Division I basketball, and even head coach John Groce remembers that moment like it was yesterday.
"We weren’t able to go in the men’s gym because of climate issues, so we went in the women’s gym, and that’s one of the reasons I remember it because we don’t do that very often," said Groce. Then, with a smile across his face, he added, "We do a drill called gut-buster...and let’s just say he struggled that day as a freshman. I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it through it. Now, Nnanna Egwu made sure he made it through it."
With that same smile, Hill added "I remember it like it was yesterday. It was basically a conditioning drill and about half-way through the conditioning drill I almost passed out. I was running so hard I think I was crying and running at the same time. I literally had Nnanna, he was carrying me. Like helping me run trying to finish the drill because I had enough."
As he stands tall at 6-6, with a 225-pound frame, it’s hard to imagine that Hill hasn’t always exuded the confidence he shows today as a senior.
"You know he comes in, very immature. Great kid, but very immature," added Groce. "But how much more mature he is now, how much of a professional he is on and off of the court, and just the way he treats people. You know Malcolm is a guy that earns everything he gets. He’s a worker. My dad used to tell me there's no free lunches in life and Malcolm approaches it that way."
Through 22 games this season, Hill is averaging 32 minutes a game, and nearly 18 points.
"You know each and every day I worked harder and harder. They spent extra time with me trying to develop me into a player," said Hill. "It's just given me the confidence I have now and just helped me become the player I am today."
If there's one thing Hill appreciates about playing basketball at Illinois, it’s those early days more than anything else. They may have come with their challenges, but it’s all worth it because there’s nothing he loves more than wearing the orange and blue.
"I just want to be remembered as a guy that gave his all to the program," said Hill. "I just want to be left with...when it's all said and done, just think there wasn't anything else I could have given to this program. I just don't want to have any regrets. I just want the fans to appreciate that."
"I mean I love him," said Groce. "He's one of ours. He's an Illinois guy that came and played here at his state school. That means something to him to put on that jersey. He also means a lot to me personally. I've been around him for four years and to watch him grow from where he started to where he is now, you know I hope my own children can grow that much during their college experience."