CHAMPAIGN — Malcolm Hill doesn’t rattle easily on the court or otherwise. In the loose environment of the Ubben Basketball Complex, he can walk past a coach’s office, have a chop-busting comment hurled in his direction and laugh it off or fire one right back.
“You can joke with him, you can yell at him or pat him on the back, and he responds well to all of it,” Illinois assistant coach Dustin Ford said.
So when it comes to Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game between the Illini and Missouri (4:30 p.m., ESPN2) in St. Louis, don’t expect Hill to buckle under pressure of the rivalry played in one of the most intense atmospheres of the college basketball season. For one, it’s not in his nature. Plus, he’s seen this stage up close before, growing up in nearby Belleville, just on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River by St. Louis.
The freshman sat courtside, a few feet from Illinois’ bench during last year’s game, and he said he’s been at the Scottrade Center two other times to experience the matchup.
“I know what it’s going to be like (and) what the environment is going to be,” Hill said. “I think it will be fun.”
Being in the building for the game and getting a feel for the environment is one thing.
Taking the court and having to perform in front of 22,000-plus, half of whom go nuts when Illinois does something good and the other half becomes unhinged, is another beast.
“You can go to as many of those games as you want, and nothing prepares you for what it’s like when you’re on the court,” said Missouri forward Ryan Rosburg, a native of Chesterfeld, Mo., in the St. Louis suburbs.
Hill will experience it Saturday, though he insists he will treat his anticipation and preparation for his first Braggin’ Rights game just like any other.
“I’m going to play hard, play the same; nothing different just because I’m close to home,” he said.
Tyler Griffey, the most recent Illini from the St. Louis area, wrapped up his collegiate career last season, going winless in four Braggin’ Rights games.
“Every year, that was the one game I looked forward to most,” Griffey said Thursday from Austria, where he’s playing the first season of his professional career. “You try to treat every game as equal, but there is just nothing like the atmosphere during that game.”
A native of Wildwood, Mo., Griffey didn’t feel any extra pressure playing close to home in front of so many friends and family. But in a career in which Griffey saw just about everything from two NCAA tournament wins, a win against No. 1 Indiana in which he hit the game-winner at the buzzer and a coaching change, the one thing that continues to burn him up about his college career is the 0-4 mark against the Tigers.
“I so desperately wanted to beat them,” he said. “I don’t think I will ever be able to live down the fact that we lost four straight years. I have faith in this year’s team, though.”
Saturday will be Hill’s first opportunity to do what Griffey was never able to do in his annual homecoming game. Hill’s cheering section Saturday will include about five family members, whom he says are probably more excited about the game than he is.
“They’re real excited about it because they know what it’s going to be like. They’re excited to see me play in it,” he said.
Coming off his least-productive outing of the season last Saturday in the loss to No. 15 Oregon in Portland, Ore., Hill remains a cool customer, not lacking for confidence despite going scoreless and committing a turnover in four minutes.
His personality won’t allow him to feel sorry for himself.
Illinois coach John Groce said Hill has practiced well all week, and he doesn’t anticipate Saturday’s electric environment, coupled with the fact that Hill’s playing so close to his hometown, will have any bearing on his performance in the rivalry.
“He’s got to be who he is and not get caught up in all that emotion. Is that easier said than done? It certainly can in a rivalry game and a game like this,” Groce said. “We’ll work with him and continue to talk with him. Ultimately at the end of the day, he’s got to be who he is.”
What Hill has been this week is a mentor to his fellow freshman teammates. The youngest member of the Illini roster, who didn’t turn 18 until the last week of October, has been offering words of advice about what Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game is all about.
“I told them it’s probably going to be, besides the NCAA tournament, the most intense, most exciting game this season,” Hill said. “It’s just a basketball game, just a different environment. That’s how I’m going to treat it.”
When the ball is tipped Saturday, we’ll find out how Hill and the seven other Illini who have never taken the court in the rivalry will respond. Inside the Illinois locker room, though, no one is overly concerned about how the cool customer from the Metro East will handle himself.
“He doesn’t get so amped up that we have to worry about winding him down,” Ford said. “When he gets challenged, he’ll respond, which is good. That’s what you want.”