Nnanna Egwu a different player for Illinois basketball


Illinois’ Nnanna Egwu pins an Aaron Craft layup against the backboard during the game against No. 22 Ohio State at State Farm Center on Feb. 15. Egwu has proven his worth in recent games.

By Johnathan Hettinger

Raggedy Ann and Nnanna Egwu don’t have too many similarities. Raggedy Ann is 16 inches tall, one inch thick and weighs .5 ounces. Nnanna Egwu is 6-foot-11, considerably thicker and weighs 250 pounds.

So when Illinois’ starting center, defensive anchor and largest player was treated as such by Purdue on Jan. 15, head coach John Groce wouldn’t tolerate it.

Groce didn’t single Egwu out when he said the Boilermakers threw his team around “like a bunch of rag dolls.” But there’s an expectation that Egwu can do better than zero points, four rebounds and four fouls on 0-for-7 shooting. There’s also an expectation that Nnanna will not get thrashed by an opponent, like how A.J. Hammons did when he scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

When Illinois gets outrebounded 23-7 in a single half, responsibility falls on Egwu’s shoulders — if he’s not grabbing the rebounds, he should at least block out so his teammates can run in and grab the misses.

The three 3-point misses in the Purdue game brought Egwu’s consecutive long-range miss streak to 11. He hadn’t scored in double-figures in more than a month, shooting 29.3 percent over the streak. And his offensive struggles were starting to leak over to his aggressiveness, and Groce said it wasn’t acceptable.

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Still, Groce never doubted Egwu.

He had seen the difference his starting center could make in a game. He had seen Egwu work on his jump shot, as he made 23,000 jump shots over the course of a summer. He had seen Egwu develop into a Big Ten-caliber big man as a sophomore, even before adding 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason.

And he knew he would have it again, even after he had been treated like Raggedy Ann.

“He works so hard,” Groce said at the time. “He just has to stay with it. There’s no one that feels worse about that than him.”

The next game wasn’t any better — Egwu finished with zero points, just two rebounds and four fouls in a loss to Michigan State.

When freshman Maverick Morgan showed a spark of life on offense, scoring four points for the Illini, a reporter asked Groce if Egwu’s contributions on the defensive end were really that much more than Morgan.

Groce said he knew Egwu could do better. And he did.

Against Ohio State in the next game, Egwu’s stats jumped back up — 10 points, nine rebounds, two blocks — the closest he had gotten to a double-double since the first game of the season when he had 10 and 10.

Through the next four games, Egwu was slightly improved on the offensive end, but his rebounding was still subpar — with five, three, four and four rebounds in the four games.

Egwu went to Groce and told him he wasn’t happy with the way things were going. Groce told him to do something about it.

Against a small Nebraska frontcourt, Egwu took advantage to the tune of 12 rebounds. But he scored just four points. In the second matchup with the Buckeyes, Egwu had a career-high 14 rebounds.

Against Minnesota on Wednesday, Egwu came out and scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half. He had neutralized the Golden Gophers bigs. Groce couldn’t afford to take him out.

“One of the keys has been keeping him around 30 minutes,” Groce said. “Normally, I would pull him out right before the 12 or the eight-minute (media timeout) just to give him a blow. He was so good I told him he would have to ride it out. He said, ‘Coach, I got you.’ Boy, did he ever.”

Egwu put it all together for his second double-double of the season — 14 points, 11 rebounds. For good measure, he added four blocks, and Illinois picked up its first win over a team not named Penn State in 2014.

“For Egwu, the numbers do show how well he played, but that does not even do it justice,” Groce said following the Minnesota game. “He was great offensively, defensively, on the glass, and was a presence around the rim. He had that look in his eyes of being very confident.”

Egwu had proved Groce put his trust in the right place.

Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.