Egwu vows to make senior season count


Illinois head coach John Groce didn’t recruit Nnanna Egwu to Champaign.

Groce was the head man at Ohio when Egwu committed to former Illini coach Bruce Weber in 2009. But now, Groce, beginning his third season coaching the 6-foot-11 center at Illinois, is running out of superlatives to describe Egwu and the role he fills on the Illinois basketball team. 

Tremendous. Smart. Unique. An absolute monster on defense.

Groce has glowed about Egwu at every opportunity leading up to his senior season, and Groce is dreading the day Egwu graduates.

Egwu has come a long way since averaging 1.9 points and 1.5 rebounds per game in limited playing time as a freshman at Illinois. He’s since established himself as a force on the defensive side of the ball, and if you ask Groce, Egwu’s one of the best defenders in the country.

He was a team captain during his junior season and will retain that role his senior year, as voted by his teammates. Listen to Groce endorse Egwu, and it’s easy to see why it pains Groce to envision a future without him.

“His ability to move laterally, his athleticism, his speed, his quickness; all those things for his size are very unique,” Groce said. “And then you add that he’s so smart defensively. He just sees things before they happen. He anticipates. You do have sins, but he covers them up a lot defensively.”

Though Egwu is expected to have a crucial impact on the floor for the Illini this season, his responsibilities aren’t limited by what Groce calls “the 94-by-50,” a.k.a. the dimensions of a basketball court. Egwu is viewed as an all-around leader by his coaches and teammates, and it’s a role he’s fully embracing.

“Nnanna’s been here with us for three years … he embodies and represents what our culture’s about,” Groce said. “He’s obviously got a lot of ownership, and he should. I’ve given him a lot of ownership of our team.”

Egwu understands that his role at Illinois has never been bigger. He knows that his teammates look to him as a steadying force; transfers, injuries and graduations have left a roster that looks nothing like the one Egwu saw as a freshman. He’s the only player from a disastrous 15-17 season in 2011-12 that remains on the active roster this year.

Egwu’s current teammates come from a variety of backgrounds. Underclassmen, veterans, transfers and walk-ons make up a diverse and balanced roster. Egwu knows that in order to lead effectively and remain an anchor of the team, he must be able to relate to each of his teammates on an individual level.

“I understand that everyone has their own personality and way they take things,” Egwu said. “I understand each player the way they are. I understand that things I say to certain people may not be the right thing to say to other people.”

It’s this understanding that has helped Egwu develop the future of his position at Illinois. With younger players like Maverick Morgan, Austin Colbert, Michael Finke and Leron Black all looking to crack the rotation in the Illinois frontcourt, Egwu has been a model for the underclassmen bigs to follow.

“I think ever since I’ve known him he’s had that leadership quality about him,” sophomore Colbert said. “He’s always been able to lead us and motivate the guys, whether it be just by watching him or the way he speaks. He’s always working. You can’t help but try to imitate that.”

Teammate Tracy Abrams is another one of the Illini’s unquestioned leaders, and he arrived in the same recruiting class as Egwu. Heading into this season, it was assumed that with both of them entering their fourth year at Illinois, Egwu would share the leadership burden with Abrams.

That dynamic shifted in early September, when Abrams tore his ACL in a preseason workout. While Abrams continues to be a leader for the Illini, his responsibilities will be strictly off the court while taking a medical redshirt this season.

When Abrams went down, it meant Egwu would have to take on an even larger in-game leadership role. Groce calls this type of on-court leader “the voice.”

“Now with Tracy off the court … Nnanna’s going to have to help us be that voice,” Groce said.

Egwu is prepared to shoulder the extra burden of being a vocal leader on the hardwood, and he’s confident he won’t have to do it alone. Citing fellow seniors Ahmad Starks and Rayvonte Rice as examples, Egwu says he knows his teammates will help carry the load when on-court guidance is required.

To this point, Egwu’s career at Illinois has been full of peaks and valleys. He showed flashes of promise as a sophomore against Ohio State and Miami, but looked lost at times as well. He had a miserable streak of games offensively in the middle of his junior year, only to bounce back with superhuman defensive efforts down the stretch.

To some, Egwu’s legacy will be defined by what he accomplishes with the Illini in his senior season. But according to Groce, Egwu cares much more about the team’s legacy than his own. For Egwu, it’s about representing his team and his university.

“I really think he wants to give it everything he has,” Groce said. “He’s one of those kids that only knows one way. His motor runs one way. He’s a real pleasure to coach.”

Egwu doesn’t plan on holding anything back in his final season. He refuses to set a ceiling for his team, and he’s not interested in what-ifs. He believes that hard work will take the team as far as it needs to go, and that it’s his job to make sure the Illini reach their full potential.

“You understand it’s your last year,” Egwu said. “You can’t leave anything back. I’ve got to give everything to this school and this program that I have. And I’ve got to motivate other players with me to give everything they have to this program. Not just for me, but for the guys that are leaving. Because we’ve got to make sure this year could be as great as it can be.

“I can’t be sitting down in April looking back and saying, ‘Man, I wish I did this and this different. I wish I gave more in this game, I wish I gave more in that game.’ I have to sit down in April and say, ‘That was it. I’m exhausted because what I gave was all I could give.’”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94.