- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 11, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - In a gym full of players, reporters and photographers, Nnanna Egwu stands out, his head bobbing well above the crowd.

But Illinois’ soft-spoken, 6-11 forward strains to be heard over the echoing waves of media-day noise.

It’s a little like that on the court sometimes for Egwu.

He’s a defensive presence but, as coach John Groce will tell you, he sometimes seems to go unnoticed, unappreciated.

Now in his senior season, Egwu is being asked to help lead an Illini team that’s missing senior point guard Tracy Abrams. The roster includes several likely upgrades on the offensive end of the floor, but it’s still heavy in sophomores and transfers like Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby that the team will depend on.

The steady, hard-working Egwu is one of the few certainties.

“I feel better when he’s on the floor, you know?” Groce said.

Outside of Northwestern, Illinois was the lowest-scoring team in the Big Ten last season, averaging 64.2 points a game. But the Illini could play defense. They gave up 62.2 points a game, second in the conference and 22nd in the country.

On a defensive team, Egwu’s ability when the other guys have the ball is a perfect fit. But that defense-first approach can be a source of frustration for fans who long for scoring. When he’s had a tough time finding the basket, Groce has fielded questions about whether it might be time to put him on the bench.

And Groce has regularly said no way. Egwu plays.

“He’s as good as any guy I’ve coached defensively in my entire career,” Groce said.

That includes Greg Oden, the national defensive player of the year in 2007 at Ohio State, where Groce was an assistant coach.

But Egwu hasn’t made an All-Big Ten team, even as an honorable mention.

Like his presence in that crowded gym, a lot of what Egwu does is quiet and hard to put on a stat sheet. And if you’re only watching the ball, you might not see a lot of it. Groce is happy to explain.

“His ability to move laterally, his athleticism, his speed, his quickness,” Groce said, adding that at 250 pounds Egwu runs a 5:15 mile. “He sees things before they happen, he anticipates. When you do have sins, he covers them up a lot defensively.”

Egwu came to Illinois from St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago as fairly raw material. He didn’t really play much basketball before high school.

Joe Henricksen, the editor of City/Suburban Hoops Report in Chicago, said he first saw Egwu play just before that freshman year.

“He has no clue how to play, and he’s as raw as they come,” Henricksen said he thought at the time.

But Egwu’s size made him an immediate defensive asset, and his work rate and willingness to be coached meant he would get better, Henricksen said.

“He soaked it all up, listened, learned,” Henricksen said. “He just wants more, more, more, and he just does whatever basically you tell him.”

Talking over that crowd on media day, Egwu said he knows what Groce needs him to do.

“I’ve got to be more strict on them. I can’t have anyone lacking,” he said. “What’s everyone around me doing? I need them to be on the same bus as I am.”

As the team closes in on the Friday opener against Georgia Southern, Groce sees signs that Egwu is stepping into that leadership role. The team, Groce has said, needs transfer Ahmad Starks to be more vocal playing at point guard.

The coach said it’s one thing for him to tell Starks what he needs to do, but “it’s another thing when someone who has the credentials of Nnanna barking at you to do it.”

And Egwu isn’t worried about long minutes, either.

“I want to sit down in April and be exhausted and say, ‘Wow, I gave it everything I’ve got,’” Egwu said.


Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap

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