The In-Progress Tale Of Nnanna Egwu

Joe Robbins

Let Nnanna Egwu's progression be a ray of hope in this dark, dark time.

Christopher Booker writes that there are only seven types of stories: Overcoming the monster, Rebirth, Quest, Journey and Return, Tragedy, Comedy and Rags to Riches. That's it.

Oftentimes, fans and the romantic media turn a season into one, big story. An Odyssey-like epic which meshes all seven story types into one, creating a nice, clean and inspiring tale. All the devices are there. For the 2012 Fighting Illini, John Groce is the newly arrived hero riding in on his steed to rescue the aimless Illinois roster. The non-conference schedule is the early prosperity. The beginning of the Big Ten season is the first major conflict. And if all goes according to the pattern of epic tales, the Illini will overcome the adversity, rescue the damsel and finish the season with some sort of success.

By turning the games into chapters and the players into characters and letting the drama play out on its own, it's easy to fit seasons into this story mold. But it can be done with any sport in any season from any time period. It has been done so many times, most notably in CBS' glorious "One Shining Moment" at the end of each Final Four, that it has become just that--overdone. Look under the overdone layer because in there lies a more intricate story that is playing out right before our eyes.

It's of the Rags to Riches variety, and it's about Nnanna Egwu.

Egwu's rags to riches story isn't about money. This is collegiate athletics. In this level, Egwu's rags, and perhaps one day riches, are his basketball ability. Egwu entered high school as basketball impoverished as can be, having never played organized hoops before. He was recruited on his potential, intelligence and work ethic, but the blanket term regarding Egwu's skill set became "raw talent". He came to Illinois exactly as advertised. Egwu was lost on the court more often than not, an unprepared pupil not yet ready for the speed of the college game. Meyers Leonard held the center position for close to 40 minutes a game and Egwu's development got lost in the shuffle of a late season collapse and a coaching change.

It was only after the dust settled that Illini nation realized how crucial Egwu would be to the 2012-2013 squad.

Egwu was thrust into the starting center role to begin the season, and his high school scouting report continued to prove true. He had improved from the previous season but was a far cry from a dominant center. His best attributes were exactly what scouts had predicted. He worked hard. He was intelligent. He was willing to improve. But his inexperienced on the hardwood severely limited his play. The production wasn't there.

In his first five games, playing easy competition, Egwu averaged 6.6 points, five rebounds and shot 41 percent from the field, shooting an average of seven times per game. In his next four games, Egwu faced slightly tougher competition, including the Maui Championship with Butler, and his effectiveness on the court noticeably declined. The statistics reflect that sentiment, as he averaged 5.7 points and three rebounds. He still managed to shoot 53 percent in those games but shot only four times per game.

Then came the Gonzaga game, his worst performance to date prior to Saturday's loss at Wisconsin. The critics were out. In Spokane, Egwu had only two points and one rebound. Despite what the coaches said about his progression, Egwu seemed to be regressing. His statistics were tanking. His length caused opposing offenses some problems, but they were easily adjusted to and Egwu became a liability. But Groce stuck with him. He called him a "basketball baby", roughly translating to, "my basketball baby", and praised his improvement every opportunity he got. He caught a glimpse of Nnanna's rags to riches story before anyone else.

After Gonzaga, a trend developed with Egwu and we all got clued in on his progression story. He was acclaimed as tough and competitive--Groce's two favorite attributes--but those traits were not seen against lesser competition. In the four games against non-ranked opponents following the Gonzaga game, Egwu averaged 5.5 points and three rebounds.

However, against the three ranked opponents following their win at Gonzaga--Mizzou, Ohio State and Minnesota--Nnanna set a career high in rebounding and scoring, averaging 12 points and 8.7 rebounds. In comparison, Meyers Leonard averaged 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season.

Far from a liability, Egwu was an impact player in those three matchups against three teams with strong inside presences. Any number of theories can be drawn up as to why he improved so vastly in these three games, but the fact remains that he has played his best basketball against the toughest opponents.

Against No. 12 Missouri, No. 8 Ohio State and No. 8 Minnesota Against bad teams
Points 12 5.5
Rebounds 8.7 3

On Saturday against Wisconsin, Egwu got into early foul trouble, sat for awhile, re-entered, picked up another foul and ended up only playing 11 total minutes. The Fighting Illini got slaughtered on the boards. Early in the season, Nnanna's talent and length would account for the occasional block, a few rebounds and a steal maybe. Now, the team needs him on the floor and against the Badgers, it was clear. He wouldn't have completely fixed the issues with the inside game (he didn't completely fix the rebounding problem against Mizzou) but he certainly would have helped.

So that is where we sit on Nnanna's rags to riches plot line. He's out of total basketball poverty, he's far from the wealthy elite and he's entering an interesting part of the story--the part where he becomes noticed, the part where the billionaires start to notice the young business man who just moved into their neighborhood. Gonzaga didn't pay for overlooking Egwu, but Ohio State did. Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe was likely not expecting to be outrebounded on several occasions by the Illini big man. But he was.

We no longer have to only trust Groce about the improvement in Egwu's jump shot, rebounding and overall defense. It can be seen. And if the story goes according to plan, one day Illinois may have the rich center they've craved for so long.

Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room. You can follow Jack Cassidy on Twitter at @JCassidy10.

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