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2013-2014 Season in Review: Nnanna Flexed Defensive Muscles

Believe what you will about his game, but Nnanna has defensive chops like few else.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever Nnanna Egwu does on a basketball court doesn’t quite seem to be enough.

He drops a pass that squirts out of bounds. He takes an elbow jumper—and makes it—but you’d rather see him post-up. Then he takes an elbow jumper and misses, and now you’re really upset at him. He’s called for an illegal screen, almost a statistical assurance with the amount of time he screens during a game, and yet you’re cursing his name as he runs to the other side of the court.

College basketball is a guard’s game that polarizes its big men, and that’s its dirty little secret. A successful college basketball team doesn’t need a center that hogs the ball for post-ups all game (Illinois had its own true center with fairly dominant numbers two years ago in Meyers Leonard, and that was one of the worst Illinois teams in two decades). It guts the offensive flow of a possession and usually allows the defense to win that possession through trapping the post player or fouling.

What a college basketball team needs from a big man is defense and tenacious rebounding. If he can flare out off a screen and shoot a midrange jumper, it’s gravy but certainly not a necessity.

And what Illinois has in Egwu are three-quarters of what an ideal frontcourt player should be in college—which bodes well for an Illinois team poised to compete in the upper echelon of the Big Ten for the first time in three seasons.

Egwu’s defense descends from a long line of frontcourt players that work their tails off on that end of the floor. But his effort is precisely mated with his gifts. John Groce was over the moon upon first landing the Illinois job because Egwu, then a sophomore, could captain his defensive scheme.

In a nutshell, this scheme calls the bluff of the opponents’ offense. The vast majority of offenses in the collegiate ranks now are rudimental and pick-and-roll driven. It’s not exactly rolling the ball out on the court and letting the kids play, but it’s pretty damn close.

Groce knows this and gameplans to take away that first pick and roll action of the offense, essentially looking at the other four players on offense once the ballhandler on the screen can’t get into the lane and saying, "What are ya gonna do now?" Most of the time nobody else is open, players that don’t normally have the ball in their hands panic, and a turnover or low-percentage, contested shot is hoisted up to no avail.

In order to accomplish all of that, of course, Groce needs a defensive player to blow up that first pick and roll. Enter Nnanna Egwu, who performs a beautiful ballet of hedging on the screen, placating the guard in front of him just long enough to let the screened defender recover, and then sprinting back to the big man rolling to the hoop. If you watch games with me, I start hooting and hollering when Egwu demolishes a pick and roll between a good point guard and frontcourt player. It’s a work of art.

Near the end of this season, Nnanna began harnessing some of the blocking prowess on defense that had heretofore not been on display for any consistent stretch of games. This culminated in a five-block masterpiece against Noah Vonleh and Indiana in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament. Vonleh’s last memory of college basketball before becoming a likely lottery pick in this summer’s draft was the sight of Egwu making him work to establish any position in the post and then pummeling him when he tried to put up a shot.

That game showcased the true potential of Egwu’s role in the team. He scored two points on 1-8 shooting, and Illinois won decisively against an evenly matched Hoosiers team. Do the dirty work on offense in getting the talented wing players open, snag seven rebounds, shut it down on the defensive end and call it a game with a win in tow.

Egwu still has some things to iron out in his game heading into his senior season. His defensive rebounding rate needs some work with a bad habit of tipping the ball on rebounds instead of grabbing it (Ideally, there's some rebounding drill where Nnanna battles Malcolm Hill and Leron Black all summer long). And a quick post move—not the dreadfully elongated dribbling postups that we saw this season—could give his offensive repertoire an element of surprise.

But what could really make the offense next season soar is a return to form for Egwu’s elbow jumper. It’s a shot he’s hit in games and made thousands of times in practice, but it abandoned him in the middle of the season, and he didn’t go to it much after that. That shot, melded with the heady drivers and floor-spacing shooters next season’s team will possess, could make the offense a thorny decision-making nightmare for opposing defenses.

From the Illinois fan perspective, Egwu seems like a less-than-desirable disappointment, a product of not having any other options in the frontcourt and especially in light of Frank Kaminsky's wunderkind junior season for Wisconsin. Yet, from a person who watched him play many high school games, this was Chicago Sun-Times' prep basketball guru Michael O’Brien's reaction to watching Egwu as a college player in March:

Nnanna has come a long way since getting crushed by lesser, smaller big men in high school. Now he has one more offseason to take a mini-leap that could help re-establish Illinois's footing at the top of the Big Ten.

(We'd be remiss if we didn't include quite possibly the best part of last season, included in the gif below.)