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Illini’s Nnanna Egwu a tall order on defense

Illinois' NnannEgwu (32) is defended by Nebraska's Walter Pitchford right during first half an NCAA college basketball game Lincoln Neb.

Illinois' Nnanna Egwu (32) is defended by Nebraska's Walter Pitchford, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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Updated: March 28, 2014 8:59AM

CHAMPAIGN — An epic Public League championship game, in which Curie’s Cliff Alexander got the better of Young’s Jahlil Okafor on the scoreboard and in the box score, reopened a wound for some Illinois fans.

Or, at the least, it made them consider anew just what could have been had Big Cliff chosen to take his big-time, one-and-done game to Champaign instead of Lawrence, Kan.

Yes, that signing day hat fake still hurts a little bit.

Instead, the Illini will surround a different big man throughout the 2014-15 season. Make that the same old big man. Yes, the never exciting — but always improving — Nnanna Egwu.

There are a lot of things Alexander could’ve learned from a guy such as Egwu, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in Chicago and played his high-school ball at St. Ignatius.

For starters, the 6-11, 250-pound junior has become an elite-level defender. Long-ago Northwestern star Shon Morris, an analyst for the Big Ten Network, calls Egwu and Michigan’s Jordan Morgan the two best post defenders in the conference. Rare for a player his size, Egwu is excellent at switching off on point guards against the pick-and-roll.

On a team whose defense has had to keep it in games all season, Egwu has been the glue. In a 60-49 home-court victory by Illinois (16-12, 5-10 Big Ten) against Nebraska (16-11, 8-7) on Wednesday night, Egwu contributed eight points and five rebounds. Freshman Kendrick Nunn led the way with 13 points.

“It’s hard to argue that [leading scorer] Ray Rice isn’t their most important player,” Morris said, “but Egwu’s right there. He sets the tone.”

Morris believes Egwu could be the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year next season. Also, that he has a legitimate chance to play in the NBA.

“Someone will give him a good, long look,” Morris said.

Stephen Bardo, the former Illini star and also a Big Ten Network analyst, has an even brighter view of Egwu’s future.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy when I say this, but pro scouts salivate at his footwork and his size,” Bardo said. “I definitely believe he can play at the next level.”

Meantime, Egwu gets to continue to be one of John Groce’s all-time favorites as a coach. After Alexander chose Kansas over Illinois, Groce made a point of describing the players he did sign as “Illini guys.”

No one is more Illini guy than Egwu, whom Groce raves about at every opportunity — even earlier this season when Egwu was slumping so bad offensively, he went nine consecutive games without scoring in double figures.

His offense has come around since, though scoring isn’t, and won’t ever be, his strong suit. The defense and rebounding have been remarkably strong of late.

The attitude: never better.

“As long as you work hard, keep getting after it, you keep getting better,” Egwu said. “I understand there are no shortcuts.”

Egwu was no slouch coming out of high school, but anyone would have marked him as a four-and-done guy. As in four long, hard, rewarding years contributing to a school and a basketball program. One-and-done types can never truly understand what that means.

“It’s such a great experience, a great education. It’s not something to be taken for granted,” said Egwu, a communications major.

As for Alexander, well, Egwu had something to say on that front, too.

“We appreciate every recruit who has interest in us. But we accept the ones who do want to come here, the ones who do want to join our program. The ones who don’t want to join our journey? We don’t worry too much about them.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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