As one of only three returning members to the Illinois basketball program this upcoming season, Nnanna Egwu will play an even bigger role than he did as an improved sophomore. As an upperclassman, Egwu now has what it takes to be an All-Big Ten performer and top-of-the-line big man.
In 2012-13, the Illini were a guard-heavy team, with the likes of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and returning players Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand. John Groce's squad should continue to be guard-dominant in 2013-14, making Egwu's role that much more important.
Here is a look at why Egwu is the Illini's X-factor and how he can help Illinois get back to the Big Dance this coming March.
As a freshman, Egwu backed up Meyers Leonard at center. Though only a sophomore that season, Leonard's NBA draft stock soared over the course of that year, prompting him to leave college basketball and chase the greener pastures of professional basketball.
As a sophomore, Egwu became the starting center by process of elimination due to Leonard's departure. Seniors Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin shared time starting alongside Egwu in the frontcourt, while fellow sophomore Myke Henry also came off the bench to play power forward.
Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde were also Egwu's age, though neither saw much time in the frontcourt. Following Griffey's and McLaurin's graduations and the transfers of Henry, Shaw and Djimde out of Illinois, Egwu stands as the only returning player on the team who stands over 6'6".
It is expected that Illinois State transfer Jon Ekey start at power forward next to Egwu, while freshmen Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan will be the backups at the respective frontcourt slots. As it stands, Egwu is the only one of those four who has played in the paint in the rugged Big Ten Conference.
As a sophomore, Egwu blocked a team-high 49 shots. Egwu swatted four shots in three contests and five in one additional game. As pictured, Egwu had to go up against the likes of Adreian Payne, as well as Cody Zeller, Trevor Mbakwe and Jared Berggren in B1G play.
Egwu blocked those shots in just over 25 minutes of playing time per night. His minutes were often limited due to his 3.1 fouls per game, which would sideline him for long stretches at a time. Egwu must stay out of foul trouble as a more bulked-up junior and not pick up ticky-tack fouls.
With more projected playing time, Egwu should also increase his blocked-shot count. He could very well be on the all-defensive team by year's end. Egwu has always been categorized as a better defensive player than offensive, though he should continue to improve on both ends of the court.
In Illinois' final game of the 2012-13 season, the seventh-seeded Illini were knocked off by the second-seeded Miami Hurricanes. Miami had frontcourt players Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson, though that trio only combined for 12 points in the contest.
Egwu alone scored 12 points while also pulling in 12 rebounds, which was good for his first career double-double. Seven of Egwu's dozen rebounds came on the offensive boards, leading to second-chance points for both him and his ready-to-shoot perimeter options.
While projecting Egwu to average double figures in both points and rebounds in 2013-14 may be a stretch, it wouldn't be surprising to see similar double-double efforts become more common from him. Egwu could average between 10 and 12 points and seven to 10 rebounds per night as a junior.
Following Egwu's freshman season in Champaign, the Bruce Weber era came to end, as the Illini team gave up by season's end and missed all postseason tournaments. Egwu was obviously a Weber recruit, part of a six-man recruiting class in 2011.
As previously mentioned, fellow 2011 recruits Henry, Shaw, Djimde and Devin Langford all transferred this most recent offseason, leaving only Egwu and Abrams on the current Illini roster from that same recruiting class.
Though players like Paul and Richardson were able to turn the Illini around a season ago, Egwu and Abrams still have two years of eligibility to truly get the Illini over the hump and back up and running with college basketball's elite, as they were during the Bill Self era in Champaign.
The 2014-15 season already has the makings of a potentially special season for the orange and blue, as the team will return all but two players from this year's roster while bringing in a currently ranked top-10 recruiting class consisting of Quentin Snider, Leron Black, Michael Finke and potentially Cliff Alexander.
Meyers Leonard proved that it really only takes one season to become an NBA player. Leonard was seldom used during his freshman season behind Mike Tisdale, but he turned into a lottery pick just one year later.
Egwu came to Illinois as a project, with poor hands and not much upside on the offensive side of the ball. Though there is still plenty of room for improvement, Egwu has already made giant leaps since arriving on campus in the fall of 2011.
Though Egwu may not be a lottery pick after this year or the 2014-15 season, he does have a chance to be an NBA player. Egwu bulked up to 250 pounds from 235 a year ago, has a high motor and can step out and hit the open jumper. At 6'11", Egwu could play either power forward or center at the next level.