Left Off the List

Big Ten honors or not -- Coach John Groce says he has one of the best defenders in the conference.

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois coach John Groce didn't hesitate when asked about his junior forward Nnanna Egwu being left off the Big Ten's All Defensive Team.

"Shocked," he said on Tuesday, a day after end of season league honors were announced.

The omission was worth debating. After all, Egwu was the chief reason the Illini defense ranked second in the conference by holding opponents to less than 63 points a game.

Egwu reacted differently than his coach, though. He brushed the whole thing off.

"It's nothing like I was really looking forward to," he said. "I look forward to helping my team lock down our opponents. It's not just me because my team makes some mistakes and I don't even think I'm the best defender on the team because I watch Ray Rice defend and he's a monster. I watch Tracy (Abrams) and he can lock people down, so we just have a lot of great defensive players on our team."

Whether Egwu was taking the public relations high road or not, he admitted he did express satisfaction knowing Groce and his teammates regard him as one of the best defenders in the country. Still, he deflected the credit rather quickly.

"Absolutely, and I think it's good enough for me that we're the second best defensive team in the Big Ten," he said. "It's good enough for me that we're one of the best defensive teams in the country."

Groce wasn't as low key when talking about Egwu during his press conference to preview the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. He called the 6-11, 250-pound Chicago product one of the greatest defensive players he'd ever coached. Said Egwu, who is the Big Ten's No. 2 shot blocker (2.1 a game), meant so much to the defensive effort because of things that don't show up on the stat sheet.

"His intelligence, I've said it all along, just how smart he is, just how great he is with scouting, he covers up a multitude of sins," Groce said. "He's really good defensively. I don't know what to say other than that."

Egwu's offensive game has been on the rise, too. He struggled to make mid-range and 3-point shots during Illinois' eight-game losing streak in January and February.

His shooting and scoring has increased as of late. Egwu put up over nine points a game as Illinois won four of it's last five regular season matches. And he finished the season with a Big Ten best 2.5 offensive rebounds per game.

Could Egwu potentially carry the scoring load? Groce answered, both backing his player and adding perspective.

"Sure. I think he's capable," he said. "Does he have to score 20-plus for us to be competitive and put ourselves in a position to win? I don't think so. I mean, I'm not opposed to it. If he wants to get 20 I'm cool with that. His value really comes in a lot of different areas other than being a primary scorer."

And that's the reality with Egwu. To grade his performance on points and stats isn't fair. His worth isn't measured by scanning a piece of paper with a jumble of numbers.

"The biggest thing with him and that's what frustrates me is that everyone wants to say whether he's playing well or not whether he makes shots or not," Groce said. "That's bonus. What he does is rebound and play with energy and defend at an elite level."


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