Nnanna Egwu was a babe in the woods as a freshman last year. The rookie center wanted to play well so badly, he tightened up and suffered inconsistent results. Fortunately, freshmen become sophomores. Egwu feels much better about himself now than this time last year.
"Definitely. You get through that experience for one year, and you get used to it for this year. You get a game feeling. I definitely think that will help me perform better this year. So I'm excited."
Illinois coaches have bragged about Egwu's work ethic. He works extremely hard, and results have been encouraging.
"I think I've been doing fine. As long as you keep working hard, and you're focused on getting better, you get better."
He has always been a hard worker, but he is also benefitting from the example of last year's center Meyers Leonard, who made tremendous improvement in one year and is now plying his trade with the Portland Trail Blazers.
"Meyers worked hard from the end of his freshman year to now. He worked extremely hard, and that's one thing that helped him. These other people don't really understand that you don't get better just by getting a year older. It helps, but you have to put in a lot of work and a lot of time. That's how you improve, and that's what I plan to do."
The NCAA modified its rules to allow coaches two hours a week working with their players. It is especially helpful for teams with new coaching staffs and philosophies.
"It's good. I think overall it helps our team individually and collectively. It helps us develop a lot more.
"We have two thirty-minute workouts by ourselves, and then we have a one-hour team workout. It's like a one hour practice every week. The whole team gets to practice together. We're putting in some things right now to get us into their system. Now we just have to get used to it."
Of course, more time together would be preferable. Egwu must still spend most of his time working alone.
"We only get one hour a week. That may sound like a lot, but it's really not. We can only get so much done. It's up to me in the free time I get to improve and to work on the things we've been working on by myself. And to get better so we can keep making better moves going forward."
Egwu feels good about new head coach John Groce and his staff, but it takes time to get to know each other.
"It's great. One thing I was always thinking about, it took me two years before I came here to develop a relationship with Coach (Bruce) Weber. Now Coach Groce comes in. He's only here for a month or two months, and you're trying to develop a relationship with him. It's gonna be tough, but we've definitely grown a relationship that's getting better.
"They're real hopeful as a staff, and it's gonna get better. By September it's gonna get better, by November it's gonna get better. By next year, I presume we will be very close, not just with me but with all the players."
Assistant Dustin Ford works with the bigs. The 6'-10", 235 pounder is being put through his paces.
"He's tough. He's gonna get every single ounce out of you, just like Coach (Mike) Mullins (Illinois Wolves AAU coach). Sometimes you think you did everything right, and he comes at you and starts screaming. You're like, 'What did I do wrong this time?'
"But that helps me man. It means I always try to do things 100% right all the time. Like at practice, I came off a hedge and thought I did a good job keeping D.J. out of the lane. He came out and said, 'That wasn't enough. Push him out to half court.'
"He knows where I can get to, and he's gonna push me to get there eventually. It's gonna be a big fight trying to get through that, but he makes sure everyone works as hard as they possibly can and doesn't leave anything on the table.
"He helps you a lot with your footwork and how to find ways of getting easier shots. He wants to make things easy, make things simple. He stresses repetition. Working with Ibby (Djimde), I've gotten a lot better because he keeps pushing me and getting me to do things to the point where it becomes natural."
It takes time to learn new schemes brought in by the coaching staff.
"Definitely, especially on defense. It's still man-to-man, but it's a lot of new techniques. And the terminology is a lot different. You have to get used to it. Hopefully through repetition, by the start of the official season it becomes instinct."
While there is still much to learn, and there will likely be growing pains this season, Egwu feels good about Groce and the future of Illini basketball.
"It's all new. He's bringing in a different philosophy, a whole new system, a different mentality. He's trying to emphasize being more together as a team. I think overall that's gonna help us win more games and compete every game we're playing."