Smile Politely

One on one with Nnanna Egwu

The University of Illinois Men’s Basketball Team has had an extremely up and down season. After starting the season 13-2 and beating Braggin’ Rights rival Missouri for the first time in five years the team climbed to #23 in the AP Top 25 poll. The team then lost eight straight, all to Big Ten competition. They finished their regular season strong, going 5-3 over their last eight games and notching big road wins over ranked competition. However, with a 7-11 record in conference play and at 19-14 overall, Illinois missed out on the NCAA tournament and will instead be playing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Nnanna Egwu, the junior center for the Illini, went to the NCAA tournament last year and brings that experience to this year’s team.

The team had a similar season last year, starting 13-1 and then struggling through the early part of their Big Ten schedule. That team road the strength of upperclassmen Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson to an NCAA tournament birth, both no longer on the team. Egwu, however, started every game that season as a sophomore and has done the same this year. He plays nearly 30 minutes per contest this season and is second on the team in rebounds and first in blocks. He has as much collegiate experience as anyone on the roster and will be a key factor in each do-or-die game the team plays over the coming days and hopefully, weeks. The 6-11, 250-pound big man is at the center of it all for the Illini.

Smile Politely: You moved to Chicago from Nigeria when you were only 5 years old. Did you enjoy growing up in a big city?

Nnanna Egwu: Yeah, I love Chicago. I especially loved growing up around Wrigleyville. Chicago is the best city in the world, so it was great growing up there.

SP: I’ve heard you didn’t start playing basketball until you entered high school. Did you play any other sports growing up?

Egwu: Not really. I played what must grade-schoolers played during recess and gym. Sports like tag football, soccer, floor hockey, capture the flag, kickball, and some others. But the first time I played an organized sport was in high school when I took up basketball.

SP: The team made the NCAA tournament last season and won their first game before nearly losing to no. 2 seed Miami in the 3rd round. How much has that experience helped you this season?

Egwu: It made me hungry to get back there again. Once you make it and feel the atmosphere that the NCAA tournament presents, you want more of it. I want to play big time games like the ones we played last year.

SP: On overall atmosphere and intensity, what has been your favorite game so far in your U of I career? Are there certain conference rivals the team is super amped up to play?

Egwu: I would definitely have to go with the Indiana game. The crowd was great and the game was even better. Having Orange Krush rush the court was a great experience. And it’s always good to beat the #1 team in the country. We get amped to play every team, this year especially. You can’t look at a Big Ten team and say that it will be an easy win. Every team is good and every game is a battle.

SP: Meyers Leonard is a recent U of I big man to get drafted to the NBA. What did you learn from playing with him your freshmen year?

Egwu: It was just a good experience to play against him every practice. He definitely got me better and I worked hard to try and make him better. He is a great talent and it was a privileged to see him play everyday. He worked hard and it was fun for me to always match his intensity.

SP: The team has been struggling of late but won a big game against Michigan State two weeks ago and against Iowa last weekend. How are you guys able to put the tough losses behind you and look forward to the NIT?

Egwu: We understand the ups and downs of a season. And we have definitely been through some downs. But the main focus is to stay positive and take each game one at a time. We can only control what we can control. As long as we continue to play hard like we have all season, we will continually give ourselves a chance. No matter what happens, I want to know that my teammates and I gave it all we had.


The Illini play tonight against Boston University at 6 p.m. in the first round of the NIT.

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