Illinois notebook: Egwu growing as a well-rounded basketball player

John Supinie

Nnanna Egwu’s basketball career had an inauspicious start.

Now a sophomore at Chicago St. Ignatius College Prep, Egwu’s high school teammates weren’t impressed when he first arrived.

"I had a couple kids come up to me and say, 'Do we have to be in the drills with him? We think he's messing everything up,' '' said St. Ignatius assistant coach Ken Gryzwa. "I told them, 'You'll be thankful to be playing with him down the line.' That's pretty much how it's been.''

The rapidly developing 6-foot-9 center is already demanding interest from college coaches. Illinois, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Oregon State have offered scholarships. Indiana and Purdue are showing growing interest.

In the state's loaded class of 2011, Egwu's rising stock is the most interesting development. While the Illini's first commitment in the class came from guard Tracy Abrams early in the basketball season, the class' top five players are Chicago Morgan Park shooting guard Wayne Blackshear, Chicago De La Salle forwards Mike Shaw and Dre Henley, Rock Island guard Chasson Randle, and Chicago Whitney Young forward Sam Thompson.

Chicagohoops.com ranks all five players at No. 1, with Abrams at No. 6. Egwu is No. 9. Considering Egwu's rising game, it's hard to say where he will be in another year.

"He's grown exponentially from where he started,'' said Mike Mullins of the Illinois Wolves, Egwu's AAU coach. "He's playing against kids who have played their whole lives. We weren't only teaching him the terminology of the game, you're trying to develop individual skills and team skills at once.

"It was definitely a crash course. Last year, we could only play him in spots. This year, we've been able to start him and playing him regular starters minutes.''

Still raw on the offensive end, Egwu quickly became an aggressive rebounder and shot blocker.

"He's very bright,'' Mullins said. "You don't have to show him three or four times what to do. That's sped up his learning curve because of his intelligence.

Born in Nigeria, Egwu came to the United States when he was 6. His father is a mortgage officer who also drives a cab. His mother is a nurse. Academics took top priority, he said, and Egwu didn't get a chance to play basketball earlier because his Catholic elementary school didn't have a team.

"I always wanted to play, but I didn't get the chance,'' he said. "At first, I was awkward. It took time before I was comfortable playing. I was nervous and didn't know what I was doing sometimes. Probably the middle of my freshman year, I started to get confidence. Nervousness isn't part of it any more. It's really fun.''

Egwu initially thought he might get one or two scholarship offers by his senior year. But he made unofficial recruiting trips to Illinois and Wisconsin last fall. He said he would like to return to Illinois soon. When he does, Egwu's game will likely be one more big step up that learning curve.

Baseball

It's hard to figure who is hotter: Illinois junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff or the Illini?

A Bartonville Limestone High School graduate, Wikoff earned Big Ten baseball player of the week Monday after hitting .692 in a three-game sweep over Northwestern that pushed Illinois into sole possession of first place in the league standings with six games remaining. Wikoff finished the series with a .923 slugging percentage and recorded multiple hits and multiple runs in each game.

Wikoff opened the series by going 2-for-3 with two runs, an RBI and a double in a 10-2 victory. In the second game, he had three hits with two runs scored and a double in the 15-12 win. On Sunday, he was 4-for-5 with two more runs and three RBIs in the 9-0 win.

In mid-week games against Southern Illinois and Indiana State, Wikoff had a homer, triple and a double while scoring four runs and driving in three more. He hit .636 for the week.

Illinois earned its second consecutive Big Ten award and third in the last four weeks after taking back-to-back sweeps in conference play for the first time since 1999.

Illinois (30-13 overall, 14-4 in the Big Ten) hosts Ohio State (34-11, 13-5) in a three-game series that starts Friday and concludes Sunday. The Illini moved up three spots to No. 25 in the Collegiate Baseball poll and lead the Big Ten race by a half-game over Minnesota. The Buckeyes are third in the Big Ten standings, one game back.

Golf

After winning the Big Ten title Sunday for the first time since 1988, the Illinois men's golf team is the No. 3 seed among 14 teams in regional play at the Galloway National Golf Club in Galloway, N.J., on May 14-16. The top five teams advance to the NCAA championships May 26-30 at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio.

Clemson and Alabama are the top-seeded teams at Galloway. Also in the field are Tennessee, Wake Forest, Colorado State, Kent State, Coastal Carolina, Virginia, Penn State, Minnesota, VCU, Columbia and Sacred Heart.

Tennis

The Illinois men's and women's tennis teams will both host NCAA regional play for the first time. The Illini men serve as a host for the first two rounds of the 64-team bracket for the 10th time in the last 11 years, and the Illini women will host for the first time.

In men's play, 13th-seeded Illinois (21-8) meets Western Michigan in the first round at the Khan Outdoor Complex on Friday. The winner faces the Louisville-Wisconsin winner Saturday. In women's play, Illinois (18-7) faces No. 16 seed Vanderbilt in the first round Saturday. The winner meets the Fresno State-Eastern Kentucky winner Sunday.

In other news

Downers Grove South junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer committed to Illinois on Monday, according to Rivals.com. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder chose the Illini over Arizona, Stanford and Iowa State.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.