The tales of Illinois center Nnanna Egwu's work ethic are endless.
The 23,000 shots he put up in the summer of 2012. The strength he added last offseason in grueling weight-room sessions. The first-one-there, last-guy-home mentality that raised the standards for his teammates.
But this season, he acknowledged, the work he put in often hasn't matched the production he put out.
"I knew I was working hard and was playing hard and working in practice," he told the Tribune on Friday. "But at the end of the day, nobody cares about that if you're not producing. I'm supposed to help the team get better."
That wasn't the case when he went scoreless in back-to-back losses in mid-January with only four rebounds against Purdue and two against Michigan State.
While he had recorded some decent performances this season and coach John Groce had endlessly praised his defensive presence and effort, Egwu knew he needed to do more.
"He said to me the other day: 'I'm not really happy about this right now. I'm going to do something about it,' " Groce said.
Egwu addressed it emphatically.
The junior has recorded double-digit rebounds in three straight games for the first time in a season. He's coming off a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in Wednesday's victory at Minnesota.
"That kid is a good defender," Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "We didn't match his physicality. He dominated that game."
Seldom have those words been used to describe Egwu at Illinois (15-12, 4-10 Big Ten). But heading into Wednesday's game against Nebraska, he could be the Illini's most viable - and unlikeliest - answer to end the regular season with some consolation.
While Egwu was hardly a late bloomer in height, sprouting to 6-foot-6 by eighth grade, he was late to the game in the world of organized basketball, which can start at toddlerhood.
His family moved from Nigeria when he was 5, and while he was familiar with the sport as a fan, he did not start playing until his mother registered him for a park district league before his eighth-grade year. He blossomed at St. Ignatius in Chicago, drawing recruiters with his potential at 6-11.
To say he was raw compared with his college colleagues is like comparing sushi with steak.
During his first two seasons, he was a magnet for fouls and still was adjusting to the game. In limited minutes as a freshman, he averaged the same number of points as fouls (1.9).
The need to catch up fueled him.
"I understood how far back I was when I started," Egwu said. "That made me work as hard as I've worked, understanding that at the end of the day, the extra effort (would) get me to where I got."
Illinois got to the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament last season, and Egwu's 12 points and 12 rebounds in the season-ending loss to Miami appeared to point to a breakout junior season.
But this season hasn't brought that fulfillment - until recently. He averages only seven points and 6.1 rebounds. Defensively, he can change a game and has shown improvement, but statistically he is not significantly better than his sophomore averages of 6.5 points and 4.9 rebounds.
Groce began harping on Egwu to focus on his defense and rebounding and let the offense come as it may. That was a hard adjustment for the all-out Egwu, but he and his coach see the difference.
"He's more determined right now," Groce said. "(There's a) confidence and air about him. He looked more aggressive and more confident."
Groce also has given Egwu more breaks late in games recently, trying to keep him around 30 minutes per game as freshman Maverick Morgan gains experience.
That went out the window against Minnesota.
"He was so good, I grabbed him and said, 'You're going to ride this one out,' " Groce said, referencing Egwu's 34 minutes.
Nebraska is the only unranked opponent in Illinois' final four regular-season games. Egwu said the Illini are up for the challenge. He always is.
"I want to keep playing as well as I'm playing," he said. "We need to never give up, having the mindset every game we know we're going to win. So far it's not gone as great as we've all wanted it to. It's an opportunity for us."