It's easy for Gregory Echenique to find his motivation.
In the weight room, he's more intense. On the gym floor, he's focused.
His desire to polish his body and game is almost palpable.
“He's finally gotten to the point where he knows how hard he has to work,” said Steve Merfeld, the assistant who works with Creighton's big men. “He's approached every workout in a more intense, urgent manner.''
Like most players heading into their final season, Echenique wants to be at his best as a senior. But he has double the motivation.
The 6-foot-9 center wants to be in prime shape when he returns to Venezuela next month to join his country's national team. He played for the national team last summer in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Argentina.
Venezuela finished fifth, but that was enough to earn it a spot in the last-chance qualifier July 2 to 8 in Caracas. Twelve teams will compete for the remaining three spots in the London Olympics.
So in his daily workouts, what's good for Venezuela is also good for Creighton.
“If I don't get it done now, when am I going to do it?'' Echenique said. “The coaches and I have talked, and we agree that I've done some pretty special things since I've been here.
“But we all believe there is more, and it's going to come down to how committed I am and how much I want it.''
Echenique averaged 9.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots for the 29-6 Bluejay squad that reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons.
In the tournament, Echenique faced a pair of players — Alabama's JaMychal Green and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller — who could be playing in the NBA next season.
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Echenique turned in a strong defensive effort in both games. He had six points in clutch situations in the win over Alabama, Creighton's first victory in the tournament in a decade. He came back to score 12 points, grab six rebounds and block two shots while matched up against an All-American in Zeller in the loss to North Carolina.
“Gregory has a lot of confidence right now, and that has to do with the way he played late in the season,'' Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “He's ready to build on all the good things he did, and he's motivated to improve.
“He knows this is that last chance he'll have to achieve some of his goals, one of which is to continue to play after college.''
But first on the list is helping Venezuela qualify for the Olympics.
“That would be a dream come true,'' Echenique said. “The Olympics are the highest level of competition you have on the international level. The European teams are going to come in as the favorites, but you know how basketball is. There is always a chance.”
Venezuela hasn't qualified for the Olympics in basketball since 1992. Getting a chance to do it as the tournament host adds to the intrigue. Venezuela has never staged a major international basketball competition.
“People back home are talking about it, and there's going to be a lot of hype and pressure,'' Echenique said. “I try not to think about that part of it and just focus on me and what I can do here to get ready.''
Echenique remained in Omaha while his teammates scattered for home earlier this month. He's done some academic work to prepare for summer classes, and he's kept up with his workouts.
Echenique will leave for Venezuela in mid-June. National team workouts have already begun, but he won't be the only one who will arrive late.
Many players on the national team are still playing professionally in Venezuela, and the players on the better teams are the ones who go further in the playoffs. The league doesn't end until mid-June. So many are in the same boat as Echenique.
“Once I get there, I'll have about two weeks to learn the plays and the system,” Echenique said. “The team is pretty much the same as it was last year, so I don't think that's going to be a problem.''
Although he was the youngest player on the team last summer, Echenique emerged as the team's starting center. He averaged 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds in the eight games of the qualifying tournament while going head-to-head against NBA players such as Luis Scola, Al Horford, Charlie Villanueva, Joel Anthony, Tiago Splitter, Andres Nocioni and Renaldo Balkman.
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“I would think the second time through Gregory is going to be even better,'' McDermott said. “He knows what to expect. He went into it last summer a little blind, but he more than held his own. I would think now, having played against some good guys in the NCAA tournament, that he's going to go in a little more confident.''
If Venezuela qualifies, Echenique would be Creighton's third Olympic basketball player. Willard Schmidt played one game in the 1936 Games for the United States team that won the gold medal. Ed Beisser, an All-American for the Bluejays as a senior in 1943, earned an alternate spot on the 1948 U.S. team but never saw action in the Olympics.
“This is a great opportunity for Gregory,'' Merfeld said. “Getting a chance to go home and play is going to be good for him. It's going to be good for his family to have a chance to watch him play. And any time you get a chance to play against good players, it's going to help you.''
Merfeld said battling players the caliber of Zeller and Green helped give Echenique a different perspective on his own ability.
“It gave him a sense that ‘I can get it done,''' Merfeld said. “Everything is in place for him to take his game to another level.''
That's why Merfeld is encouraged by the progress Echenique has made this spring.
“He's made great strides with his conditioning since we first got here,'' Merfeld said. “Back then, he weighed about 300 pounds. Now, he's at 270 and in excellent shape.
“We've talked extensively about revving his motor so that he's a factor on every play. He wants to play in the NBA, where a lot of people will be as big and strong as he is. He knows to separate himself at that level he's going to need to give constant energy on every play.''
That approach could take Echenique far, maybe even to the Olympics. In his mind, a trip to London would be just part of the process.
“This is going to be a big summer for me,'' he said. “I'm going to do everything I can to get better. This experience is going to help me, and it's going to help our team when I get back.”
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