PHILADELPHIA — Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin did a double-take when he started digging into the tape of the Creighton team his Bearcats will face Friday in the NCAA tournament.
One of the Bluejays kind of looked like a player his team had faced years ago when it played Rutgers. But the guy on the screen certainly didn't play like the Gregory Echenique he remembered.
“The things I saw him doing,'' Cronin said, “are not the things he used to be able to do. He wasn't that kind of player.''
Mainly because the 6-foot-9 Echenique lacked the mobility in the season and a half he played for Rutgers that he now possesses. Years of hard work with Creighton's strength and conditioning staff have transformed him from being an overweight big man into a 260-pound center that his coach now calls “a lean, mean machine.''
Cronin is impressed with the new model Echenique he watched on the screen.
“He's a great example of a guy that did a great job with his body,'' Cronin said. “He's in better shape than the guy we used to play against. That allows him to compete at the level he does now.
“I have great respect for that. I see him now and I saw him on the other end. I'm really impressed where he is now, and I'm happy for him. I just hope he doesn't play great against us.''
Echenique averaged 8.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while starting 30 of the 32 games as a Rutgers freshman during the 2008-09 season. He played seven games the next season, averaging 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds, before an eye injury forced him out of the lineup.
Shortly after undergoing surgery, Echenique decided to transfer. The 265-plus pounds that he played at with Rutgers ballooned to around 300 due to the inactivity he was forced to go through while recovering from the detached retina.
He weighed about 270 when he played his first game for Creighton midway through the 2010-11 season. He maintained that weight through most of his junior season but decided last offseason to begin a conditioning program that now has him playing at about 260 pounds.
As important, the process allowed Echenique to improve his mobility and playmaking ability. Anyone who watched Echenique diving out of bounds to try to secure a rebound, then scramble back onto the court to block a point-blank shot by Shocker star Carl Hall, would have to agree with Cronin.
Echenique couldn't do that before.
“There are a lot of things that really impress me about Creighton,'' Cronin said, “but Gregory's conditioning definitely is one of them.''
Echenique played one game against Cincinnati while at Rutgers, scoring just three points but grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking three shots. He said he is looking forward to getting another shot at the Bearcats.
“I think Gregory generally likes to play against bigger guys,'' Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “A lot of times, it changes the way the game is officiated. They let you play a little more.''
Echenique agrees with his coach, saying some of the ticky-tacky stuff that might be called when he's matched up against smaller players often gets overlooked when he goes up against bigger players.
“I think the refs kind of adjust to it when there are bigger, more athletic players out there,'' Echenique said. “They tend to allow a little more, and I hope that's the way it is on Friday.
“I like the physical games and they are a physical team. They like to grind it out.''
Echenique is averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots entering the second-round tournament game at the Wells Fargo Center, but is coming off maybe his best stretch of games during the Jays' sweep of the Missouri Valley tournament.
He scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the win over Drake, then came back with a 10-point, three-rebound performance against Evansville. In the title game against Wichita State, Echenique had nine points and 11 rebounds. He blocked 13 shots in the three games.
“I know I played well defensively but in watching tape, I know I can play better,'' Echenique said. “In one of the games where I had six blocks, I noticed if I had been in better position that I could have blocked two or three more shots.
“That might sound a little arrogant, but I know I can play better as an individual and we can play better as a team.''
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