As he warmed up before his first summer-league game at the Omaha Sports Academy this past July, Creighton big man Gregory Echenique caught a glimpse of how excited Bluejays fans are to see him play.
Hundreds of fans eager to see the Rutgers transfer's debut packed the bleachers and stood a few rows deep on both baselines, leaving the stands surrounding the other games at the facility virtually empty.
"I know that people are excited, but I try not to focus on that too much because it can be a distraction," Echenique said. "I do appreciate all the support and I'm glad they're excited, but I'm trying to focus on working hard so I fulfill those expectations."
If excitement for Echenique's arrival seems unusually high at Creighton, consider that programs in the Missouri Valley Conference rarely land a big man with his combination of size and skill. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Venezuela native was averaging 12.6 points and 7.7 rebounds at Rutgers last year when he sustained an eye injury and then subsequently decided to transfer.
Echenique won't be eligible to take the floor at Creighton until fall semester ends in mid-December, but he'll team with 6-foot-9 senior Kenny Lawson to give the Bluejays what should be the conference's best frontcourt. If point guard Antoine Young builds on last year's strong finish and sharp shooter Ethan Wragge again sinks 40 percent of his threes, Creighton should improve on last season's disappointing 18-16 record and challenge Wichita State and Northern Iowa for first place.
"I feel like some schools lost some good seniors and we have more experience than a lot of teams," Echenique said. "I feel like we should be in pretty good shape. Honestly, I don't know that much about the conference, but I like what I see and I think we can do some good things."
It would have been difficult for Echenique to predict he'd wind up at Creighton growing up in Venezuela considering he'd never heard of Omaha and the only college hoops programs he knew anything about were Duke and North Carolina. At the advice of his father, a Venezuelan professional basketball player, Echenique decided the best way to maximize his basketball ability was to move to New Jersey and enroll at famed St. Benedict's Prep at age 15.
More from The Dagger's Missouri Valley Conference Preview
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• TUESDAY: MVC projections, three storylines to watch
Creighton was one of the many programs that recruited Echenique in high school, but the four-star prospect embraced the challenge of helping revive the long-dormant Rutgers program at the time.
Had the combination of him and McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario been enough to spark a turnaround at Rutgers, Echenique admits he might never have decided to transfer. Instead Rutgers won just two Big East games their freshman year and made only minimal progress early last season, leading first Echenique and then Rosario to leave the school and ultimately resulting in coach Fred Hill's dismissal.
"I have no hard feelings toward anybody there, but I decided to move on to try to find a better fit for me," Echenique said. "Obviously when we went there, we had a goal that we thought we could accomplish, but we didn't quite get there. It doesn't make me sad. I feel like I made the right decision."
Although Echenique drew interest from BCS conference programs like Maryland, Miami and Indiana, he liked Creighton's combination of team camraderie, facilities and fan support better. Furthermore, he had a strong relationship with then-Creighton coach Dana Altman from the first time the Bluejays recruited him, so he felt comfortable playing for him.
Of course, Altman left for Oregon this spring before he got the chance to coach Echenique in a game, a decision the big man admits caught him completely by surprise. Nonetheless, Echenique said he has developed a good relationship with new Creighton coach Greg McDermott and has no regrets about his decision to transfer.
"We all thought (Altman) was going to pretty much retire here, but once he decided to go I never really thought of going somewhere else," Echenique said. "I fit in well with my teammates, I liked the school and I obviously didn't want to sit out another year, so I definitely made the right decision to stay."
Echenique has worn goggles to protect the detached retina in his left eye that he sustained last season, but he said he no longer experiences any pain or blurry vision from that injury. His biggest goals for the rest of the offseason are getting his conditioning back to where it was before he got hurt and staying patient during the opening month of the season when he won't be eligible to play.
"It's going to be hard, but I'll be waiting for my moment," Echenique said.
Creighton fans are counting down the days until they can see it.