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Polyfro Postgame: Echenique Impresses, Team Struggles

The biggest crowd of the season ventured out on Saturday to see the debut of Gregory Echenique; the game with Idaho State was almost a sideshow to the circus of his debut. No matter which restaurant or bar you went to before the game, the question was the same: how would Echenique look? And the generally mediocre play of the Bengals so far this season left most fans sure of the outcome, so why not concern themselves with the excitement of the debut of the big man?

You wonder if his teammates didn’t have similar thoughts, because after an early barrage of three-pointers, they fell back into some bad habits that we’d seen in spurts earlier this season, and for most of last season: sloppy passing, lackadaisical defense and bad decision making. They made their first eight field goal attempts, including six three-pointers, and were up 22-13 after eight minutes; they would score just 44 points the rest of the game as they commenced in playing some bad basketball that left Coach McDermott in a foul mood afterward.

Echenique was fabulous, given he hadn’t played in a competitive game for a full calendar year. Clearly I needn’t have worried about him playing badly in his debut and disappointing fans looking for him to be dominant right away; everyone I spoke to after the game was excited by the glimpses of dominance he showed.

He looked winded during a couple of long stretches without a whistle, but overall, made a strong first impression. The first thing you notice (and I noticed this during summer league as well) is that he’s aggressive, and strong with the basketball; when he grabs a rebound, it belongs to him and you CAN NOT have it, unlike post players who have a bit more, ahem, finesse to their style. He seals off his man, and when you pass him the ball he goes and gets it instead of waiting for it to come to him — once he has it, because of his confidence in his positioning, he wastes no time with dribbling but instead goes straight for the rim. Against most teams on the Jays schedule, my guess is he that will not be defendable with one man, and his strength will get a lot of opposing big men in foul trouble. That means he will shoot a ton of free throws, so its nice to see he also has a soft touch from the charity stripe. He was very active on both ends of the floor — the guy who sits two rows behind us and obnoxiously, constantly yells at another post player to “Get Big!” or to “Play like you want it!” will not need to yell such “encouragement” at Gregory. Just a hunch.

Despite being rusty, he made three jaw-dropping plays that offered a glimpse into what Jays fans are in for once he’s completely up to speed. The first came midway through the first half, when he took a defender off the dribble inside and laid in an agile layup, using the rim to shield himself from his opponent. Then midway through the second half, he set a ball screen that flattened the unfortunate defender who found himself in the way — it was like a pancake block in football. Absolutely ridiculous. And then, he had an absurd block with three minutes remaining that was more volleyball spike than blocked shot; the sound of his palm hitting the ball was so loud it resonated throughout the arena, followed by a primal scream of satisfaction from the big man.

The latter two displayed what Echenique really brings to this team: toughness and attitude. He’s not afraid of contact or physicality, and in fact, seems to look forward to it. With Echenique patrolling the paint, nothing is free — you will either not be able to shoot, you will shoot a heavily contested shot and make it by skill/luck, or you will have your shot blocked. There will not be any unguarded layups happening while he’s in the game, an outcome we’ve watched happen in horror too often the last two years. Bottom line: He’s intimidating. Can you name the last Creighton player who struck fear in the hearts of opponents because of a mean streak and supreme physical toughness? Brody Deren is the last one I’d put anywhere near this category; your mileage may vary.

That ferocious second-half block might have been the most satisfying play of the last two years. Not only was it absolutely nuts how hard he hit it and how far it flew, but it came on a shot from Chase Grabau, who if you saw the game but aren’t hugely familiar with their roster, you may know better as #23. Grabau had been talking an inordinate amount of crap all night, showboating after made baskets and drawing attention to himself; his antics induced the normally mild-mannered Doug McDermott to respond with a little trash talk of his own after a second-half alley-oop. One of the guys sitting next to me at the game half-jokingly (I think) mentioned he wouldn’t mind seeing Grabau get laid out on a hard ball screen similar to the one Echenique had executed in the first half; following the block, we all decided that was a much more satisfying outcome, if nothing else than for the priceless look of shock on his face afterward.

The debut of Echenique masked what was a pretty horrible game for the team. Idaho State has an RPI of 253 and that’s probably a pretty legitimate barometer of their skill, yet if the game lasted another two minutes, you got the distinct feeling they might well have stolen away with a win — they’d cut a 15-point lead down to just four late in the game, after all, as Creighton once again showed a lack of killer instinct.

For the seventh time in ten games, the Jays were outscored in the second half, which is a disturbing trend. Another is that they had 13 turnovers, and Idaho State had 12 steals, a stat which illustrates perfectly how sloppy the Jays were in passing the ball and making decisions. As impressive as Echenique was, the team was equally as unimpressive. Coach McDermott made his anger known in the postgame press conference, and when asked what they could do to get better at passing the ball, he offered a shocking — albeit true — one word answer. “Recruit.” Ouch. But after three and, in some cases, four years of watching some of these players make the same silly mistakes with the basketball, no doubt there are many fans who share his sentiment.

I suppose, at the end of the night, its a win, and its one game under their belt with Gregory Echenique patrolling the paint, whose debut offers a glimmer of hope for the future, whether that future is later this season or down the road. Can they clean up enough of their mistakes to make his impact matter as much as it could — this year? Your guess is as good as mine. If they continue to be sloppy with the ball, allow teams to hang around, and get outscored late in games no one player, no matter how sensational, will make enough of a difference to change their fortune. But if they can clean those things up even somewhat, the Valley as a whole is struggling enough to make a run at the title possible. One week from Wednesday we’ll start to find out the answers to those questions when MVC play opens at Illinois State; they have two games this week to prepare.

You bet.

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