By Mike Vorkunov
He won't get any commemorative china or even any kudos, but Gregory Echenique will reach a milestone of sorts Saturday night against Providence. It will be Rutgers' and his 25th game of the season, tying the most he's ever played in a year.
Congratulations, and hope it doesn't hurt because this is right about the time freshmen hit that infamous rookie wall.
There's just one caveat, Echenique says that he is just fine. Sure there is the normal wear and tear, the dings and nagging injuries that come with a long college basketball season that started back in October. Going to class can be cumbersome at times. The daily guessing game of what will hurt that day – back one day, legs the next – probably gets tiring.
But hitting that wall? That’s not an issue.
“I wouldn’t say I’m hitting the wall like that,” says Echenique. “I’m not going to lie, I feel tired because its been a long season, and we still have seven games left. Even though I played 25 games in high school, here its much more physical because it’s the Big East every night and they are stronger guys. I wouldn’t say I’m hitting the wall, I’m just a little tired.”
In fact the biggest hurdle to overcome at this point in the season hasn’t been the physical aches and pains, but the mental strain. Fellow freshman Patrick Jackson says the transition from one level of basketball to another causing growing pains.
“Its way different than high school because in high school you’re always the man,” says Jackson. “You do what ever you have to do. In college everything is based around the team, play your position and play your role.”
Perhaps even more oxymoronic is that Rutgers’ freshmen have used the long season to their benefit, instead of being weighed down by it. But it’s not something that has surprised Corey Chandler.
“Mike [Rosario], he’s different from freshmen because instead of him hitting the wall, he’s matured his game,” says Chandler of how his teammate has improved. “If you look back at it from the beginning of the season, he’s a chicken running loose, just shooting the ball and being a freshman. Now you can see he understands the game a little bit, becoming better, slowing down and he’s making better shot selection.”
Chandler’s point is backed up by statistics. Despite playing much tougher competition, and a constant stream of ranked teams, Rosario has not seen his numbers take a dip since Big East play started.
Some of the credit for the freshman’s avoidance of an annual freshman trap can be given to Phil Dyer, the strength and conditioning coach. Echenique and Jackson both gave mentioned their conditioning and workouts as a key reason they’ve been able to avoid the wall.
Dyer’s system starts almost from the moment they step foot on campus. Lifting sessions and runs occupy player’s time from their high school graduation till the summer league. Then after a break in August comes the hard part, workouts five times a week from September till practice starts in mid-October.
But at this point of the season, Dyer has a different goal: just keeping his players healthy.
“This time of the year it’s really an in-season maintenance program from my end of it,” says Dyer. “Weight training is only two days a week, usually the day after a game never the day before it. A lot of it is just therapy stuff to make sure we don’t get hurt, maintain our strength. So usually we try to take them from a very high level and ease them to peaking around mid-February to March.”
Although Jackson, Echenique and Rosario haven’t hit the wall physically, the struggles of dealing with the season have been mitigated by the Scarlet Knights’ losing ways. Their 10-14 record this season means Echenique and Rosario have lost more games this year than in their junior and senior seasons combined, where they lost only three.
To counteract the newfound distractions, Chandler says it is going to come down to how strong they are mentally.
“It’s a mental thing,” says Chandler. “If you could control the mind everything will be easy. Greg, if he can control everything up top, the game will come smooth for him. And same thing with Mike. And Patrick Jackson if he gets an opportunity to play.”