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June 16, 2008

Echenique playing for pride of country

Greg Echenique will play for his country this summer. And beginning in the fall, he will play for his adopted home state.

A 6-foot-9 center originally from Guatire, Venezuela, Echenique will suit up for Rutgers coach Fred Hill next season after completing his high school career at Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict's Prep as one of the top centers in his class. He chose Rutgers over numerous other schools, including Duke, Maryland and Villanova.

But before going to college, Echenique, 17, is headed home for two months to play for the Venezuelan U18 team in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship from July 14-18 in Argentina.

"The U.S.A. will be there," said Echenique, who left for Venezuela on June 2. "All the teams from South America, Central America (are going), so it's going to be a good tournament."

The American team will hold tryouts July 1-3 at Georgetown, and among those competing for spots will be Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln star Lance Stephenson, uncommitted wing Dominic Cheek of Jersey City (N.J.) St. Anthony and North Carolina-bound guard Dexter Strickland of Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick.

St. Anthony and St. Benedict's, coached by Bob Hurley and Dan Hurley, respectively, finished 1-2 in every major national prep poll this past season, and St. Patrick and Lincoln usually are among the national elite.

A year ago, Echenique led the Venezuelan Junior National Team to a second-place finish in the South American Championships en route to being named MVP of the tournament.

This time around, he is heading home earlier in order to devote more time to practicing with his teammates.

"This tournament is real important and I need to know my teammates better because last year when I went there, I didn't get a lot of practice with them," he said. "I went there like a week or two weeks before the tournament."

Echenique averaged 11.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks last season to earn All-State honors for a St. Ben's team that finished 24-1 and ranked No. 2 nationally. He is ranked No. 6 nationally by Rivals among centers in the Class of 2009 and is No. 33 overall.

When he committed to Rutgers in March, it was thought he would spend one more season at St. Benedict's and arrive at Rutgers in the fall of 2009. But Dan Hurley discovered that Echenique had completed his freshman year of studies in his native country, and Echenique then was put on an academic track to become eligible for college ball in 2008.

Speculation abounded for several weeks as to whether Echenique might redshirt this upcoming season, but Rutgers recently formally announced that he would join a 2008 recruiting class that includes McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario of St. Anthony; wing Pat Jackson of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Boys & Girls; and center Christian Morris of South Kent (Conn.). Rutgers also added Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell, a former Mr. New York State Basketball out of Mount Vernon High School. Mitchell will sit out the 2008-09 season but can practice with the team.

Needless to say, Hill was thrilled to add Echenique to the recruiting haul.

"Not only is Greg a tremendous talent and competitor, he is a very insightful and poised young man," Hill said. "He also brings the invaluable experience of having played for Dan Hurley, an elite coach at one of the nation's premier high school programs. The significance of adding players from the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 ranked high school teams both of whom have been schooled in 'Hurley basketball' is immense."

Echenique likely will spend time at power forward at Rutgers because the Scarlet Knights already have sophomore center Hamady N'Diaye.

"It depends on the team we're playing, but I think I will play as a four more than a five," Echenique said.

He is especially looking forward to playing Louisville, which will feature Echenique's former prep teammate, 6-9 forward Samardo Samuels.

Echenique and his parents, Jose and Maria, decided on Rutgers after visiting in March.

"Since I came to this country with my parents, I felt a connection with the coaching staff," Echenique said. "They were the first school to offer me a scholarship and they have been there watching me develop throughout my high school career. By going to St. Benedict's Prep, New Jersey has become a second home to me. I want other players to believe in Rutgers the way I do."

Echenique is the first player from St. Benedict's to pick Rutgers during Dan Hurley's seven-year tenure at the school. Before beginning his Rutgers career, though, Echenique is focused on helping Venezuela excel this summer.

"This trip is basically more about basketball," he said. "And then when I'm done with everything, I'll try to spend time with my family. But right now the first thing will be basketball."

Read more on Adams blog, ZagsBlog.net

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