Wichita State center Jaime Echenique, who grew up in Colombia, is a late-comer to the joys of the NCAA Tournament.
He learned more about when he came to the United States to play basketball at Trinity Valley Community College four years ago. Now the Shockers are close to getting him into the NCAA Tournament in his senior season.
“I knew March Madness, but I didn’t know how important it was,” he said. “I found it was a huge thing.”
Wichita State (22-7, 10-6 American Athletic Conference) plays at Memphis (20-9, 9-7) on Thursday (8 p.m. ESPN). It is Wichita State’s best chance to add a significant piece to their NCAA Tournament at-large resume. A win at Memphis, which is No. 63 in the NCAA NET rankings, would give the Shockers another Quadrant I win. They enter the game 2-4 against QI opponents and 7-3 against Quadrant II.
The Shockers can also wrap up a top-four finish and bye in the conference tournament with a win.
All those computer rankings and brackets mean something important to all the Shockers. Echenique, however, is the team’s lone senior. This is his chance to experience the NCAA Tournament and getting him into that 68-team bracket is the goal of the Shockers with more eligibility. Junior center Asbjorn Midtgaard played in nine games in 2017-18 and is the lone remaining Shocker from that NCAA Tournament team.
“I want to help them to reach that goal,” Echenique said. “It will be really fun for every single person on this team. It means a lot to me that these guys are sacrificing everything just to give me something back.”
Echenique, his teammates know, has given them his all this season. Once he recovered from a broken left hand, he became Wichita State’s stalwart. He averages 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, 11.9 and 8.3 in conference play.
“Last year, we didn’t see him hit left-hand shot hooks, but he’s brought that out in the last five games,” guard Jamarius Burton said. “He’s been dominant being able to score on both shoulders. And he’s always been great helping us on the defensive end. When you put both of those two things together, it’s just a luxury to have.”
He led the Shockers with 20 points against USF by drawing fouls and making 12 of 14 foul shots. He also blocked four shots and grabbed nine rebounds. Against Temple, he scored 14 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds, then matched that total against SMU. He carried the Shockers in a loss to Cincinnati with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
We made some plays in the clutch to beat the Owls last night. Check out the best moments from last night’s game. pic.twitter.com/8iNGikwC0q
— Wichita State Men’s Basketball (@GoShockersMBB) February 29, 2020
“Some of the moves that you see him make in a game and some of the moves you may see him making in practice make you go ‘Wow, that’s really good,'” guard Tyson Etienne said. “Everybody says the traditional (center) is going away, but you know, Jaimie’s going to find his niche because he wants to get better all the time.”
Last season, the Shockers made senior Markis McDuffie their rallying point with a goal of getting the New Jersey native to Madison Square Garden for the NIT. Echenique’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament is this season’s goal.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall wants that berth for many reasons and his lone senior is near the top of the list. Echenique, a junior college transfer, plays like a career member of the team. Marshall said some people who knew Echenique worried he was not prepared to play at a program with the standards of a Wichita State.
“A lot of doubters. People closed doors on my face saying I wasn’t that good enough to come to the United States to play.”@jaimeechenique was more than good enough. #WatchUs #BetOnYourself pic.twitter.com/tSmeZ53ALy
— Chris Lilly KAKE (@ChrisLillyKAKE) March 4, 2020
Marshall saw something in him and pushed to bring it out. Echenique worked through injury, endurance issues and foul trouble to grown into a model Shocker.
“He’s been nothing but a pleasure for two years,” Marshall said. “He’s really developed as a player, but more importantly, his leadership skills have come along. He’s trying his best as the sole senior of this group to help this young group.”
Or, is Wichita State a team that has lost four of its last seven games and missed its last best chance in the regular season to make a big move with the loss at Cincinnati?
Either way, the Shockers are like a lot of teams fighting to stay in the at-large conversation.
Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com considers the Shockers a No. 12 seed. That puts them in a group with teams such as North Carolina State (losers of two straight, three of four and six of nine), Rutgers (losers of three straight, four of five and six of eight) and Southern Cal (which lost to Temple at home and is losers two in a row and five of seven).
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi slots the Shockers at a No. 11 seed. Their counterparts include Providence (which lost to Northwestern, Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston in November) and Oklahoma (losers to the Shockers in November and losers of three of their past four).
Wichita State’s push to March continues on Thursday vs. Temple. While the Shockers don’t need to be perfect the rest of the way, they need to come close.
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