- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. | A small patch of reporters gathered around Uche Echefu at Florida State’s practice facility Friday, a reflection of the Montrose Christian School product’s revived popularity.

In a corner of the Seminoles’ training room, the wiry Echefu reclined on a table and started to chat, the scratchy sound of unspooling medical tape filling the air.

“Double-double,” teammate Toney Douglas gleefully hollered, drawing a grin from his fellow senior. It was a reminder of just what the forward means to Florida State (14-3, 1-1 ACC) as it prepares to host Saturday’s game against Maryland (12-4, 1-1).

In many ways, Echefu was the missing variable for the Seminoles in the first half of the season. He emerged as a reliable interior option a season ago, but offseason knee surgery, coupled with a strained groin in December, limited him to a reserve role. That changed in Tuesday’s defeat of N.C. State, when he produced 12 points and 11 rebounds - his first double-double since last year’s NIT loss to Akron.

“He’s come along quite well,” coach Leonard Hamilton said. “The good thing about him is, his best basketball is still ahead of him.”

Hamilton estimated Echefu was playing at about 90 percent, more than enough to help the Seminoles as they chase their first NCAA tournament berth since 1998. But Echefu, who four years ago was the MVP of the Capital Classic high school All-Star game, is also providing an ideal light touch for a relatively young team.

That didn’t seem likely earlier in his career, when he played sparingly as a freshman despite his impressive prep reputation. The native of Nigeria started every game the next season, then evolved from a perimeter-oriented player to one who could more often apply a rugged approach befitting a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward.

But in his first few seasons, he was as inconspicuous as a man of that size could be, remaining silent while making the adjustment to the college game.

“He’s come a long way,” said Douglas, who is Echefu’s roommate. “I remember his freshman year, he was quiet and didn’t say anything. He really was having a lot of trouble with the system we had in. He was confused and thinking a lot. Now he’s matured and really grown up and is one of the leaders on the team.”

Along the way, his personality blossomed. Armed with a subtle sense of humor, Echefu can be counted on for a random hilarious line or an unexpected action to crack up his teammates. Douglas insists one of his teammate’s favorite tactics is to draw out the team meal on game day, taking a deliberate approach.

“He’ll do it on purpose sometimes - like he’s a king,” Douglas said. “That’s Uche.”

And Echefu’s response? “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he deadpanned.

The jokes will go over even better if Echefu can contribute to a postseason push. It appears that surge has started for the Seminoles, especially now that they have their veteran big man back for one final run.

“My sophomore year, people were like, ‘Uche doesn’t play, Uche doesn’t talk,’” Echefu said. “I talk, but I just talk to people I’m used to, like my family. Now everybody here really knows the real Uche. I’m outgoing and I talk like I’m a funny guy, but I’m not a clown. I just want to make everybody happy.”

A few more double-doubles will do just that.


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