German engineered

Winthrop's Andy Buechert is guarded by UNC Asheville's Kenny George during the Big South Championship game in Asheville, N.C.
Winthrop's Andy Buechert is guarded by UNC Asheville's Kenny George during the Big South Championship game in Asheville, N.C.

If you're a Winthrop fan looking for a reason why Andy Buechert, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior college transfer, is suddenly playing like he knows what he's doing, don't ask coach Randy Peele or Buechert's teammates.

They have no clue.

They don't care why. They just know he makes a difference and hopes he keeps it up next week in the NCAA tournament.

For 24 games, Buechert, who came to Winthrop from Tallahassee Community College, played like he couldn't find the court if you led him to it.

But for the past five -- averaging 5.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks and shooting 46 percent -- he's been the player Peele expected when he signed him last April.

"Why he's turned it around," Peele said, "there's no rhyme or reason."

Buechert says it's because he's more confident. You can throw some disappointment in there to help fuel the fire.

"I was disappointed in the whole year," Buechert said, after helping the Eagles beat UNC Asheville 66-48 in the Big South Tournament championship game. "I couldn't get any confidence."

It was a Catch-22 for Buechert. He needed playing time to get confidence, but couldn't get enough playing time because he wasn't very good when he got on the floor. The coaches were frustrated and so was he.

He'd play 17 minutes one game, four the next, 24 the next and four after that. Through the first 24 games, he was scoreless eight times, had 11 games with no field goals, 10 with one rebound -- or none. He didn't play at all in two games.

Peele wasn't totally surprised, because it takes some time for a junior college player to adjust to NCAA Division I basketball. Peele says you "get a month and one good year out of them," which is what it could come down to with Buechert, who has one more year of eligibility.

"The second year is always the best," Peele said.

But Buechert, 23, is a relative newcomer to the game of basketball. In his hometown of Trier, Germany, Buechert played handball and was on the junior national team.

"I was always the shortest on the team," Buechert said, "but then I grew 10 inches."

That happened between his 16th and 17th birthdays.

"I didn't do anything that year," he said. "My knees hurt from the growth."

He started playing hoops about five years ago and got interested in coming to America through a friend. He was recruited by former Big South Conference member Birmingham-Southern, but decided to head to Tallahassee Community College instead.

As a freshman, Buechert helped TCC to a spot in the National Junior College finals. He committed to Massachusetts the following fall, but they backed off after he suffered a stress fracture in his foot.

It was a year ago this week that Peele saw him play.

"We were recruiting another player at the time," Peele said, "but he didn't want to defend a five (man, post player)."

Whatever the reason for his turnaround, Peele and Buechert's teammates are seeing what they saw last spring when he came for his official visit, a weekend that also saw head coach Gregg Marshall accept the Wichita State job and Peele get hired as his replacement.

While Peele was trying to sort out his future, he was trying to get a commitment from Buechert and 6-7 Charles Corbin, who was also in town that weekend.

"I've been in a lot of situations, but that's one I've hadn't been in," Peele said. "A guy takes a job on the same weekend you have two kids on campus."

They wanted Buechert, because he was the kind of big body in the middle who could help them, especially outside the conference, when they went up against teams with centers bigger than those who frequent Big South rosters.

"He knows what he is," Peele said.

The recent performance is what the Winthrop players saw that weekend.

"(In the tournament) I saw the Andy that he was on his visit," senior guard Michael Jenkins said. "We played pick-up that day, and we told the coaches 'you have to get him.'"

Buechert ran the floor, showed a nice jump hook and blocked shots. After losing Craig Bradshaw, Buechert seemed to be just what the Eagles needed.

Jenkins said it wasn't easy, because Buechert had talked with other schools from bigger leagues, including Florida State.

"That weekend he said 'Florida State did this and that,'" Jenkins said, "and I told him 'that's the ACC, this is the Big South. But we win.'"

Somewhere along the way before this season began, Buechert lost his confidence.

"In the summer, I was much better," Buechert said, "and then I went home for a while."

When practice began last fall, everything seemed to be a struggle from working in the weight room to working on the court.

"He can be a stubborn German," Peele said, laughing.

Like everyone else, Jenkins was surprised through most of the season, when Buechert didn't produce the kind of performance they expected. Buechert lost confidence in himself and his teammates did, too.

"He lost some confidence this year, but he's back," Jenkins said. "He's been a big time player. I'm ready to see him in the NCAA tournament."

After the Eagles lost to UNC Asheville in the regular season finale, a loss that cost them the No. 1 seed and dropped them into a tie for the Big South Conference regular-season championship, Buechert, who saw how upset the seniors were, had a talk with Chris Gaynor's mother.

"He promised her a championship," Gaynor said. "After we won (in the tournament) she told me to get down there and thank Andy."

He did, and so did the voters who picked the all-tournament team. Buechert went from playing 31 minutes, with seven rebounds and one point in the five games leading up to the tournament to making the all-tournament team.

In the three games, he averaged 4.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.6 assists, two blocks, and his defensive job on 7-foot-7 Kenny George in the finals was little short of exceptional.

"Kenny was fatigued," Peele said, "because of what Andy did. He wore him down because of his own physicality."

George played 24 minutes, most of them with Buechert on his back leaning and trying to hold his ground.

"Like leaning against a wall," Buechert said later. "It was unbelievable. I've never seen anything like that."

And over the course of the past few weeks, Buechert has become a crowd favorite.

Chants of "Andy! Andy! Andy!" have greeted his every move.

Peele had a recent conversation with Buechert.

"He said 'coach, when I play bad I have no friends, and when I play well I have friends,'" Peele said, smiling. "Now, I went to college. I didn't have a 4.0 but I figured that one out pretty quick.

"I told him 'just play well.'"

NCAA tournament tickets

Fans can reserve tickets for Winthrop's first round NCAA tournament game at the Winthrop Coliseum box office. Fans must reserve tickets in person and can reserve up to four tickets per site. March 20-22 sites and cost per session are Anaheim, Calif. ($51), Denver ($61.16), Omaha, Neb. ($53) and Washington, D.C. ($76). March 21-23 sites are Birmingham, Ala. ($50), Little Rock, Ark. ($52.67), Raleigh, N.C. ($55) and Tampa, Fla. ($72).

NCAA selection party

The Winthrop Coliseum will host an NCAA tournament selection party on Sunday evening. Doors open at 5:15 p.m., and fans will be able to watch the tournament selection show on CBS. Refreshments will be available and fans can purchase NCAA tickets if any remain. The team and coaches will be there. Dave Friedman, radio voice of the Eagles, will host a live program beginning at 5:45 p.m., on WRHI (1340 AM). Admission is free.