Aggie freshman Sim Bhullar eager for first taste of postseason basketball
LAS CRUCES – All it takes is one player to get hot this week, and it could result in an NCAA Tournament berth.
As the New Mexico State Aggies (21-10) begin Western Athletic Conference Tournament play Thursday against the University of Idaho (12-17), perhaps their standout freshman can answer the call. Thursday’s WAC Tournament opener is scheduled for 1 p.m., at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
“I think I can be that player,” 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar said. “I’m just going to play my role. I’m not going to go outside my box. Just do what I can to help the team win.”
The Aggies are far from a one-man show this season. Four players average double figures for the team, but Bhullar has shown at times the ability to change games on either end of the court.
Perhaps the 20-year-old freshman from Toronto, Ontario, can carry the Aggies into their second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I don’t think he’s been dominant,” head coach Marvin Menzies said. “I think he’s done some good things, especially defensively. He created a whole new physical presence on the interior that we haven’t had at that size. He’s got to continue to develop over the next few days.”
Bhullar is capable of changing the course of a game defensively, on the boards and offensively. If the Aggies get two of the three from him, chances are high the team will come out on top.
Bhullar’s success didn’t come over night. He suffered a foot injury during his redshirt season last year, setting
his on-court development back. Bhullar didn’t move into the starting lineup this season until junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe was lost for the 2012-13 campaign with a hand injury in early December. Still, Bhullar has lost nearly 60 pounds since last year, and has played 29 minutes or more nine times this season.”I thought I could and it was one of my goals that I set for myself,” he said about his increased time on the floor. “Even the coaches are surprised I can play this many minutes. Since the beginning of the year, I have come a long way and lost a lot of weight, so playing 30 minutes is nothing for me now.”
In his first year playing college basketball, Bhullar set the NMSU record for most blocked shots in a season with 73. He led the WAC in field goal percentage (60.2 percent) and was the first Aggie in history to be named WAC Freshman of the Year.
Some people were not surprised by Bhullar’s instant impact.
Sophomore guard and fellow Toronto native Daniel Mullings played with Bhullar in the 2010 All-Canada Classic.
“Before I got here we played in an All-Star game together,” said Mullings. “I knew a little about him and I knew what to expect when he came back from his injury and recovered and got used to the college atmosphere.”
The WAC Tournament is Bhullar’s first exposure to postseason basketball, but he’s had some success against the Aggies’ opening opponent.
In two games this year against Idaho, Bhullar has averaged 18 points and six rebounds in two NMSU wins. Bhullar was 8-for-8 against Idaho in the Aggies’ 76-74 victory in Las Cruces.
“It’s my first time in a tournament atmosphere, but I think we are all ready for it,” Bhullar said. “Everyone is focused and knows what the goal is.”
Bhullar should go head-to-head with Idaho center Kyle Barone, who was named WAC Player of the Year earlier this week.
“He’s big,” Barone said. “You just have to put constant pressure on his body. He’s skilled around the rim but you just have to try to make it tough on him.”
Barone is one of the few WAC centers with a mid-range jump shot, while he’s active around the rim and on the offensive glass. Such a skill set has allowed the Vandals to try and draw Bhullar away from the basket defensively, a strategy some teams have tried to put into action this season.
“I just try to contest the shot because that’s what we want,” Bhullar said. “We would rather have them taking a jump shot. The odds of them making a jump shot are less than a lay up. I just have to be there to contest the shot and hopefully they miss.”
While his defense has been there all year, Bhullar has come along offensively, averaging 11.3 points per game in WAC play. More than his scoring, the Aggies are much more effective when Bhullar gets a touch in the paint, as averages nearly an assist per game.
“I think I’m unselfish,” Bhullar said. “Even when I have one-on-one, I’m just used to passing because guys are usually swarming me. Sometimes I’m too early to pass out of the post.”
Bhullar is far from a finished product, but he’s still capable of leading the Aggies back to the NCAA Tournament.
“I have a lot of improvement ahead of me,” Bhullar said. “I haven’t even scratched the surface yet of my game.”