Is New Mexico State's Sim Bhullar the next big thing?
The biggest story in college basketball this season is potentially at New Mexico State. The biggest story, in the most literal sense, because New Mexico State has 7'5 redshirt freshman Sim Bhullar, and no one else does. Seeing the Sim Bhullar story as it unfolds is possibly the most fascinating mystery of the next few college basketball seasons.
On top of that, the Aggies have a solid team with several returning contributors from last season's NCAA tournament squad. Sophomore guard Daniel Mullings, like Bhullar a Canadian import, could become a star, while forwards Bandja Sy and Tyrone Watson are experienced WAC veterans. Head coach Marvin Menzies, now in his 6th season, has tapped into the Canadian and French pipelines the past few years, and changed the Aggie program from one heavy on JC recruits to a team of predominantly four-year players.
After early struggles, the Aggies have shaken off a 1-3 start, and have won four of their last five going into next week's two-game series with arch-rival New Mexico. At this point, not only do I fully expect New Mexico State to knock the Lobos from the ranks of the unbeaten, I would not be shocked if the Aggies win both games. The first meeting, this Saturday at 6 pm on CBS College Sports network, will be the nation's introduction to both the Aggies and Sim Bhullar. I'll be watching, and so should you.
In case you forgot Aggies recruit Sim Bhullar, he and his brother Tanveer briefly made headlines as high school recruits a few years ago. Both are well over seven feet tall, and Sim, whose basketball odyssey has already included a program switch (from Xavier), eligibility issues, and a redshirt season, has finally debuted this season.
Landing Bhullar could be a big deal for New Mexico State, because skilled players of such size are rare at the mid-major level. The similarly-built Brad Millard, nicknamed "Big Continent", was enough of a difference-maker to star for Ernie Kent and St. Mary's (yes, that St. Mary's) in the NCAA tournament as a sophomore in 1997 before injuries curtailed his progress and impact. Center Josh Sankes had a similar impact at Holy Cross, and Michael Olowokandi was even better for Pacific.
The bottom line is, if a big man at a mid major program blossoms, it can be a game changer for the program and league. On the other hand, there are those who don't make the transition, and quickly fade into obscurity. Neil Fingleton, a 7-3 Briton who initially signed with North Carolina as a McDonald's all-American, did not live up to recruiting expectations. More recently, Beas Hamga initially offered hope to UNLV and Valparaiso, only to fizzle. Which group will Sim Bhullar join? That is the million dollar question, and if Bhullar's improvement so far this season is a sign of things to come, the Aggies' best days are well ahead.
To be clear, right now Bhullar is in every way a project. His arsenal mostly consists of dunks and put-backs, and defensively he is slow and still learning the nuances of the college game. He does not have the amazing offensive repertoire and footwork exhibited by similarly-built Omar Samhan during his redshirt freshman season , but will he have Samhan's willingness to spend the necessary time working on his body and stamina? As a sophomore, Samhan was noticeably leaner, and was able to play extended minutes and run up and down the floor with far greater ease.
Can Bhullar make that kind of physical transformation? In the past two games, both Aggie wins, Bhullar has shot 13-of-15, scored 29 points, and played a total of 38 minutes. Neither Southern Miss nor South Alabama had anyone who could stop Bhullar, or at least force him into turnovers. In fact, Bhullar's ability (so far) to not turn the ball over is a very promising sign for his continued effectiveness once league games begin.
But New Mexico has had several weeks to game-plan for Bhullar, and there's no doubt the Lobos will do their best to ensure he does not become a factor in the upcoming games. If the big man can navigate through the traps and double teams Steve Alford will surely throw at him, and continue to score effectively in the paint, that would be a welcome sign that Bhullar's impact will continue all season.
There's no way to predict what Bhullar's legacy in Las Cruces will be. After all, for every David Robinson, there's a Kenny George, and for every Rik Smits, there's a Chris Marcus. Things could go wrong in a hundred different ways. But, it's also impossible to ignore the absolutely tantalizing possibility that things go right - and if things go right, New Mexico State and Sim Bhullar are on the first step of what could be a truly exciting journey.