Playing its first game as the top-ranked team in college basketball in 10 years, the Arizona Wildcats successfully stared down a sizable opponent in the New Mexico State Aggies Wednesday night, beating the Aggies, 74-48 at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Arizona (10-0) had trouble pulling away from the upset-minded Aggies early, but an odd lineup issue for New Mexico State may have actually helped Arizona defeat them. At center, the Aggies started 7-foot-5, 360-pound sophomore center Sim Bhullar. An offensive lineman in sneakers, Bhullar’s size alone would figure to be good for 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, because who in their right mind would be able to guard him?
But as the game developed, one fact became clear; New Mexico State were better without him on the floor than they were with him. Arizona outscored the Aggies 51-28 with Bhullar on the floor, while the Aggies were only outscored 22-20 when Bhullar was on the bench. Arizona’s athleticism and discipline were far too much for Bhullar and the Aggies to handle, and in the final eight minutes, the Wildcats put on a clinic at both ends of the floor to make the final margin look a bit larger than the game itself probably dictated.
Offensively, New Mexico State was stagnant with Bhullar on the floor. The big man often took his position in the post, to the left of the basket, just on the border of the three-second lane. On most possessions, he never moved. The easiest offensive player in basketball to guard is the one who doesn’t move, and it’s not as if Arizona doesn’t have a talented big.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski, a 7-footer in his own right, far outplayed Bhullar, contributing offensively in large part because defensively, all he had to do was stand and monitor the stagnant Bhullar.
When Bhullar would come off the block and set screens, the Aggies were a little more effective, reversing the basketball, opening up passing lanes and finding open shots. Aggies guard Daniel Mullings was the benefactor most often, scoring 18 points to lead New Mexico State. This offensive precision was magnified when the Aggies were using smaller lineups.
However, Arizona also capitalized on Bhullar’s presence on the defensive end. It’s easy to assume that a player of his size would be a force blocking shots and collecting defensive rebounds. But unable to move effectively, the Wildcats were able to get rebounds around him, and Bhullar’s defensive positioning could be called into question numerous times.
Bhullar was even called for an over-the-back foul at one point. Arizona scored on several dunks on baseline drives that just shouldn’t be available against a player of his stature.
All of which isn’t to completely pick on Bhullar. Beyond Mullings and fellow guard K.C. Ross-Miller, the Aggies offered little offensively and as the game wore on, defensive answers became much harder to come by for New Mexico State. Bhullar exited the game for the final time with just less than three minutes to play and Arizona ahead by 23 points. The Wildcats led by just eight points (32-24) at the half.
Bhullar finished with three points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots and two turnovers. His lone field goal came with just less than 14 minutes to go in the game. He was just 1-for-3 from the field and 1-for-2 from the line. Arizona clobbered New Mexico State on the glass, 38-22.
Four Wildcats finished in double-digits in scoring, with forward Brandon Ashley leading the way with 15 points. Tarczewski contributed 14 points and five rebounds, and perhaps most notable was that while working against Bhullar, he was called for just one foul. Arizona plays at Michigan on Saturday. New Mexico State also next plays on Saturday at Drake.