Sunday, September 29, 2013

Odds and ends from Sunday's first NMSU workout

First a note on who did not practice on Sunday. Point guard Ian Baker and freshman Jonathan Wilkins will not be able to practice as they are yet to be cleared by the NCAA. Jayln Pennie and Matt Taylor are likely redshirts who were out there on Sunday. Both are expected to redshirt this season, but they are able to practice before the NCAA ultimately clears them to continue to practice.Big man Pascal Siakam is in the same situation, although he wasn't there on Sunday.

Terrel de Rouen was not at practice as he is suspended.

Photo by Shari V. Hill

I talked to Sim Bhullar for a couple minutes on Sunday.

Most noteworthy was Bhullar talking about playing at the high post, which is something we have talked about here. It makes sense when Chili Nephawe is in the game. Bhullar is a great passer and can set the guards free early in the shot clock at the top of the key. It will be interesting to see if if works with the two big guys at the same time.

"I'm a lot further than last year," Bhullar said. "I worked on a lot of things this summer, especially my jump shot and being more consistent with my hooks and stuff, especially if I'm going to be playing with Chili. Coach really wanted me to work on being the high post and making that jumper. In high school I played like that. Last year I really didn't think the team needed me to do that so I stayed in the post. Chili is a dominant guy in the post and can seal anyone in the country."

I also spoke with Daniel Mullings. I will have a story on Mullings and others who could fill in for the leadership role later in the week. But I asked Mullings to give me one or two players either new or role players from last year who could make a difference.

"DK Eldridge. He came from a JUCO and he's a good player. We lost Bandja and Tyrone. He's a player who can help to fill that void. He can help us in a lot of ways and be able to stretch the defense. Also Chili. He sat out last year so a lot of people forgot about him. He has been working. I know he knows everyone forgot him last year so he is going to come out with a vengeance." 

Friday, September 27, 2013

NMSU 2013-14 schedule: Nov. 23 Game 8 vs. Bethune Cookman

Last season: 14-20, 7-9 in the MEAC, lost in conference semis as an No. 8 seed.

Key returner(s): Daquan Brown is not a returner but he's a 6-10 post player that transferred from Hofstra. Brown will be eligible to play this season since he already graduated. He didn't put up big numbers at Hofstra. The school lost its top scorer and rebounder in Adrein Coleman, who tried to go pro after three years. The next four scorers on the roster were seniors last season. Guard Malik Jackson played in all 34 games and shot 29 percent from 3 point range. 5-9 point guard Ricky Johnson was sixth on the team in scoring last year with 7 ppg with 2.6 apg

Something to watch: This team upset top seeded Norfolk State in the conference tournament, but Bethune Cookman appears to be in rebuilding mode. There are few cupcakes on the Aggies non-conference schedule. Bethune Cookman may be the first. There are three freshmen, a sophomore, and a JC transfer on the current roster.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

5 questions entering NMSU basketball practice

Basketball season is here.
A new NCAA rule allows men's college basketball teams to begin practice up to two weeks earlier than in the past. College teams can now have 30 practices in the six weeks leading up to their first regular season game.
Coming off its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, New Mexico State opens the season on Nov. 8 against Western Michigan in Hawaii's tournament.
Head coach Marvin Menzies and the Aggies begin practice for that game on Sunday.
The combination of a strong group of returners and the departure of longtime conference rivals make the Aggies heavy favorites in the Western Athletic Conference. But here are five things questions to ponder as the Aggies open fall practice:

Photo courtesy NMSU

How good can Bhullar be?
At this point last year, the question was how good could Sim Bhullar be as a 7-foot-5 redshirt freshman who hadn't played organized basketball for nearly a year and was coming off a foot injury.
Now the question entering his sophomore season is how long might Bhullar be in Las Cruces.
As last season progressed, Bhullar developed into the WAC Freshman of the Year and dominated in the conference tournament with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the Aggies three victories, capped with a 16 point, 15 rebound and five block performance against Arlington in the title game. In 24.4 minutes per game, Bhullar set a school record for blocks in a season with 85 to lead the Aggies to a school record 193 blocks. 
Bhullar will only get stronger with a full offseason behind him and his ability as a passer adds another dimension to NMSU's offense. Bhullar garnered the Aggies with national attention as the season wore on last year and with a number of key games on the non-conference schedule, if Bhullar is productive on another NCAA Tournament team, Bhullar could very well pursue a living playing basketball sooner than later.

Who will produce at point guard?
You could make the argument that the point guard position was the Aggies weakest position on the floor. 
Both players who played the position were essentially first-year players at the Division I level. KC Ross-Miller averaged five points and two assists as a sophomore and Terrel de Rouen had flashes with five points and two assists per game while shooting 36 percent from 3-point range. Menzies announced last month that de Rouen was suspended "for a violation of team rules" and it doesn't appear the suspension will be lifted anytime soon Ross-Miller still has competition at the position with incoming freshmen Ian Baker and Travon Landry. Landry landed at NMSU in the summer after originally committing to Tennessee. He played with highly ranked prospect Andrew Wiggins at Huntington Prep last season so he is accustomed to creating for elite athletes and his Prep School coach described him as a tenacious defender. Less is known about fellow freshman Ian Baker, who sat last year and he won't be available until after the semester, but if he catches up to speed, Baker could also add depth to the position. A much more experienced Saint Louis backcourt dominated the Aggies point guards in a 20-point loss in the NCAA Tournament. NMSU doesn't need a standout point guard, but the Aggies do need a point guard who can guard his position and present a threat offensively while running the offense.

Which newcomer should/can play a role in 2013?
Landry enters practice as one of two players at the point guard position so it's likely he will see the court at times as a true freshman in at least a backup role to start the season. Depending on production at the position, Landry could see his court time increase. At 6-foot-1, Landry is an impressive athlete at the position who showed the ability to get to the paint. It wouldn't be the first time Menzies started a freshman at the point guard position. Hernst Laroche had a nice little career at NMSU as a four-year starter.
Bandja Sy could be the top athlete to play for Menzies at NMSU. Sy's graduation left a void in that department that junior college transfer DK Eldridge could replace. The 6-2 Eldridge doesn't have Sy's height, but the New Mexico Junior College product enters Division I a more polished player offensively and is expected to help fill the role defending the wing.
Tanveer Bhullar, the 7-foot-3 younger brother of sophomore Sim Bhullar, could very well contribute at the center position as well. But as practice begins, big brother, redshirt junior Tshilidzi Nephawe and senior Renaldo Dixon have all logged more minutes at the center position than the new Bhullar.

Which role player from last year could play a bigger role?
Matej Buovac, Remi Barry and Kevin Aronis all bring intriguing components to the Aggies lineup. 
Of the three, Buovac could see his role increase while the other two could be situational players. 
Buovac is riding with confidence after playing for his native Croatia in the Under-20 European Championships this summer. Buovac shot 39 percent from 3-point range in the tournament. At 6-foot-7, Buovac brings more size off the bench if the Aggies need shooting on offense and length and rebounding on defense while the 6-foot-2 Aronis brings experience. Aronis shot 34 percent from 3-point range last year after transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College. Aronis showed the ability to come in cold off the bench and hit big shots with a 3-for-5 performance from long range in a home victory over UTEP as a prime example. 
Barry brings the Aggies an offensive player at the power forward position off the bench. Barry has been to slow to fulfill the high expectations of Aggies fans after two years. Last year he showed signs as a sophomore.

How good can this year's Aggies be defensively?
The last two teams Menzies has taken to the NCAA Tournament have done so with defense and rebounding. This year's team could be even better. 
With Bhullar (7-foot-5), Nephawe (6-foot-10) and Dixon (6-foot-9) the Aggies have frontcourt size rarely seen in college basketball. The Aggies could build on their school record blocked shots, which was accomplished without Nephawe, who returns from a hand injury that limited him to nine games last year. NMSU pulled down 35.3 rebounds per game last year and 55 percent of available rebounds, which ranked 13th in the country. Those number are actually a dip from the previous season, so these Aggies are capable of improvement. With the interior strength the Aggies have defensively, they are just as good on the perimeter, led by one of the WAC's top defenders in junior guard Daniel Mullings. When Mullings, Landry and Eldridge are on the court at the same time, it could be nightmare for opposing backcourt players with a 35-second shot clock. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Aggies questions entering practice: Nephawe's role/health

At 6-10, 265 pounds, NMSU center Tshilidzi Nephawe is a physical specimen, especially against Western Athletic Conference opponents.

Photo by Shari V. Hill

But for whatever reason, Nephawe's production so far hasn't been nearly as impressive.

Part of that is due to the fact that Nephawe is relatively new to the game and has in a sense, learned basketball at the Division I level. He was paired with Hamidu Rahman for the first two years of his career and showed he could be effective here and there, but has not put up the numbers you would expect from an important part of a center rotation. He was given the starting nod at the position last year before suffering a hand injury that required season ending surgery after nine games. Nephawe was averaging 7.2 points and 5 rebounds per game last year before his season ended.  Those numbers are more representative of what the Aggies needed at the time from a center playing 20 minutes per game. But his career numbers of 5.9 ppg and 1.7 rpg and .8 block per game are lower than I expected. I think with the addition of Tanveer Bhullar and the remarkable development of Renaldo Dixon, there isn't any pressure on Nephawe as the Aggies open practice Sunday. It will be interesting to see how and for how long Nephawe plays with Sim Bhullar at the same time this season. I think it's something the Aggies want to play with and the fact that college teams now have even more practice time, will allow for that. Although they are both centers, I would like to see Bhullar with the ball in his hands at the top of the key  in the early offense rather than Nephawe, who should still be a threat in the post. There is also the issue of Nephawe's health. He had an additional surgery on the hand and was only recently cleared in the past month. This could be Nephawe's best season to date for the simple fact that he can work his way back into the mix in a crowded frontcourt rotation. His experience should give him an edge on the younger Bhullar at the outset, but it's a good problem for a coach to have when Nephawe is the a third or fourth option.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Two branches of Rick Pitino Hall of Fame coaching tree have coached at NMSU

Lou Henson should one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But before that happens, the last two New Mexico State coaches both have ties to a Hall of Famer. Reggie Theus and Marvin Menzies have that with Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who was inducted recently.It's somewhat unique for a school like NMSU to have that kind of connection, but it all started with McKinley Boston's relationship with former Kentucky AD CM Newton while Boston served on the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee.
"I appreciate what Rick does from the standpoint of running a program," Boston said. "Replacing Reggie was a very easy and natural thing to do. What I didn't want to do was bring in a coach with a completely different system because as you remember, we had seniors coming back."

Current NMSU coach Marvin Menzies, and former Aggie coach Reggie Theus, both coached under HOF coach Rick Pitino at Louisville.

Boston went on to hire former Pitino assistants Reggie Theus in 2005 and Marvin Menzies two years later, who has won 61 percent of his games in six years at NMSU with back-to-back NCAA berths. Both the current and former Aggie coach were among Pitino's guests for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony last weekend in Springfield, Mass.

"He is as loyal as advertised," Menzies said. "He has been very supportive throughout my career since I started working for him. It's a nice perk as a coach but I don't think about it like a perk, just having someone of his magnitude to bounce things off of. I have a good relationship with Reggie and he's a superstar in his own right. It added to the whole experience."

Menzies and Theus have vastly different career paths.

Menzies was already an established recruiter and up and coming coach in the business when he joined Pitino's staff in 2005. He had already worked for established coaches like Steve Fisher and Lon Kruger, but he has spoken more often of the two seasons he spent at Louisville than any other stop. Prior to last season, he took his staff to Louisville for a weekend.

After spending 20-plus years in the business, Menzies had crossed paths with Hall of Famers.

"I have a lot of mentor type relationships, but I'm proud to be a part of (Pitino's) coaching tree," Menzies said. "I didn't spend as much time as other coaches have, but he treats us all like his guys even though I worked for other guys longer than I worked for him. You don't really think about it in this business before you see it on paper on a resume that you really think about it that I have been blessed to cross paths with these guys."

 Theus had direct ties to two men inducted this year since he played under Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV. But Pitino took Theus with virtually no coaching experience in 2003, where he spent two years on a Division I sideline for the first time.

Theus said he approached Pitino in what he described as a "great lesson in making that phone call."

"We really didn't have a connection. I found out he was interested and I almost flew out that day," Theus said. "Coach Pitino is in that situation where he doesn't have to worry about what other people think.

It took awhile for Theus to turn his NBA playing days around as a legitimate coach. He spent time coaching AAU teams and was an assistant at Division II Cal State L.A. After leaving NMSU for a NBA job with the Sacramento Kings, Theus was hired at Cal State Northridge of the Big West.

"I think (Pitino) was intrigued by my willingnes to do the grunt work and at the time he was looking for someone with my background to add to the staff, which was my experience as a professional," Theus said. 

Theus speaks highly of both Boston for giving him his first college job, and Menzies, for taking the NMSU program to another level. He describes Northridge AD Brandon Martin as "a younger version of Dr. Boston" and said there is talk of a new arena within three years.

"There are a lot of similarities to Northridge now and New Mexico State when I was hired," Theus said. "I never talked about how many games we were going to win but I said we would be the hardest working team in the conference and I think that leads to wins. It doesn't have the same history or the same following, but the first thing we need to do is get the students involved. I'm happy for Marvin and for the people of Las Cruces who deserve it."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Aggie guard Terrel de Rouen will be suspended indefinitely

Expect an announcement from New Mexico State regarding point guard Terrel de Rouen suspending the former OƱate standout indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. It's unclear if de Rouen, who underwent offseason foot surgery, will return to the program at all.

From a basketball standpoint, the Aggies should be able to recover from de Rouen's absence if he has indeed played his last game at NMSU. Freshman Travon Landry and KC Ross-Miller will battle for playing time at the position when practice starts and Ian Baker is expected to play the position at some point this season, possibly by the second semester.