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.
I agree with the points you made and am excited about the upcoming basketball season. Saying that, NMSU is a flawed basketball team until 2 issues are resolved. Unless we get vastly improved play from the point guard position and a consistent shooter from the 3 point line, the Aggies will struggle at times, especially on the road. Right now, any team that plays NMSU and doesn't play a zone to clog up the middle should have their heads examined. We should be favorites to win The WAC but unless we take care of those 2 issues, we will lose games people expect us to win.
You forgot two questions that have dogged Menzies.
1). Can NMSU avoid it's infamous slow starts under Menzies?
2). Can Menzies be able to at least split with UNM and/ or utep?
Both of your comments will certainly be addressed once practice unfolds. I just wanted to put out some things the Aggies could be addressing in the early stages
Love the write up - thank you. Excited for the season to get underway. To echo your points and those of the other commenters, I'll be especially interested to learn whether Landry is a true floor general/leader. The lack of confidence there last season was such a huge blow. Hopefully the extra practices will give the team + coaching staff more time to gel and avoid the slow starts. Glad to hear that we have some increased potency behind the arc - that should be a big improvement over last year.
Aggies will be huge and athletic once again. I'd like to see Mullings improve as a jump shooter. Hopefully the Eldridge kid can shoot it. They have some good pieces no doubt. UNM in Cruces is a big game for Menzies. Let's see how they play Nov/Dec.
Any word on Johnathon Wilkins?
As far as I know, Wilkins will redshirt this season. He should be able to practice at least until he does or does not get cleared by the NCAA.
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