Even as No. 13 Saint Louis University celebrated its lofty seeding Sunday evening at a New Jersey Best Buy, interim head coach Jim Crews reminded his team of a message he has been emphasizing since the start of the year: “Don’t listen to the noise.”
“It’s definitely the toughest thing to do,” admitted forward Jake Barnett. “You want to hear the things that are good about you when you’re doing well… The biggest thing we constantly have to remember is the next game, who we’re playing in the next game, and stay focused.”
Maintaining that workman-like attitude will be imperative as the No. 4 seed Billikens begin the final chapter of their 2012-13 season March 21 in San Jose against the No. 13 seed New Mexico State University Aggies.
“Not a lot of teams get a chance to experience what we’re going through now,” senior Kwamain Mitchell said. “We’re not going to let all that attention get in the way of where we want to be.”
The Aggies, who have the nation’s tallest front line, limped to a 6-8 start before coming to life in January, winning 18 of their final 20 games en route to its second consecutive WAC Tournament title.
Sophomore guard Dan Mullings, the team’s leading scorer at 14 ppg, is an integral piece of an NMSU offense that averages just 68 points per game, but knocks down shots at a 46 percent clip.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive and take what teams are giving me,” he told Las Cruces Sun-News. “If I feel like I can get to the basket, whether it’s to score or just drive and draw attention and kick it out, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Even though the 6-foot-2 guard is easily the Aggies’ best scoring threat, he has been overshadowed (no pun intended) by 7-foot-5, 355-pound center Sim Bhullar.
After sitting out the 2011-12 campaign, Bhullar, a 19-year-old from Toronto, has posted a modest 10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 2.4 bpg. The Indo-Canadian finished the season strong, however, racking up a total of 30 points, 25 rebounds and eight blocks over the team’s final two games.
“Not only is he big, but he’s got great hands [and] vision… He’s a really good player,” Crews explained. “[But] just because you haven’t seen that before, you lose focus of the other guys on the team, and some of them are exceptionally good players. He’s part of the puzzle, but it’s a big puzzle that we’ve got to conquer.”
That “bigger puzzle” includes players at 6-11, 6-10, 6-9, 6-8 and a pair at 6-7.
Aside from the obvious defensive advantage it has over most teams in the paint, NMSU’s length has also been effective along the perimeter with the combo of Mullings, an All-WAC defensive team selection, and 6-foot-8 forward Bandja Sy.
Despite their significant size advantage over most teams, the Aggies are not necessarily a dominant rebounding team, averaging just 37.6 boards per game — 46th in the nation. However, that size has translated to success on defense where they hold opponents to under 40 percent shooting and are 15th in the country in blocked shots.
On offense, it will be imperative for the Billikens to remain aggressive. Often times, opposing teams become intimidated by New Mexico State and begin to alter their shot selection, settling for outside and odd-angled jumpers, rather than driving to the hoop or passing it around to find a better look.
“The competition is going to be a step up,” Mullings said. “We are playing teams that won their conference and have a right to be competing now, but our length can give teams some trouble.”
While it may be difficult to put up points against NMSU, SLU should have no problem on the other end of the floor where the Aggies average over 14 turnovers per game and often struggle to consistently knock down jump shots.
The key will be keeping players (namely Dwayne Evans) out of foul trouble. Coach Marvin Menzies’ squad averages over 24 free throw attempts per game, due in large part to the aggressiveness of Mullings and the sheer size of Bhullar, but it owns just a 66.8 free throw percentage.
“It’ll be a tough defensive matchup,” SLU’s 7-foot forward Rob Loe said of Bhullar. “Boxing him out, stopping him from getting rebounds, it’s going to be tough. But on our end of the floor, he’s going to have a tough time guarding us with all our ball screens and things like that.”
SLU and New Mexico State will square off at HP Pavilion in San Jose on Thursday, March 21 at 1:10 p.m.