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POJOAQUE — When Marvin Menzies took over the men’s basketball program at New Mexico State University, his first and foremost goal was to make the Aggies a national contender year-in and year-out.
And while the Aggies took a huge step in that department this past season, there’s still plenty more work to be done.
Menzies, who admits he rarely gets up to the northern part of the state from Las Cruces, was the guest of honor at the NMSU Alumni Association’s banquet Wednesday night at the Towa Golf Club. About 75 Aggie alum and well-wishers attended the event.
During the 2013-14 season, Menzies led NMSU to its third consecutive Western Athletic Conference tournament title and corresponding appearance in the NCAA championships.
Although the Aggies were a first-round casualty, they did garner some of that national attention they’d been seeking.
One of the biggest reasons, quite literally, the Aggies garnered that attention was because of their giant, Sim Bhullar. The 7-foot, 5-inch Bhullar dwarfed virtually all of Division I with his height and his 360-pound frame.
Unfortunately for the Aggies, Bhullar, who still had two years of collegiate eligibility left, elected to throw his hat into the ring for the professional ranks and won’t return, regardless of whether he makes a pro roster.
Bhullar, like former Los Alamos Hilltopper Alex Kirk, will be among the names in the ring during this week’s NBA draft. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, Kirk and Bhullar faced off during a pre-draft workout for the Toronto Raptors — Bhullar played his prep ball in Toronto.
Menzies said he isn’t sure Bhullar will be drafted, but has it on some authority there are at least two teams interested in the big man.
“Actually, if you’re not going to get selected in the first round, you’re better off not being drafted,” he said. “If you become a free agent, your options are more open.”
While Bhullar was a good shooter and an intimidating presence during his tenure with the Aggies, he could also be a liability. He was slow of foot and his frame sometimes forced the Aggies to slow their game down.
Menzies said he prefers a quick-strike game and may get the opportunity to do more running this coming season.
“Playing up-tempo is exciting,” he said. “We’re really going to lean on our versatile athletes. With the ones we have returning…we really now have got a full roster.”
One of the athletes they will be leaning on heavily is guard Daniel Mullings, the reigning WAC Player of the Year. Mullings, one of the most explosive guards in the country, is stellar off the dribble and led the Aggies with 16.8 points per game, hitting nearly 50 percent from the floor.
And, even with the absence of Bhullar, it’s not like NMSU will be devoid of size. Far from it.
Bhullar’s little brother, Tanveer, redshirted for the Aggies last season. He measures 7-3 and 335 pounds. Menzies said by midseason he should be able to contribute to the team’s efforts.
Along with Tanveer Bhullar, they will also return Tshilidzi “Chili” Nephawe, a bruising 6-10 center that has shown flashes of dominance in the low post.
As for Menzies, who’s going into his eighth season with NMSU, he’s already the third-winningest coach in school history and has a better winning percentage than the two coaches ahead of him, the legendary Lou Henson and Neil McCarthy — a stat Menzies said he didn’t know until he was told Wednesday.
Where Menzies has yet to stack up to Henson and McCarthy is success in the NCAA tournament. NMSU has yet to advance past its opening round game in four tournament appearances under Menzies, while Henson took the Aggies to the Final Four in 1970 and McCarthy guided them to the Sweet 16 in 1992.
While the Aggies as a team, and Menzies personally, has taken a lot of delight in recent wins over in-state rival, the University of New Mexico, as well as their string of success in the WAC, it has been difficult to shake the perception that they’re the kid brother to the Lobos, who dominate the media attention in the state.
Before he’s through at NMSU, Menzies wants the program to be perennial top 25 team.
That will take some doing, however.
“There’s a lot of challenges the common fan doesn’t see,” he said. “We have to battle every year, from a financial perspective, from a personnel perspective. But in spite of the challenges, we’ve had the funding, we’ve had the support of the Sixth Man Club. Now we’re at the point where it’s just a matter of putting more butts in the seats.”