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Aggies center turnsheads on, off court

Sim Bhullar emerged from a tunnel that leads to the basketball court at Orleans Arena on Tuesday when he was spotted by a young fan sitting nearby.

“Holy cow!” the youngster exclaimed.

That’s the typical reaction when people lay their eyes on New Mexico State’s 7-foot-5-inch, 360-pound goliath for the first time.

Bhullar, a redshirt freshman from Toronto, has been the center of attention everywhere the Aggies have gone this season. In an effort to take some of the spotlight off Bhullar, New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies limited his media availability during the regular season and will not make him available during this week’s Western Athletic Conference tournament.

But that hasn’t stopped curious fans from gawking at Bhullar or asking to take a picture with the WAC freshman of the year.

“I don’t blame people,” Aggies guard Daniel Mullings said. “If I saw him, I’d ask for one, too.”

Bhullar, one of the nation’s top center recruits, according to Rivals.com and ESPNU while he was at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, originally committed to Xavier. When he found out he didn’t qualify academically and would have to pay tuition at the private school his first year, he instead signed with New Mexico State, which had four other Canadian-born players along with assistant coach Paul Weir, also a Toronto native.

Bhullar suffered a foot injury while redshirting in 2011-12 and started slowly this season, but he has made a major impact since entering New Mexico State’s starting lineup Dec. 15. The third-seeded Aggies have won 16 of their past 18 games, including a 65-49 victory over sixth-seeded Idaho (12-18) on Thursday in the WAC quarterfinals.

New Mexico State (22-10) will play No. 7 Texas State (11-21) at 6 p.m. today in the semifinals. No. 4 Texas-Arlington (18-12) and No. 9 Texas-San Antonio (10-21) will meet at 8:30.

“After he started picking it up, that’s when we started rolling,” said Mullings, who is also a Toronto native and played with Bhullar in the 2010 All-Canada Classic all-star game. “It was a challenge for us, too, because we had to learn how to utilize him the right way. A lot of us are not used to playing with 7-footers.”

Bhullar is averaging 9.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots this season. He led the WAC in field-goal percentage during the regular season (60.2) and has the school record for blocks in a season (74 and counting).

“He can score inside, and his defense is very good for a freshman,” Menzies said. “He’s able to not just alter shots, but he understands rotations. As he develops physically and athletically, he’ll only get better.”

Bhullar logged 35 minutes against Idaho — his fifth straight game of more than 30 minutes — and finished with seven points and seven rebounds. He also had one blocked shot/volleyball spike while stationed in the middle of the Aggies’ 2-3 zone and at the back of their full-court press.

“He changes the game, no question,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said. “He’s huge. He affects the game, and you have to plan for him every time you play New Mexico State.”

While Bhullar’s size has attracted attention, so has his heritage. Bhullar’s parents were born in India, and as the sport continues to gain popularity there, Bhullar is being looked at as Asia’s next basketball ambassador. No player of Indian descent has reached the NBA, but Menzies is confident Bhullar will be the first.

“He’ll play in the NBA, it’s just a matter of when he’ll go,” Menzies said. “We’re just happy to be a part of his journey. We’re happy him and his family selected us.”

In Thursday’s other quarterfinal games:

— Kannon Burrage had 26 points and 13 rebounds, and Texas-San Antonio stunned top-seeded Louisiana Tech, 73-67.

Kenneth Smith led the Bulldogs (26-6) with 16 points. Louisiana Tech, which has lost three straight after an 18-game winning streak, shot 32.4 percent (24 of 74) from the field and went 8-for-33 from 3-point range.

— Joel Wright scored 32 points as Texas State upset No. 2 Denver, 72-68. Wright went 9-for-10 from the field and 14-for-16 at the free-throw line.

Brett Olson scored 19 points and Jalen Love 17 for the Pioneers (21-9), who had won 10 straight and 17 of 18.

— Kevin Butler scored 23 points and had a key steal in the final seconds as Texas-Arlington held off No. 5 Utah State, 83-78.

Jarred Shaw scored 20 points and Spencer Butterfield 19 for Utah State (21-10), which trailed by 18 points in the first half.

Contact reporter David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ.

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