SAN JOSE --- In New Mexico State's semifinal and title game victories in the WAC tournament last week, enormous center Sim Bhullar was often the best player on the floor.
On Thursday, Saint Louis turned him into a 7-foot-5, 340-pound liability.
Ripping at the ball with help defenders whenever Bhullar touched the ball in the post and capitalizing on his lack of defensive mobility, the fourth-seeded Billikens forced New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies to bench his big man for long stretches of the second half. The result was a 64-44 opening-round NCAA tournament rout that was only in doubt for a few minutes.
"We kind of exploited the big guy the way we wanted to," Saint Louis center Rob Loe said. "He stays pretty deep the whole game and he doesn't really close out on shooters, so we used that to our advantage. Especially when they sit in that zone, there was a hole in the middle."
If Saint Louis was considered a dark horse Final Four hopeful before Thursday's game, the Billikens certainly looked the part against New Mexico State. They held the Aggies to four points in the opening nine minutes and to 16 points at halftime, giving the Aggies life briefly with a flurry of turnovers early in the second half before quickly slamming the door shut.
The effectiveness of the Billikens defensively was to be expected, but the ease in which they scored despite the presence of Bhullar was more eye-opening.
To combat the effectiveness of the 6-foot-11 Loe as a perimeter shooter, New Mexico State had Bhullar defend Saint Louis' power forward in hopes that he could remain in the paint and protect the rim. Later, the Aggies switched to a zone, again to try to hide Bhullar's inability to defend on the perimeter.
In either case, Saint Louis countered the defense with ease.
Against the zone, Saint Louis flashed forwards Dwayne Evans, Cody Ellis and Cory Remukun to the high post and exploited Bhullar's unwillingness to stray far from the rim for wide-open mid-range jump shots. And against man-to-man, the Billikens often played a two-man game, drawing Bhullar to the perimeter by using man to set a ball screen and then exploiting the space that created.
Evans finished with 24 points on 11 of 16 shooting, 16 of those points in the first half when Bhullar was defending him for long stretches. Remukun and Ellis combined for 23, Ellis sinking a couple of key jump shots after New Mexico State briefly closed within six early in the second half.
"We kept attacking the middle," Saint Louis point guard Kwamain Mitchell said. "We knew the big guy's lateral movement was not going to be effective. We used that to our advantage If we were going to attack him, it couldn't be a lot of one-on-one. It had to be 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 because he's so you can't shoot over him."
Bhullar's defensive ineffectiveness might not have been such a big issue except that New Mexico State's guards couldn't find a way to get him the ball in the post either. He finished with four points on 2 of 4 shooting and 11 rebounds in his NCAA tournament debut.
"It's unfortunate he didn't get to play to his abilities and get as many touches as we would like to have gotten him," Menzies said. " We'll get him there and keep moving forward."
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