Apart from a Kevin Pelton article, two BIG men out West have largely gone under the radar during the 2013-14 season. 7’5″ Sim Bhullar (New Mexico State) and 7’6″ Mamadou Ndiaye (UC Irvine) are great examples of the diversity among teams in college basketball. In the NBA, the balance in talent and personnel isn’t usually enough for dramatic differences in styles of play. In college, however, we have many extremes. For example, we have Shaka Smart’s havoc and Dave Paulsen’s “anti-havoc”.
New Mexico State and UC Irvine rank first and second in the KenPom ratings in their respective conferences. Both big men are key contributors to possible NCAA tournament teams. Statistically, Bhullar and Ndiaye are eerily similar. Take a look at their advanced stats so far:
In terms of efficiency and usage, both players have been nearly the same. Not surprisingly, they have been outstanding from the field and struggled with turnovers. In this post, I’ll look more into the similarities and differences between the two. I’ll also look at how New Mexico State and UC Irvine attempt to maximize the unique abilities of Bhullar and Ndiaye.
1. Skills and Athleticism
Bhullar and Ndiaye don’t have the same body type. Bhullar is listed at 360 pounds and can struggle at times getting up and down the court. Nidaye is listed at 290 pounds and has an extremely long wingspan. His added length and agility give him a formidable advantage over Bhullar, especially as a defender.
However, Bhullar is significantly more polished on the offensive end. Ndiaye would really struggle to score if he was a regular sized big man. His footwork and ability to put the ball on the floor need significant improvement. On the other hand, Bhullar has some coordination down low and a pretty nice baby hook shot.
Check out these two GIFs side-by-side of Bhullar and Ndiaye operating down low:
While Bhullar shows some nice footwork, Ndiaye was called for a travel on the play. Currently, Ndiaye is only really effective on the offensive end with good positioning. Of course it doesn’t take much for a 7’6″ guy to get position. Ndiaye isn’t useless on offense by any means, it’s just not pretty when he gets the ball in a traditional post-up situation.
2. Team Offense
Watching NMSU and UC Irvine this year is an interesting basketball experience, but it can also be an ugly one on the offensive end. Both bigs tend to spend a lot of time on offense awkwardly posting up outside the lane, trying to find an angle. In a basketball world with stretch-fours and small ball, the spacing can be hard to watch:
When the two big guys don’t have the ball, I think you can make an argument they hurt their respective offenses with poor spacing. The two make up for it by drawing so much attention with the ball and creating second chance opportunities, but it’s not a pretty style of basketball.
UC Irvine has used Ndiaye in the pick and roll, something New Mexico State doesn’t do with Bhullar. I think there is a lot of potential for UC Irvine offensively when Ndiaye learns the nuances of the pick and roll. If his defender chooses the hedge, the recovery to Ndiaye is nearly impossible. Watch as Oregon struggles with Ndiaye’s roll to the basket:
Regular pick and roll recovery simply doesn’t work when you have a 7’6″ guy that can create space so easily. If Oregon sends extra help to make the pass harder, UC Irvine is the proper ball movement away from an open three.
3. Team Defense
Not surprisingly, both teams have very good interior defenses. Neither defense looks to create turnovers either, instead playing straight up and utilizing their inside length. On the other hand (devil’s advocate), guards probably could afford to jump passing lanes with Bhullar and Ndiaye on the inside.
Ndiaye is 6th in the country in block percentage at 16.9%, while Bhullar is 34th at 10.7%. I think some of this can be attributed to defensive scheme. Ndiaye essentiallys plays a one man zone when UC Irvine is playing man-to-man. He lurks under the hoop and alters shots. When the opposing team has a center that can shoot, UC Irvine tends to go zone (with Ndiaye on the court).
Despite Bhullar’s lack of mobility, he is actually given much more responsibility on defense for New Mexico State. The Aggies are number one in the entire country in 3PA/FGA. New Mexico State drives opponents off the three-point line and forces them to make tough shots inside the arc. That means Bhullar has to rotate away from the basket at times. NMSU is actually a poor defensive rebounding team despite all their size, which is likely the trade-off for these rotations.
The two big men also play pick and rolls like I described above. Ndiaye does not go out and hedge at all. In UC Irvine’s game against Oregon, this resulted in many foul line jumpers and floaters over Ndiaye in the lane.
Bhullar will do his best to both hedge and recover while the rest of the team helps as needed. Against New Mexico, the Lobos looked to exploit Bhullar several times with Bairstow pick and pops. Bairstow was open for several long twos, a shot that New Mexico State would likely live with. The Aggies do a really great job rotating as a team. My favorite defensive sequence from them that really shows their commitment to rotations and closing out on the three-point line resulted in Bhullar actually closing out on a corner three. The play is below:
The play also shows the potential reason for NMSU’s defensive rebounding struggles. The rotations have almost certainly helped lower opponents’ eFG%, but the inability to be in proper rebounding positions have prevented the Aggies from being more than a slightly above average defensive team.
You would think that these teams might want to slow the game down with Ndiaye and Bhullar down low. Both teams play at an average tempo, but this could also be a case where opponents look to speed the game up when possible. Sample size is still relatively small here, but take a look at how tempo has affected both teams adjusted performance:
It’s early, but UC Irvine has showed some signs struggling in high tempo games (adjusted for competition). This isn’t the case for New Mexico State. Obviously pace is a somewhat limited measure. We could likely do better by looking at transition versus half-court plays.
Bhullar and Ndiaye are both still young and improving. New Mexico State and UC Irvine are already above average D1 teams and have the growth potential to really make some noise both this year and in the distant future.