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December 11, 2013

New Mexico St. presents tall task for top-ranked Arizona

Arizona forward Brandon Ashley remembers playing against New Mexico State center Sim Bhullar in the past on the AAU circuit. But that may not help too much when their teams meet Wednesday night at McKale Center.

That's because Bhullar is 7-5 and 360 pounds.

"He's 7-5 - all of it," Ashley said. "He's big and he's talented. It's definitely going to be a fun match-up.

"Just the fact that they are so big, they take up a lot of space, positioning is always going to be really important defensively. And also in attacking the rim, you've got to pay attention with the fact that he's there and he can block shots at that size."

The top-ranked Wildcats (9-0) will play their first game with a No. 1 nod in a decade and first up are the Aggies (7-4), who haven't beat a ranked opponent since 2007. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT.

UA head coach Sean Miller said that while Bhullar's size will command attention, a pair of 6-10 talents in Tshilidzi Nephawe and Renaldo Dixon must be accounted for as well. Trio has combined to average nearly 20 rebounds per game.

But the Aggies have lost three in a row, including an 80-68 decision at No. 20 Gonzaga last Saturday, and have been outrebounded by 23 in that span.

The Wildcats will counter with the nation's second-best rebounding margin at plus-14.1 boards.

"But [Bhullar] will be the biggest player that has come into McKale Center in a long, long time. Maybe in its history," Miller said. "The thing about him as a frontcourt player is he's got really good hands, he's a good passer. He has a skill level to him that is scary. So we have to make sure we're prepared for a guy that big."

But maybe the size of NMSU will be a welcomed focus for a team that now has an even bigger target on its back. T.J. McConnell led UA with 13 points and six assists, scoring or assisting on its last five field goals, in last Saturday's 63-58 win over UNLV to complete the rise to No. 1.

Now, perhaps the only thing bigger than Bhullar is the weight that comes with being the top team in the country. The Wildcats also will travel to Michigan, ranked 25th in the coaches' poll, on Saturday.

But Miller said his team has been ranked all season, with quality wins over fellow Top 25 teams Duke and San Diego State, and that a move up the list from No. 2 should not change his team's approach.

"Nobody has to remind us that everybody loves to beat the team that's ranked No. 1," Miller said. "I would also tell you that we were ranked No. 2 last week and it isn't as if anyone looks at that ranking and says it's not that big a deal.

"So I feel like we've played a competitive schedule and that also helps, I think, define who we are and helps us improve."

Wildcats junior guard Nick Johnson, who leads the team at 16.6 points, said the No. 1 ranking is an honor he dreamed about while growing up. He is not ready to wake up just yet.

"We know that we have everybody's best shot coming at us now," Johnson said. "Just trying to keep it for as long as we can."

Game notes

Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon suffered a cut under his left eye against UNLV that required stitches. Miller said the forward will be "ready to go." ... Aggies junior guard Daniel Mullings leads the team in scoring with 17.6 points. ... Bhullar is one of four players averaging at least 9.5 points to go with a team-leading 7.2 rebounds and 37 total blocked shots.

New Annual GOAZCATS.com subscribers who sign up for a full year also will receive $99 in team gear at no extra cost.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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