Daniel Mullings looks to lead New Mexico St. to third straight NCAA appearance

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

When the latest round of conference realignment came to its conclusion, the Western Athletic Conference looked nothing like the league many had become familiar with. Of the fifteen players to receive All-WAC honors last season just two return: New Mexico State’s Daniel Mullings and Sim Bhullar. Both played pivotal roles on last season’s WAC tournament champion squad, with the 7-foot-5 Bhullar winning tournament MVP honors and Mullings earning a spot on the All-Tournament team.

They’re also two of the reasons why Marvin Menzies’ Aggies are expected to win the conference’s regular season title in 2013-14, with Mullings assuming the role of the WAC’s most versatile player. As a sophomore Mullings posted averages of 13.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.3 steals per game, leading the Aggies in scoring and steals. And with New Mexico State losing two double-digit scorers, including leading rebounder Bandja Sy (11.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Mullings stands to have more responsibilities on his plate.

And the overwhelming feeling is that the Toronto native has worked hard enough to be ready for the challenge.

“When Daniel came in, he was relatively raw but very athletic and he was a gym rat,” Menzies said in a phone interview with NBC Sports. “He’s lived in the gym and worked above and beyond the hours we’re allocated to improve his game.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s WAC Preview)

After a freshman season in which he was a supplementary piece on an NCAA tournament team led by Wendell McKines, Mullings led the Aggies with a possession percentage of 23.7% as a sophomore. After surpassing the 20-point mark just twice as a freshman Mullings did so nine times in 2012-13, including 23-point outings in late-season wins over WAC regular season co-champion Louisiana Tech and Idaho.

His overall field goal percentage remained about the same (47.0% compared to 48.9% as a freshman), but Mullings’ greatest improvement came as a perimeter shooter. After making just 27% of his shots from beyond the arc in 2011-12, Mullings knocked down 37% of his shots from deep and attempted 31 more three-pointers as a sophomore (54 compared to 23 as a freshman).

“The biggest differences [from freshman to sophomore year] were developing my shooting an easing into more of a leadership role alongside our seniors,” said Mullings, who also noted his improved played on the defensive end (2.3 spg after averaging 1.6 as a freshman).

Outside of Mullings and the aforementioned Bhullar the Aggies return other contributors from last season’s team. Forward Renaldo Dixon (5.6 points, 4.0 boards) proved to be a valuable reserve in 2012-13, center Tshilidzi Nephawe (7.2 points, 5.2 boards) returns after playing in just nine games due to a hand injury and guard K.C. Ross-Miller is the team’s third returning starter. But even with this being the case there will be some adjustments to make given the fact that New Mexico State lost two double-digit scorers in Sy and Tyrone Watson (10.3 points, 5.0 boards, 2.8 assists). That’s where Mullings’ progression as a leader comes into play.

“As I’ve gone along I’ve become more vocal,” said Mullings. “I’ve been here for a couple years now so I know the system and what the coaches want, so I’ll be able to add whatever knowledge I have to help the new guys and the players returning.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

New Mexico State adds four newcomers, including 7-foot-4 center Tanveer Bhullar (Sim’s younger brother) and New Mexico JuCo transfer DK Eldridge, and they’ll have some depth at point guard thanks to the return of Ross-Miller and the arrival of freshman Travon Landry. The combination of talent, experience and conference turnover has made New Mexico State the prohibitive favorite to win the WAC in the eyes of many. It’s up to Mullings and his teammates to retain the focus needed in order to accomplish that task and return to the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season.

“We have to just focus on ourselves and whatever New Mexico State has to do,” said Mullings when asked about whether or not the changes within the WAC will affect the Aggies’ approach. “We can’t worry about everybody else, but obviously we have to be aware of the new teams in our conference.”

With a non-conference schedule that includes two games against rival New Mexico as well as contests against Arizona, Colorado State and Gonzaga, New Mexico State should be ready when WAC play begins in January. And there’s also a good chance that more college basketball fans will be familiar with Mullings’ game if they aren’t already.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.