By R.B. FALLSTROM
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS — Rob Loe is accustomed to being the giant on the floor. The 6-11 forward for Saint Louis will actually be looking up in the NCAA tournament opener against New Mexico State.
The 13th-ranked Billikens are the No. 4 seed in the Midwest and have won 15 of 16. They will face perhaps the NCAA’s tallest front line Thursday when they take on 14th-seed New Mexico State (24-10), a team that includes 7-5 freshman Sim Bhullar and has piled up a school-record 186 blocked shots.
The equalizer for Loe: He must be chased down.
“It’ll be fun to guard me, just like it’ll fun to guard him,” Loe said.
Loe, a junior from Auckland, New Zealand, represented his country in the 2012 Olympic qualifying tournament and is among a trio of foreigners playing for Saint Louis (26-7). He’s among five Billikens proficient from 3-point range, hitting three in a game twice this season and making a career-best five as a freshman against Georgia.
In high school, Loe found he could hold his own shooting with the guards.
“I was always pretty tall, though,” Loe said. “In today’s game, there’s more and more people start to have both inside and outside games. It’s a big asset to have on any team.”
At 7-5 and 360 pounds, Bhullar is a half-foot taller and 115 pounds heavier than Loe. Plus, the repeat WAC champions have 6-8 Bandja Sy and reserves 6-11 and 6-10. Bhullar had 16 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots in the conference title game against UT-Arlington.
Interim coach Jim Crews joked to reporters that a good way to simulate guarding Bhullar was to get on someone’s shoulders.
“I know people have used brooms and other things for way tall guys, we’ll have to think about that a little bit” Crews said. “It’s something you just won’t see.”
Crews said the biggest thing to guard against while scouting New Mexico State, seeking its first NCAA tourney win since 1993, is paying too much attention to the really big guy.
“Just because you haven’t seen that before, you lose focus of the other guys on the team, and some of them are exceptionally good players,” he said. “He’s part of the puzzle, but it’s a big puzzle that we’ve got to conquer.”
Just like Loe is one of the players New Mexico State has to watch, Saint Louis’ top player is 6-5 forward Dwayne Evans, who leads his team in scoring (13.7) and rebounding (7.7) and was the Atlantic 10 tournament MVP. Kwamain Mitchell, Cody Ellis, Mike McCall Jr., reserve guard Jordair Jett and Loe are all averaging at least seven points.
Mitchell, who missed the early part of the season recovering from a broken foot, has stepped up lately and had 19 points in the A-10 final.
“My teammates and the staff said ‘It’s going to come, it’s going to come,’” Mitchell said. “When shots need to be taken, I’m happy to be the person to take those tough shots. I’m happy to fill those tough decisions.”
Loe has led the team in scoring five times, matching his career best with 20 points while making all seven shots in a late-season victory over La Salle. He’s led the team in scoring five times and is hitting 33 percent from 3-point range, more than acceptable even if you’re not that tall.
Saint Louis’ calling cards are stingy defense and unselfish team play on offense. The Billikens’ national profile was elevated last week in the conference tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y., tied in with the legacy of former coach Rick Majerus, who died in December.
“Obviously, a lot of people followed Rick Majerus and so even the fact that we’re winning without him coaching us, there’s still that cool story behind it,” reserve forward Jake Barnett said. “He recruited a lot of us and they want to know more and see what kind of guys he recruited, and what kind of team he put together.”
Crews has kept the program humming, but by mutual agreement his interim tag will be addressed with the school after the season.
“The only success is shared success,” Crews aid. “I’m just on the bus, I’m not even driving the bus this year. These kids have been tremendous and it’s their team, their season.”
Aside from the extra travel and increased media demands, players say they’re following Crews’ advice to “have your eyes on the stars, feet on the ground and be humble.”
From all accounts, the transition to Crews has been especially smooth.
“It’s different, but it’s the same,” Loe said. “They’re both great coaches, so it’s just learning from both of them.’”