WALTER WHITE, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, isn't the only Albuquerque resident who slowly but steadily transformed himself from milquetoast to monster. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico's senior power forward, fits the description in his own way. Unlike the TV character, Bairstow is dangerous only on the court, far more so than even he envisioned when he arrived from Brisbane, Australia, four years ago. He was so thin that when he walked into the weight room, it wouldn't have been surprising to see a teammate slip iron plates around his neck and ankles and start bench-pressing him. "I was a rail," he says. "When I got here, I was 6'8" and maybe 200 pounds. Not a lot there."
There certainly wasn't enough there to make anyone think he would blossom into the chiseled, 6'9", 250-pound bruiser who now overpowers opponents on the low block. If the Lobos (27--6), who won the Mountain West Conference tournament with a 64--58 victory over top-seeded San Diego State last Saturday, are to continue that success in the Big Dance, they will likely do so on the strength—literally—of Bairstow's punishing inside game. "Good luck to whoever draws them in the tournament," Boise State coach Leon Rice said after Bairstow banged his way to 23 points and eight rebounds in a 70--67 win in the MWC semis. "You're not going to guard Cameron Bairstow with one guy. I don't care who it is."
After three seasons as a role player the amiable, shaggy-haired Bairstow was the Mountain West's leading scorer this year (20.3 points per game), a remarkable jump since he could barely dunk as a freshman and didn't even break into the starting lineup until midway through his junior year. "If somebody tells you there's a player who's worked harder than Cam to improve himself, they're lying," says 7-foot center Alex Kirk, who with Bairstow forms a towering front line that an Albuquerque Journal reader poll dubbed the Vanilla Skyscrapers. "You could see him getting better and better, but I'll be honest, I don't think anyone expected him to become this dominant."
Bairstow occasionally lifts weights with the New Mexico football team, and his battles under the basket tend to resemble the combat at the line of scrimmage, a pushing, pulling tangle of limbs that he wins far more often that not. He's so strong that on one scrum around the basket against San Diego State, he sent Aztecs forward Josh Davis stumbling several steps backward with what looked like a forearm tap.
But he's no muscle-bound hack. Among players who used 28% or more of their team's possessions, his offensive efficiency rate of 118.4 ranks sixth in the nation. He gets whistled for only 2.1 fouls per game and has been disqualified only twice this season. But Bairstow absorbs plenty of hacks from opponents. Boise State guard Thomas Bropleh kept him from finishing a layup by throwing a forearm to his neck and dragging him to the ground, which earned Bropleh an ejection and left Bairstow with a bloody nose. The Lobos weren't surprised to see Bairstow shake it off and continue, though. "That's why I call him Robocop," coach Craig Neal says. "You can't hurt that kid." A 73.9% free throw shooter, Bairstow makes defenders pay for getting physical. He went to the line 18 times against Boise State and 14 versus the Aztecs.
THE FIRST HINTS of his breakout season came last summer, when Bairstow starred for Australia in the World University Games, then acquitted himself well with the national team in a three-game series with New Zealand. "Being able to compete against grown men gave me the confidence boost I needed," he says. But the seeds of Bairstow's development were planted in the weight room. "He has his own rack," junior guard Hugh Greenwood says. "He goes off to his back corner and lifts all this stuff and makes all these noises. You never really know what's going on over there."
Weightlifting is a discipline best suited to the patient, to those who persevere and accept that its benefits come gradually. It fit Bairstow's industrious, focused personality perfectly and became an apt metaphor for his career. "He's a habit kid," says Neal, the former assistant who succeeded Steve Alford this season. "There hasn't been a player here in my seven years who has done a better job of maintaining good habits, from eating right to lifting to getting his rest. Some nights he'll go to bed at 8 p.m. so he can get up at 4 a.m. to work out." Bairstow is particularly devoted to his lifting regimen, so much so that after games he often heads straight for the weights, putting in an intense 45-minute session before he returns for postgame interviews.
Until this season he wasn't exactly in great media demand. Bairstow was nowhere to be found on the preseason award watch lists, but by midseason his name was popping up on all of them. He boosted his scoring average from 9.7 points as a junior, and he has scored more points this season (670) than in his three previous ones combined (545). He raised his profile so much that when he went to the free throw line during the conference tournament, the formerly skinny sub heard chants of "M-V-P!" from New Mexico fans who were outraged that he finished second to San Diego State guard Xavier Thames in the league's player of the year voting. It might not have been a coincidence that when the chanting started, he missed his first free throw. "I think it threw him off a little," says Greenwood, a fellow Aussie who was Bairstow's teammate at the Australian Institute of Sport, where they played as high schoolers. "He's not quite used to being a star."
Bairstow has always favored fundamentals over flamboyance. As a 12-year-old in Brisbane he would save his money to buy videos of NBA players, using them as part entertainment, part tutorial. His favorite player to study: the decidedly phlegmatic Tim Duncan. "I just liked his composure and his fundamentals, his footwork," Bairstow says. "I figured I was never going to be a flashy player so I should follow someone I could at least try to be like."
He did develop fine low-post skills and an effective midrange touch, but because his body didn't mature as fast as his game did, Bairstow drew little interest from American colleges. Cal State--Bakersfield and Middle Tennessee State were the only schools that recruited him until New Mexico came calling. Neal knew he would be a project. "He was just one of those kids you knew would put in the work," he says. "Cam understood that if he kept doing what he was supposed to do, it would pay off, and it has."
It hasn't been lost on Lobos fans that Bairstow's development has been a more benign version of the sinister Walter White's. Some of them have been tweeting his picture next to some of White's signature lines, including, "I am the danger. I am the one who knocks." But anyone who has seen Bairstow in action knows that he does not knock. He knocks teams out.
"If somebody tells you there's a player who's worked harder than Cam to improve himself, they're lying," says Kirk of his fellow Vanilla Skyscraper.
Check out the One and One blog to discover how Georges Niang and other breakout players will make an impact in the tournament, and get everything you need to know to pick a perfect bracket by going to: SI.com/cbb
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BAIRSTOW)
INSIDE JOB Bairstow not only outmuscles opponents down on the block, but he's also one of the most efficient players in the country, with an offensive rating of 118.4.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (NIANG)