Coming in to the Boomers setup for the Sino-Australia Challenge, Bairstow made every post a winner, leading the Emerging Boomers to the silver medal at the 2013 World University Games before helping the Boomers secure the FIBA Oceania Championship.
This form has inspired the Queenslander to become one of the best players in college basketball, averaging more than 20 points and 7 rebounds per game, earning high praise from many experts.
In his final year at New Mexico, the 23-year-old is leading the Lobos to one of the biggest events in sport – The NCAA Tournament – hopeful of making a splash.
We caught up with Bairstow ahead of his opening NCAA Tournament clash with Stanford to talk everything March Madness, his first taste of the Boomers program and the upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup.
Basketball Australia: March Madness is one of the biggest times of the year for collegiate sports, with your New Mexico Lobos a regular in the business end of the Mountain West Conference and NCAA tournaments. What does it mean to be part of March Madness?
Cameron Bairstow: As a player it’s the time of year you want to be playing the most. There are a lot of teams whose seasons are done and dusted that don’t have the opportunity to play in the big dance, so to be in this position is something you have to enjoy, but also try and take advantage of.
BA: College basketball is renowned for the amazing atmospheres created in the arenas, with The Pit in New Mexico regarded as one of the best. How is it playing in those environments?
CB: It’s one of the perks of playing college basketball. The fan bases over here have amazing passion and pride for their schools and they create an atmosphere that you won’t see in many other places around the world.
You’ve really got to enjoy and embrace the experience. At New Mexico I’ve been fortunate enough play home games at The Pit, which is hands down one of the best crowds in the country. It’s been amazing to come out each night there, knowing it’s going to be a packed house and all the fans are going to be cheering you on.
BA: After coming in as a number three seed into last season’s NCAA tournament and getting knocked off in your first game – is there a desire in the team to right the wrongs of 2013?
CB: We’ve got an experienced group that have been to tournaments over the past few years and we really want to perform better after last year’s loss to Harvard. I think this season we have the guard play as well as the bigs down low to do it.
I’m pretty confident in our chances this year even though we didn’t get as high a seed as we had in recent years, which will make it tougher, but having the experience we do in our team will help us get hot at the right time.
BA: It was a massive off-season for you in 2013, breaking into the Australian Boomers team and leading the Emerging Boomers to the silver medal at the World University Games in Russia. How was that experience in Russia, helping the team secure their first medal at the tournament?
CB: We had a great group of guys who were willing to come together to do whatever it took to win. Our off-court chemistry really helped the way we performed on the court. We had a knack for coming back when we looked out of the game and never giving up, and I think that was a key factor in us advancing to the gold medal game.
We could have thrown in the towel given how tough our draw was and being down in big games, but we kept fighting back and I think that’s the reason why the team managed to get the silver medal.
BA: Capping off a busy national team program for 2013 was the FIBA Oceania Championships. How was that experience working alongside the likes of established Boomers in Patty Mills, David Andersen and Joe Ingles?
CB: To see how those guys operate on and off the court was a great learning experience – as was the whole Oceania Championships. It gave me a first-hand insight into what it takes to play at that level.
Being involved in the Boomers program was a great experience and certainly something I’d like to be involved with again in the future, but there is obviously a lot of work to be done to consistently play at that level.
BA: You played more games for Australia than any other player during 2013. How did that exposure to international basketball help you on your return to New Mexico and become one of the top players in college basketball?
CB: I think playing so many games and to get game experience in the off-season, as opposed to just training, helped improve my confidence going back to the college level.
Working with Andrej (Lemanis – Australian Boomers Head Coach) and the national team players in so many different environments and situations helps your development and understanding of different ways you need to play to improve and become better.
BA: The dangling carrot for all Australian Boomers hopefuls in 2014 is the FIBA Basketball World Cup. You had a taste of playing for Australia in 2013 – does that make you hungrier to make that team?
CB: It would be something that I would love to be a part of; given the opportunity I would love to compete for a position on the team. However, I understand how tough it is with the depth of Australian bigs at the moment.
It’s definitely something I’m aiming for to be a part of that squad, but I know I have to get a lot better for that to happen.