Point guard Xavier Thames is the Aztecs’ leading scorer and best defender
Los Angeles Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Mar 27, 2014
LOS ANGELES >> Steve Fisher, San Diego State's basketball coach, peered down from the high heaven of an NCAA news conference platform Saturday and remarked, "This is a funny business we're in."
Fisher's words came after Xavier Thames had scored 53 points in 48 hours to lead the Aztecs out of an NCAA subregional in Spokane, Wash.
It wasn't funny if you were trying to stop the senior known as "X," who was definitely a factor in giving a point-guard tutorial against New Mexico State and North Dakota State.
"That kid had a couple moves where, well, put it this way, we don't have anybody that can simulate it in practice," North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said after Thames scored 30 against the Bison.
It's a funny business, Fisher said, because "you never know what's going to come around the corner."
Thames had his two shining moments in Spokane, just a dribble-drive from Pullman, Wash., where he began his career at Washington State.
Fisher thought he'd lost Thames for good after recruiting him and former Aztecs star Chase Tapley from Sacramento. He landed only Tapley.
"I thought we were going to get X too," Fisher said. "They're good buddies and I was very disappointed when he chose Washington State."
Thames didn't stay long in Pullman, though. Beaten out by Reggie Moore for the starting role at point guard, Thames left after his freshman season.
Fisher was in Detroit for the Final Four in 2009 when he got a call saying Thames had received his release from Washington State.
"And they wanted to talk to us," Fisher recalled. "I didn't have to recruit him; he said he wanted to come."
Five years later, Thames is the reigning player of the year in the Mountain West Conference and leading San Diego State into Thursday's West Regional semifinal against Arizona.
"He's developed his game to where he is light-years better than he was when he came to us," Fisher said.
Thames was a redshirt in 2011, the only other time the Aztecs advanced to a regional, also in Anaheim. He was the understudy then to star guard D.J. Gay.
"People said, 'What are we going to do for a point guard now that we don't have D.J.?'" Fisher said. "And I smiled, inwardly knowing that we had a guy waiting in the wings to deliver. And he has delivered, and then some, for us."
Thames is as important to his team as any player left in the tournament. He is the Aztecs' top defender and, with an average of 17.4 points per game, is the leading scorer by more than five points. Winston Shepard, at 11.7, is the only other Aztecs player averaging in double figures.
Thames is the table-setter and unquestioned leader on a team that plays great defense but struggles to score.
Thames is one of several key transfers Fisher has carefully blended into the roster. Forward J.J. O'Brien came from Utah and Josh Davis, whom Fisher called the final puzzle piece, started at Tulane.
"We have taken transfers," Fisher said, "but we have taken good transfers who are good people. We have been selective."
The players surrounding Thames are lanky, long and skilled defenders. They collectively held North Dakota State, which led the nation in shooting at 51 percent, to 32 percent Saturday.
Thames said San Diego State tries to play lock-down defense like Florida, the nation's No. 1 team, which is playing UCLA on Thursday in a South Regional semifinal in Memphis, Tenn.
The question leading into Thursday's game at Honda Center is whether San Diego State has enough offense to stay with Arizona. The Wildcats won at San Diego in November, 69-60. The Aztecs wouldn't lose again for nearly three months.
Fisher expects that Thames will keep things on an even keel. "We don't get too overly excited, nor do we get too despondent," Fisher said.
South Regional >> in Memphis, Tenn.
West Regional >> In Anaheim, Calif.