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CHRIS DUFRESNE

Point guard Xavier Thames makes San Diego State a serious contender

Xavier Thames, a transfer from Washington State (10-21 this season), has led Aztecs to Sweet 16. 'This is a funny business,' Coach Steve Fisher says.

March 25, 2014|Chris Dufresne
  • Xavier Thames, the reigning Mountain West Conference player of the year, and the Aztecs will play Arizona in the Sweet 16 on Thursday in the South Regional semifinal in Memphis.
Xavier Thames, the reigning Mountain West Conference player of the year,… (Steve Dykes / Getty Images )

Steve Fisher, San Diego State's basketball coach, peered down from the high heaven of an NCAA news conference platform last 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 sub-regional in Spokane.

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, a dribble-drive from Pullman, Wash., where he began his career at Washington State.

Fisher thought he'd lost Thames for good after recruiting both him and former Aztecs star Chase Tapley out of 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 night'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. He had one turnover in 43 minutes Thursday in an overtime win against New Mexico State.

It came near the end of regulation, on an inbounds pass, and allowed New Mexico State to send the game to overtime.

"That was completely my fault," Thames said. "I took my eye off it. I thought somebody behind me was going to foul me, but nobody was near me. . . . I take the blame on that."

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%, to 32% 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.

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.

So how did Thames' departure work out for Washington State?

The Cougars finished 10-21 this season and 3-15 in Pac-12 Conference play. Ken Bone, the coach who replaced Tony Bennett and named Moore the starter over Thames, got fired last week. Moore was, by then, long gone. He had been kicked off the team.

Bone told the Seattle Times last year, "In our mind, Reggie was the better player."

Thames didn't know after he left Pullman whether San Diego State would give him another chance. But assistant coach Justin Hutson, who recruited Thames originally, hadn't thrown away his file.

"Once he found out I was leaving again, he jumped right back on it," Thames said. "So I got to give a lot of credit to him and to Coach Fisher and the coaching staff for still wanting me after leaving Washington State."

It was pure coincidence that Thames had such a big first NCAA weekend so close to Cougar Nation.

"I still got love for everybody at Washington State and this area," he said.

It's a funny business, though, and Thames got the last laugh.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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