SAN DIEGO — San Diego State’s journey to just its second Sweet 16 appearance began the day point guard Xavier Thames traded the wheat fields of eastern Washington for the beaches of Southern California.
"I think everybody would take the beach," said Thames, who will lead the fourth-seeded Aztecs against top-seeded Arizona in the West regional semifinals Thursday night in Anaheim.
Thames started his college career at Washington State, having signed his letter of intent before coach Tony Bennett left Pullman for Virginia. Thames played his freshman season and then transferred to San Diego State, which had been on his top-five list while he was being recruited out of Pleasant Grove High in Sacramento.
Funny, then, that SDSU’s road to the Sweet 16 went through Spokane, which is 90 miles north of Pullman. Thames scored 30 points and had five assists in leading the Aztecs to a 63-44, third-round victory against North Dakota State. Two days earlier, he had 23 points and five assists in an overtime victory against New Mexico State.
"I’m just glad I’m here at San Diego State. I’m an Aztec," said Thames, a senior. "It’s been a blessing, no doubt about that, coming here and having the success we’ve had the past few years. It’s been great."
The quiet Thames doesn’t call attention to himself.
His coach and teammates are more than happy to do that.
"He’s playing right now, in games like he had in Spokane, at an elite level," coach Steve Fisher said. "You hope you can get someone to do that. But he’s played defensively and with his brain all season. It’s well-documented when he wasn’t shooting it really well, he went 170-some-odd minutes without a turnover, guarded the best player on the perimeter on the other team, great help defender, all of that.
"But now when he’s scoring the ball the way he has in some of these games, he’s as good as any guard in the country."
Thames leads the Aztecs with 17.4 points and 3.3 assists per game. In the last five games, he has 26 assists and only seven turnovers.
Aside from a three-game slump midway through the Mountain West Conference season, Thames has had a great season. He was voted the conference player of the year and to a spot on the all-defensive team. He’s stepped up in big moments, including in wins at Kansas and against Creighton and Marquette as the Aztecs won the Wooden Legacy tournament in Anaheim.
"That’s what you’re supposed to do," said Fisher, who has the Aztecs in the NCAA tournament for a school-record fifth straight season. "Everybody aspires to do it. Talking about it and doing it are sometimes two different things. Xavier has that quiet confidence, and he’s not going to say, `Me, me, me, me, me,’ and pound his chest. The most outside exemplifications of his energy are he’ll occasionally put three fingers up if he makes one. But he’s not trying to draw attention to himself with theatrics."
His teammates would hate to think about where the Aztecs would be — or rather, wouldn’t be — without Thames.
"I couldn’t imagine," forward Dwayne Polee II said. "X is such a great player and great teammate and great friend. We’re blessed to have X on this team."
"I’m not sure. I don’t know," Shepard said. "He’s big-time, man. He’s been a great player for us all season and he makes good plays in the clutch."
Shepard gave only a glimpse of what Thames is like off the court.
"He’s very funny. He’s a jokester," Shepard said.
The Aztecs know that they’ll have to get scoring help from someone other than Thames and Polee to get past the Wildcats. Shepard has been held to single digits three times in four games.
Still, Thames doesn’t feel like he has to carry the Aztecs.
"No, not at all," he said. "Whatever coach needs me to do or my teammates need me to do, I’ll do it. For me putting the weight on my shoulders, I don’t think so. Basketball is a team game and without my teammates, I wouldn’t be playing how I’ve been playing lately."
Fisher said Thames is "playing with wonderful confidence. Our players have confidence in him. They know we want him to have the ball in situations, and he’s making good decisions. Whether it’s shoot it, pass it, how to probe and that kind of stuff."
Thames redshirted when the Aztecs reached the regional semifinals three years ago before losing to eventual national champion UConn.
They’ve drawn a tough opponent in Arizona, which beat SDSU by one point in a tournament in Hawaii last season and by nine points in San Diego in the second game this season.
Upsetting the Wildcats for SDSU’s first-ever Sweet 16 victory would "mean a lot just for everybody around here and the program," Thames said. "We’re going to go out there and give it our all."