People around the San Diego State basketball program are used to being overlooked by the media and other honor-conferring entities. After losing four of the top eight players from last year's 23--11 team, the program was picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference and didn't earn a single vote in the preseason AP poll. Yet after beating Colorado State 65--56 at home last Saturday—coach Steve Fisher's 300th win since taking over on Montezuma Mesa in 1999—the fifth-ranked Aztecs are 19--1, with wins over No. 8 Kansas and No. 12 Creighton. Their only blemish is a 69--60 loss at home to then No. 6 Arizona on Nov. 14.
Even so, when Fisher learned that his star point guard, 6' 3" senior Xavier Thames, had been left off the 25-player midseason Wooden Award list, he was baffled. "If there are five players in the United States playing better or doing more for a team with one loss, I'd like to have you name them," Fisher says.
His point is clear. One of the nation's top defenders, Thames led the Aztecs with 18.0 points per game at week's end and was making 43.3% of his threes and 82.7% of his free throws. His kenpom.com offensive rating of 121.5 was tied with Wooden favorite Doug McDermott for second-best in the country, meaning Thames should be basking in a lot more glory.
On the flip side, Thames's candidacy for a national award is hindered by the Aztecs' steady diet of tip-offs past the bedtimes of East Coasters, and frankly, some of his stats don't dazzle: His 2.7 assists a game don't scream elite distributor and his 1.8 steals rank well below the averages of Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart (2.5) and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis (2.3), both established media darlings.
Moreover, the unassuming Thames has never sought or attracted much hype. As a kid growing up in Sacramento, he relished playing defense and idolized the Sonics' Gary Payton, the lone point guard to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. After a year as a backup at Washington State, Thames transferred to SDSU, only to be hobbled by a sprained right MCL his redshirt sophomore year and a strained back last year. Finally healthy—Thames spent 45 minutes a day working just on core strength with team trainer Tom Abdenour in the off-season—he has blossomed into an elite defender and go-to scorer who can twist through traffic for and-ones as well as he can sink threes.
The Aztecs' best-in-the-nation free throw shooting margin of 11.8 owes much to the skill and savvy of Thames, who gets to the line 6.7 times a game and makes 5.5 shots on average. At the same time, he commits just two fouls per game, a remarkable feat given that he plays 30.0 minutes as the key disrupter for one of the country's most suffocating pressure defenses. (In the win over Kansas on Jan. 5, for example, Thames helped hold the Jayhawks to 29.8% shooting, the lowest at Allen Fieldhouse since Dec. 1, 1998.) SDSU was holding opponents to 36.2% shooting through Sunday, best in the country, and to just 56.1 points a game, which ranks third. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Aztecs' pressure is the blindingly quick hands of Thames, who often strips opponents of the ball right as they are about to shoot or pass. "He is so smart defensively," says Fisher. "He never gets hit on a screen, he leads us in steals and he's always there to cover for somebody else. He does what you hope your best player does at both ends of the floor."
Thames's performance in the second half and overtime of the Aztecs' 74--69 win on Jan. 25 at Utah State—home of the Hurd, arguably the rowdiest student section in the country—perfectly encapsulates his value: Over those two periods he had 23 points (of a career-high 31), including three (of five) threes and six (of eight) free throws; four assists, three steals and zero turnovers. "X is clutch," says Aztecs sophomore forward Winston Shepard. "In the big game, in the big moment, he always comes through for us."
"In the big game, in the big moment, he always comes through for us," says a teammate.
CHRIS WILLIAMS/ICON SMI