When the pundits picked San Diego State to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball standings and omitted the Aztecs from The Associated Press preseason Top 25, they didn’t consider the “X” factor.
That would be Xavier Thames – “X” to teammates, friends and fans.
An unsung senior at the start of the season, the Pleasant Grove High School graduate has emerged as one of the best point guards in the country in leading the 17-1 Aztecs to national prominence.
Under coach Steve Fisher,
* Thethe Aztecs have won 16 consecutive games, the school’s second-longest steak in 93 seasons, after beating host San Jose State 75-50 Wednesday night. San Diego State’s only loss was to current No. 1 Arizona on Nov. 14 in San Diego.
Unranked at the beginning of the season, the Aztecs are now No. 7 in The Associated Press and USA Today polls, their highest ranking since reaching No. 4 in the 2010-11 season. They have six wins over 2013 NCAA Tournament teams and three victories over AP Top 25 squads, including a 61-57 decision over current No. 8 Kansas on Jan. 5 that ended the Jayhawks’ 68-game home nonconference winning streak.
San Diego also is 6-0 in conference play for the first time in 44 seasons.
“It’s crazy,” Thames said. “We’re just real focused. We’ve been able to win a lot of close games, so credit our coaching staff. But we knew we’d be good before the season started, even if others didn’t.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Thames leads the team in scoring (16.9 points per game), assists (2.6), steals (1.8), 3-point field-goal percentage (.456), free-throw percentage (.811) and game-turning plays.
He also sets the tone – “He’s a terrific defender,” Fisher said – for a team that ranks second in points allowed per game (55.4).
“Thames is the provocateur, the offensive go-to guy for the Aztecs,” said Bill Herenda, a college television analyst for ESPN who lives in Sacramento. “He makes them percolate.
“His decision making, his ability to get into the paint and shoot the 3-ball, his handling of defensive pressure and his overall basketball IQ are big reasons for San Diego’s success so far.”
Thames’ talents were on full display against San Jose State in front of the Spartans’ largest crowd, an announced 4,117, in more than a decade. When San Jose State pulled within 29-24 early in the second half, Thames went to work.
He made two free throws after driving hard to the basket, grabbed an offensive rebound, hit a 3-pointer, set up a back-door dunk by Dwayne Polee, made a steal and assisted on a dunk by Winston Shepard. That sequence helped the Aztecs go on a 32-2 run.
Thames finished with a game-high 15 points, three rebounds and two assists in another performance not truly measured by statistics.
“ ‘X’ does so many things that don’t show up in the scorebook,” said Fisher, the former Michigan coach who has led the Aztecs to eight straight 20-win seasons. “He’s a leader by example, and his attitude is that he is part of a team, not the star of the team. He has blossomed into one of the really elite players in the country.”
Thames is now the Mountain West MVP front-runner and an All-America candidate.
“Thames makes the whole thing go,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, whose Rebels lost to the host Aztecs 63-52 on Saturday. “He’s become my new favorite player in the league.”
Thames is also a favorite among his younger teammates, especially former Sheldon stars and Bee Players of the Year Dakarai Allen and D’Erryl Williams, freshmen who are seeing playing time.
Allen, a 6-5 guard, has played in all but one game and averages 13.9 minutes. Williams, a 6-2 guard, has played in nine games and averages 8.7 minutes, although he’s been slowed by back and ankle injuries.
“I’ve known those guys since they were in elementary school,” said Thames, whose younger brother Malik grew up playing on travel teams with Allen and Williams. “I’m just trying to be like a big brother for them. Help them with things on and off the court. They both have bright futures.”
Allen appreciates everything Thames has done in helping him adjust from high school to Top 25 college basketball.
“He’s taught me a lot,” Allen said. “He’s been hard on me – like an older brother – but it’s all to make me better.”
Including former Sacramento High star Chase Tapley, who completed his eligibility after last season, a pipeline has been laid from Sacramento to San Diego State. Along with Thames, Allen and Williams, the Aztecs include redshirt sophomore Parker U’u from Jesuit (a Hartford transfer who is sitting out this season but practices with the team) and incoming recruit Malik Pope of Laguna Creek.
Thames, who grew up dreaming of playing in the Pacific-12 Conference, saw San Diego State as a better fit and transferred there after a season at Washington State, where he became homesick and missed the California sunshine.
“It was closer to home and an opportunity to work with a Hall of Fame coach in coach Fisher,” Thames said. “Chase was a big part of it, too. If I had to do it all over, I’d have gone to San Diego State right out of high school.”
Allen, Williams and Pope had other offers but chose San Diego State.
“I passed on UCLA to come here because I could see this is an up-and-coming program,” Allen said. “Getting a No. 7 ranking just helps show we’re headed in the right direction.”
Fisher sayid the Sacramento area has been a gold mine for his program.
“We’ve had great success with the Sacramento players,” Fisher said. “Chase came in and had a good experience. Kids talk, families talk.
“We’re not a perfect world, but I think the kids that we’ve had come here have grown as basketball players and as people.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.