SAN DIEGO – San Diego State’s journey to the program’s second Sweet 16 appearance began the day point guard Xavier Thames traded the Palouse 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 Region semifinals Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif.
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 at WSU 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, Calif.
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Funny, then, that San Diego State’s road to the Sweet 16 went through Spokane, which is about a 75-mile drive from 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 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.
Thames has stepped up in big moments, including in victories 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,” Fisher said of Thames’ effective play. “Everybody aspires to do it. Talking about it and doing it are sometimes two different things.”
• In quarterfinal NIT games, Clemson beat Belmont 73-68 and Minnesota defeated Southern Mississippi 81-73.
• Manhattan coach Steve Masiello had agreed to a five-year contract to become South Florida’s coach, but The Tampa Tribune reported the school killed the deal.
The newspaper, citing a source close to the coaching search, reported Masiello “had a previously undetected discrepancy in his background check.” The background-check information was discovered by Eastman & Beaudine, a Texas-based search firm.
• The Atlantic Coast Conference reportedly has completed a deal to play the ACC tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2017 and 2018. The event will be in Greensboro, N.C., next year and in Washington, D.C., in 2016.