Xavier Thames


Xavier Thames leads No. 4 San Diego State to first Sweet 16 since 2011

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It’s been the story for West Region No. 4 San Diego State all season long: when senior point guard Xavier Thames is rolling, the Aztecs are a very difficult team to beat. North Dakota State became the latest team to learn that lesson the hard way, as Thames led San Diego State to a 63-44 victory with 30 points and six assists.

Taking the points scored on the six baskets Thames assisted on into consideration, the point guard was responsible for 45 of the 63 points San Diego State scored against the Summit League champions.

Thames did much of the heavy lifting for San Diego State offensively, with his ability in ball screen situations proving to be too much for the Bison to handle as the game progressed. It should also be noted that the fifth-year senior had help in the form of junior wing Dwayne Polee II, who scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds off the bench. This is the fourth consecutive game in which Polee’s scored in double figures, and he’s a much-improved player for San Diego State since not having much of an impact during the first month of Mountain West play.

Counting last weekend’s Mountain West tournament Polee’s averaging 14.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in San Diego State’s last five games, and his growth is an important development for the Aztecs moving forward. If Polee can continue to have an impact off the bench, he gives San Diego State a needed supplementary option on the offensive end of the floor.

San Diego State’s win can’t be discussed without a mention of the defense, with the Aztecs making life difficult for Summit League Player of the Year Taylor Braun throughout the contest. Braun, who averaged 18.0 points per game, shot 2-for-14 from the field and scored seven points. San Diego State’s length was a significant issue for Saul Phillips’ team, with North Dakota State shooting 30.6% from the field and 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.

Yet even with the team defense and Polee’s contributions, it will be the play of Thames that sticks out for a San Diego State team headed back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011. And with Thames leading the way, the Aztecs are capable of accomplishing even more.

No. 4 San Diego State needs overtime to beat No. 13 New Mexico State

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In the final minute of regulation West Region No. 4 San Diego State led No. 13 New Mexico State by seven points, looking to be well on their way to advancing to the Round of 32. However the Aztecs missed free throws, and when Xavier Thames fumbled a pass out of bounds with 15.6 seconds remaining SDSU led by just three points. That set the stage for Kevin Aronis’ game-tying three-pointer with 5.6 seconds to go, forcing overtime in a game San Diego State should have wrapped up.

Luckily for San Diego State the Mountain West Player of the Year would make up for his turnover, scoring six of his 23 points in the extra session to lead the Aztecs to a 73-69 victory. Thames did much of his damage from the foul line, making ten of his 12 attempts from the charity stripe to make up for a 6-for-17 night from the field. And regardless of what Thames was able to do from the foul line, when he struggles from the field San Diego State will struggle as a whole.

That’s what happened against New Mexico State, which used a variety of defenses throughout the night including a triangle-and-2 and a 2-3 matchup zone. After establishing some separation late in the first half the Aztecs struggled offensively for much of the second, with Dwayne Polee II providing needed production off the bench in the form of 15 points and six rebounds. Where would San Diego State be without the efforts of Polee? More than likely on their way home.

Perimeter shooting has been a concern for much of this season, however San Diego State has managed to win due to their ability to work the ball into the paint. New Mexico State was able to keep San Diego State out of that area at times, and once the Aztecs got in there 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar was waiting to challenge shots. However because of the playmaking ability of Thames and Polee, San Diego State managed to escape with the win.

But will that be the case Saturday against No. 12 North Dakota State? The Bison use the pack line defense, a system that aims to keep the opposition from getting into the paint. And given San Diego State’s perimeter shooting (6-for-17 3PT vs. New Mexico State and 23-for-71 over their last five games) of late, this could be a major concern for the Aztecs if they’re unable to penetrate that defense.

However in spite of this issue San Diego State has managed to win 30 games, with Polee and Matt Shrigley providing solid minutes off the bench. They’ll need to do so once again if SDSU is to advance to the Sweet 16.

Mountain West Tournament: Tough afternoons for Xavier Thames, Winston Shepard III spell doom for No. 8 San Diego State

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No. 8 San Diego State isn’t a team that will light up the scoreboard offensively. With Xavier Thames and Winston Shepard III doing their best to probe the lane against the opposition, the Aztecs have been at their best when those two are on their game when it comes to both scoring an distributing the basketball to the supporting cast.

That wasn’t the case in Saturday’s Mountain West championship game, with Thames making just six of his 16 field goal attempts and Shepard shooting 4-for-15. With New Mexico struggling against the Aztecs’ 1-2-1-1 full court press, those off nights prohibited the Aztecs from taking advantage and gaining separation. The end result: a 64-58 Lobo victory, giving the program its third consecutive Mountain West tournament title.

RELATED: Role players step forward when needed for No. 20 New Mexico

If anything the pressure allowed the Aztecs to continue to stand toe-to-toe with New Mexico, as they scored 21 points off of 15 Lobo turnovers. But with Thames, who committed his fourth foul with 11:03 remaining, struggling offensively San Diego State led by no more than three points in the second half. Once New Mexico calmed down they were able to get better shots, turning the tables with Kendall Williams’ three-pointer with 26 seconds remaining being the final nail in the coffin.

It wasn’t all negative for the Aztecs, especially when it comes to the play of Dwayne Polee II. Polee scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, and his three days in Las Vegas is a key development for the Aztecs moving forward. Polee averaged 13.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, giving San Diego State some needed help on both ends of the floor.

It’s no secret that Thames and Shepard will be the focal points offensively, and their struggles on Saturday contributed to the Aztecs’ falling short of their goal. But if they can continue to get solid contributions from a more confident Polee, that will bode well for the Aztecs in the NCAA tournament.

This didn’t do the Aztecs much good Saturday afternoon, with New Mexico limiting San Diego State’s two best offensive options. The supplementary pieces are important, but if San Diego State is to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament they’ll need Thames and Shepard to be at their best.

No. 10 SDSU uses 26-4 run to beat No. 21 New Mexico, win MWC title

Alex Kirk, Skylar Spencer
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According to Synergy Sports Technology, No. 10 San Diego State played zone on just 2.6% of their possessions entering Saturday night.

Do the math, and in a 65 possession game, the Aztecs play, on averaged, less than two possessions were of zone. They’re a man-to-man team, so you can understand why No. 21 New Mexico prepared for what has been a stifling Aztec man-to-man defense this season.

And that’s why one, simple coaching maneuver changed the outcome of Saturday night’s de-facto Mountain West regular season title game. Down 41-25 midway through the second half and completely unable to contain the Lobo front line of Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, SDSU head coach Steve Fisher threw on an extended, 1-3-1 zone that completely confounded the Lobos.

SDSU would ratchet up their transition game, turning turnovers into layups, and go on a 26-4 run to close out the game, taking home the MWC championship with a 51-48 win.

MORE: A closer look at New Mexico’s collapse

The Aztecs’ finishing kick was sensational, and the quality of Fisher’s coaching this season cannot be overstated, but it won’t change the fact that the Lobos were simply pounding SDSU. The Aztecs have some major issues scoring in the half court, and even after they switched up their defenses, SDSU had some trouble getting clean looks at the basket when going up against a set UNM defense.

They got lucky. New Mexico wasn’t expecting that 1-3-1 zone. They didn’t know what to do against it. The element of surprise is what won them this game, but you better believe that every single team that SDSU will play in the next month will be keenly aware that Fisher has that zone in his back pocket. It’s on film now. New Mexico head coach Craig Neal won’t be caught asleep at the wheel again. None of the teams that SDSU faces in the MWC tournament will. Their NCAA tournament opponents will certainly be prepared.

So while this win is great, and the title puts a much-deserved bow on what has been an outstanding season for the Aztecs, it does nothing to change my overlying opinion on this group.

They’re tough defensively, but their inability to create offense in the half court is a major, major concern.

Winston Shepard III, Xavier Thames lead No. 10 San Diego State past UNLV

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Senior guard Xavier Thames has led the way all season long for No. 10 San Diego State, as he’s been the best scorer and playmaker for a team one win away from the outright Mountain West regular season title. That was once again the case Wednesday night in Las Vegas, but he had help down the stretch in the form of Winston Shepard III as the Aztecs beat UNLV 73-64.

Thames may have shot just 6-for-18 from the field for the game but he was far better in the second half, scoring 15 of his 19 points on 4-for-9 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers. Thames and Shepard combined to score San Diego State’s final 12 points, leading the Aztecs on a 14-5 run over the final 4:47 to move back into a tie for first place in the Mountain West with No. 21 New Mexico.

And the points scored by that tandem only tell part of the story. Simply put, Shepard and Thames are better decision-makers than any of UNLV’s primary ball-handlers, and that was evident down the stretch. Neither player committed a turnover on Wednesday night, with UNLV’s Deville Smith accounting for seven turnovers and Bryce Dejean-Jones adding three. Overall the Runnin’ Rebels turned the ball over 16 times, with San Diego State turning those opportunities into 19 points.

Thames and Shepard have been the leaders offensively this season and that’s going to be the case for the remainder of the season. But for San Diego State to make a serious run deep into March (and maybe even April) that tandem will need help, and against UNLV Dwayne Polee Jr. and Matt Shrigley provided it. Polee scored 13 points and Shrigley added 14, with all of his points coming in the second half. Shooting 33.7% from three on the season, Shrigley hit four of his five attempts from beyond the arc in the second half.

The contributions of Polee and Shrigley were needed against UNLV, with Josh Davis failing to score while battling foul trouble for much of the season, putting the Aztecs in position to win the game late. That’s when Thames and Shepard took over, guaranteeing that Saturday’s showdown with New Mexico will be a “winner take all” affair.

San Diego State’s underwhelming offense

Steve Fisher
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There are a few highly-ranked teams this season that thrive on defense but have so far left much to be desired on the other side of the ball. One such squad San Diego State. Despite their overwhelming victory against San Jose State tonight — 90-64, a game in which the Aztecs scored 1.20 points per possessions — SDSU truly struggles executing their halfcourt offense.

Other than Arizona, there isn’t another team this year that can lock up an opponent like Steve Fisher’s group. The Aztecs have defensively stymied opponents, holding teams overall to .91 points per possession — that OPPP is still a robust .95 in Mountain West play — but the Aztecs are an offensive mess. Of the handful of teams that could compete for the national title this year, a group that includes SDSU, no other squad possesses a lower offensive efficiency rating than SDSU (1.06 PPP). They don’t have a perimeter outlet since SDSU doesn’t take, or make, many threes, so the majority of their scoring has to come from within the arc or at the bucket, but that offense, specifically their two-point shooting, has suffered, hovering around 45 percent in conference play.

One would think a team with Xavier Thames, however, one of the country’s most dynamic guards, would field at least a somewhat competent offense, but Fisher’s squad simply has trouble getting easy baskets. The reason is surprising — SDSU is way too dependent on one-on-one and isolation possessions. The team’s assist rate is one of the lowest in Division I, a shocking 38.4 percent; nearly three-quarters of SDSU’s field goal attempts come in the halfcourt and the team’s effective field goal percentage for a non-transition attempt is under 50 percent. Taking the numbers deeper, and a troubling pattern is further fleshed out: a majority of the shots in those halfcourt sets are twos, and the Aztecs’ field goal percentage is just 32.5 percent.

A significant problem for the Aztecs is ball-watching: both Thames and Winston Shepard have usage rates of more than 25 percent, but no one Aztec who plays significant minutes has a rate over 20 percent. The team relies too heavily on both guards to create and distribute that the offense suffers when an opponent does manage to contain the backcourt.

This offensive stagnancy was evident in this weekend’s loss to New Mexico, managing only four assists and posting one of their worst offensive efficiency ratings this year (.75 PPP). San Diego State’s top 25 ranking is largely attributed to their defensive fortitude, but if the Aztecs fall early in the NCAA tournament, a large factor will likely be this inability to score.