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.
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.
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.
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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.