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San Diego State rides brutish defense and scoring of Thames

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SPOKANE, Wash. -- It wasn't like North Dakota State didn't get the memo. Playing for offensively challenged San Diego State, Xavier Thames tends to stand out.

The Aztecs guard has accounted for a quarter of his team's scoring this season. The senior is San Diego State's best 3-point shooter, leading scorer and -- oh, yeah -- the Mountain West player of the year.

So before the darlings of Spokane did anything, North Dakota State might have figured out a way to stop No. 2. The Bison didn't -- actually, failing miserably -- in losing to the Aztecs 63-44 in their West Region Round of 32 game.

Thames applied the sleeper hold to Cinderella, scoring 30 while pushing the Aztecs into next week's West Region against the winner of Sunday's Arizona-Gonzaga game.

The way the Aztecs are rolling, next weekend in Anaheim might cap the Steve Fisher West Coast odyssey. The program is advancing to only its second Sweet 16, each in the past four years and each under Fisher who turns 69 on Monday.

In his 15 seasons at the school, Fisher has gradually chiseled out West Coast powerhouse. That most of the muscle comes from Fisher's smothering defense is OK.

Who cares if watching San Diego State execute offensively sometimes is like witnessing Jackie Gleason getting dressed? Yeah, it's that ugly.

The whole story of another Sweet 16 shot may be credited to Fisher for giving Thames another chance. The coach had recruited both Chase Tapley and Thames out of Sacramento. Tapley came to San Diego. After a disappointing freshman season at Washington State (4.6-point average in 31 games), Thames sought to transfer.

Fisher was in Detroit for that year's Final Four, when he got the call.

"I didn't have to re-recruit him," the coach said. "He said he wanted to come. We knew what we were getting in terms of the person. He has developed his game to where he's light years beyond what he was when he came to us."

In San Diego, Thames became the face of a program this season -- averaging 17 points, five more than anyone else. The Aztecs were picked fourth in the conference before rolling to 31 wins, the Mountain West title and now that West Region in Anaheim.

The season started with the country ogling the big four freshmen -- Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon. It may be ending with upperclassmen doing what upperclassmen are supposed to do. Lead, score, be the best players at the best times.

Look at Michigan State with seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling or Creighton with Doug McDermott. Wichita State is undefeated with seven core returning players from a Final Four team.

The Aztecs' best offensive threat sometimes seems like its only offensive threat. North Dakota State has no excuses, then, for letting Thames get loose.

"Put it this way, we didn't have any way to simulate [him] in practice," North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said. "Would I do something different? Yeah, because this [plan] didn't work."

Thames was the otherwise shining offensive light on yet another brutal San Diego State defensive battle. He's the smoothie amongst broken glass, the swan floating amidst ugly ducklings.

North Dakota State -- the most accurate team in the nation -- shot 32 percent. Marshall Bjorklund -- the most accurate shooter in the nation -- collected all of three baskets on seven shots. Summit League player of the year and the Bison's leading scorer Taylor Braun missed 12 of 14 shots.

"It was," forward Josh Davis said, "a typical defensive game."

Thames shot the Aztecs into history almost by himself scoring almost half their points. He had nine baskets. The rest of the team, combined, had 10.

Those 30 points looked like a 50-point game for a team that has to work so hard to score. San Diego State is in that second Sweet 16 in four years because of the obvious. Thames can maneuver, run the floor and provide some balance to an otherwise one-sided team. But you kind of accept that going in. The Aztecs are second nationally in scoring defense, fourth in three-point defense.

Thames is one of five players in Division I to average at least 17 points, shoot at least 37.5 percent from the arc and have 110 assists to go with 55 steals and 55 3s.

We'll give you a minute to catch your breath. There's more. Thames went only five games (190 minutes) without a turnover during one stretch this season. In a combined 78 minutes here in Spokane, he turned it over only three times to go along with 53 points.

One of those turnovers led to the tying basket in Thursday's opening-round game against New Mexico State that sent the contest into overtime.

"I was pretty motivated [after that]," Thames said. "I'm motivated for each and every game. I'm always ready to play."

Thank goodness, for the defensive-minded Aztecs.

 
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