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Archive for Sunday, January 5, 2014

Column: Aztecs guard Thames a tough matchup for Jayhawks

January 5, 2014

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The 21st-ranked San Diego State men’s basketball team not only features the nation’s second-best two-point field goal percentage defense (.388) and the least-praised great coach of his era(s?), Steve Fisher, it also has the country’s most underrated guard.

Xavier Thames, a fifth-year senior who spent his freshman season at Washington State, leads the Aztecs in scoring (16.3 points per game), assists (2.5), steals (2.0) and three-point percentage (.474).

It figures that Thames has a game bigger than his name. The one-and-done rule in some ways has turned college basketball into a marketing arm of the NBA, a league that benefits from evaluating prospects with a year of college experience, as opposed to guessing on players right out of high school.

So much of the national coverage of college hoops centers on players’ NBA prospects and it even has trickled down to the rating of high school prospects.

A Class of 2009 three-star recruit out of Sacramento, Thames doesn’t fit that profile. Even so, he earned national player of the week honors from two websites after scoring a combined 55 points in the final two games of the Wooden Legacy tournament won by the Aztecs.

“Xavier Thames is playing as good a basketball as anyone in the country right now,” Fisher said on Dec. 1. “Complete control. Not trying too hard. Making plays that a fifth-senior makes to help his team be successful.”

Instead of ever generating talk as to when he’ll take his game to the NBA, Thames’ game represents what college is supposed to be all about: personal growth for the benefit of everyone in the community, in this case, his team. His three-point shooting percentages, starting with his freshman season, track that growth perfectly: .265, .308, .356, .474.

He doesn’t need much room to get his shot off and, at 6-foot-3, represents a matchup problem for many point guards. Surrounded by four starters who are 6-7 or taller, he has season highs of 29 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. He’s coming of a 23-point, five-steal effort in a 10-point victory at Colorado State.

The Aztecs (11-1) take a 10-game winning streak into Allen Fieldhouse for today’s 3:30 p.m. tipoff. Their lone loss, 69-60, came at home against now No. 1 Arizona on Nov. 14.

Thames kept that from becoming a blowout by scoring 10 of his team’s final 14 points in the final 6:18, twice hitting three-pointers that drew San Diego State within seven points

Watching Kansas’ sub-6-foot point guards defend Thames will make for an interesting subplot in a game that features two of the 11 active college basketball coaches with a national championship in their pasts. Fisher’s came in 1989 with Michigan, 19 years before Self won it all with Kansas.

The other nine: Larry Brown (1988, Kansas), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 ), Rick Pitino (1996 with Kentucky, 2013 with Louisville), Tubby Smith (Kentucky, 1998), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (2000), Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (2003), North Carolina’s Roy Williams (2005, 2009), Florida’s Billy Donovan (2006, 2007) and Kentucky’s John Calipari (2012).

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