Late-bloomer Xavier Thames making the most of his senior season

Tuesday February 11th, 2014

Xavier Thames prepares to make last-second shots at the end of every San Diego State practice.
Kent Horner/Getty Images

The dominant story in college basketball this week was the sad spiral of Wooden Watch stalwart Marcus Smart, whose poor shooting, emotional outbursts, mounting losses and, recently, three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan, have taken him from the top of this list several weeks ago to absent from it entirely this week. Even without Smart, there's still not enough room on this list for all the worthy candidates for runner-up, since Doug McDermott still has this thing locked up.

Spotlight On: Xavier Thames, San Diego State

Sometime within the first 30 minutes of every San Diego State practice, a manager will put 10 minutes on the clock for a series of shooting drills. As the last seconds tick down, senior point guard Xavier Thames prepares to take a final shot, usually from well beyond the three-point line. But first he looks around for assistant Brian Dutcher, who tracks his buzzer-beating makes and misses. If Thames has been on a hot streak, Dutcher runs out to defend him, "because if I don't go out there, he makes almost all of them," says Dutcher.

Head coach Steve Fisher says he doesn't think Thames has missed five of those in-practice buzzer beaters, with or without Dutcher's D, all year. "I think he does it so he can prove he's the guy that needs to take the last-second shot," says Fisher.

Not that Thames needs to prove anything to the people who see him play every day.

He is not only the Aztecs' biggest scoring threat -- he scores 18.2 points a game while shooting 44.3 percent from the arc and 83.7 percent from the stripe, all team bests -- he is their best defender.

The Aztecs' pressure defense doesn't have a trademark-ready name such as HAVOC, PAIN or 40 minutes of Hell, but it is still a miserable force to encounter, thanks in no small part to Thames, who guards 94 feet and never seems to stick on screens. He doesn't gamble much -- the Aztecs can't afford to have a player who accounts for almost 25 percent of their scoring in foul trouble -- but he still comes up with nearly two steals a game. "He does this thing with his hands where he gets a lot of steals when guys go up for their shots," says teammate Winston Shepard. "As guys are getting ready to pull up, he always has that hand right there."

Thames' gift and passion for defense has deep roots. An uncle on his mom's side, Al Gross, was a safety for the Cleveland Browns from 1983-89. Thames's favorite player growing up was Seattle SuperSonic Gary Payton, the only point guard ever to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. The advice of his mom, Angie -- "If you want to be like the Glove, you have to lock down your opponent" -- was one of Thames' guiding hoops principles from grade school on. "For as long as I can remember, I've been defensive minded," he says.

A top-20 ranked point guard at Pleasant Grove High outside Sacramento, Thames signed with Washington State and played a year in Pullman before transferring to San Diego State. After spending his transfer year on the scout team facing a roster that included Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin (both now in the NBA) and point guard DJ Gay, who now plays overseas, he endured a sophomore season hobbled by a knee injury and a junior year slowed by a herniated disk. Finally healthy this season, he has blossomed, especially on offense.

Whether he's flicking up scoop shots and floaters in traffic or launching long threes, Thames has become such a confident shooter he sometimes reminds Fisher of former Michigan guard Glen Rice, a prolific scorer who led Fisher's Wolverines to the 1989 NCAA title. "When Glen was on one of those shooting binges, where he could hit from further out and further out, you'd be shocked if he actually missed," says Fisher. "That's the way X is."

Even in practice.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

After Steve Lavin's strategy of making McDermott beat St. John's by himself backfired in a game in Omaha on Jan. 28 (McDermott had 39 points, including the game-winning 3), Lavin had his team focus on throttling McDermott for his debut in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 9. The result? McDermott still had 25 points, but few were easy and none came in the last 8:40 as the Bluejays lost, 70-65. The week was not a total loss, however. In a 78-66 win over DePaul two days earlier, McDermott had 32 points on 13 free throws and nine buckets, which made him the first DI player to make 1,000 field goals in his career since Indiana's Calbert Cheaney reached that milestone in 1993. It was also McDermott's eighth 30-point game of the season. McDermott through 23: 25.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 49.9 percent from the field, 89.4 percent from the free-throw line.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke

The freshman's week started off impressively enough, with 21 points and eight rebounds in an 83-63 rout of Wake Forest at Cameron. But on Saturday in Chestnut Hill, Parker really showed off his stuff, notching 29 points and 16 rebounds, both career highs, against an array of defenses designed to slow him, in a 89-68 rout at Boston College. Parker wasn't perfect -- he missed five of his 10 free throws, got beat on D more than once, and earned a technical late in the second half for hanging on the rim a little too long -- but he was undeniably dominant. Parker through 24: 19.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 48.2 percent shooting.

3. Xavier Thames, San Diego State

Coach Steve Fisher likes to talk about all the things Thames does "that perhaps only a coach can appreciate," such as sliding off screens, helping on D, and getting to the free throw line often without fouling too much on the other end. Even though he doesn't get a lot of assists, Thames is also great on finding the open man when it matters. Case in point: After the Aztecs had crawled back from a 14-point deficit in the second half at Boise State on Feb. 5 -- thanks in large part to 15 second-half points by Thames -- they were down 65-64 with less then 10 seconds to go. The ball was in the hands of Thames, who looked like he was about to loft a game-tying floater to add to his 23 points. Suddenly he whipped a pass beyond the arc to Dwayne Polee II, who gave Thames his second assist of the night by draining a game-winning three with 4.2 seconds left. And the week was still young: Three nights later, Thames had 17 points, including 8-of-9 free throws and five assists, in the Aztecs 73-58 win over Nevada, which tied a school record for 20-straight wins. Thames through 22: 18.1 points, 3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 44.3 percent from the three.

4. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Syracuse hadn't won 23 games in a row since 1918, but thanks in large part to Fair's 19 points and seven rebounds in a 57-44 win over Clemson on Feb. 9, the Orange has done it again. Fair through 23: 16.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 44.5 percent shooting.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona

In the Wildcats' first game since losing Brandon Ashley for the season in a loss at Cal, they were pushed to the wire by a struggling Oregon squad. But defense, and Johnson, saved the day. Among his 18 points in the 67-65 win, Johnson hit 8-of-11 free throws, including 5-of-6 in the final 47 seconds. In a 76-54 blowout of Oregon State four days later, he was what he prefers to be: just one part of a well-oiled machine. He contributed 10 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Johnson through 24: 15.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 46 percent shooting from the field.

6. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati

Cincinnati's most recent game, a 76-55 loss at SMU that saw its 15-game win streak skid to a halt, was not a great one for Kilpatrick, even though he had 22 points -- his 13th 20-point game of the season -- six rebounds and three assists. (He made just 5-of-18 shots, including 3-of-12 threes.) But that's how good he is. In the Bearcats' previous game, a 63-58 win over Connecticut on Feb. 6, he was spectacular, scoring 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting (including 5-of-8 threes) and adding 12 rebounds and six assists. It was a performance that was all sorts of wonderful, according to the ESPN Stats crew, who noted that Kilpatrick was just the fourth player in the last 15 years to hit those numbers in a game. It also put him over the 1,900-point threshold and keeps him on pace to finish his career as Cincinnati's second all-time leading scorer, behind only Oscar Robertson. Kilpatrick through 25: 19.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists.

7. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

Napier had a tough outing Thursday against Cincinnati's vise-like defense, shooting just 5-for-19 from the field, including 2-for-12 from the arc, for 16 points and three assists. (One miss from beyond the arc could have put the Huskies ahead with 30 seconds to go.) But in a 75-55 win at UCF on Sunday, Bazz was Bazz again, scoring 17 points (on 6-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-4 from the arc,) to go with 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block. Through 23 games, he still leads his team in just about everything: points (17.7), rebounds (5.9), assists (5.9) and steals (1.8).

8. Russ Smith, Louisville

In the Cards' 77-62 win over Houston on Feb. 5 -- played without forward Wayne Blackshear, who sat out with a concussion -- Smith was his usual productive self, delivering 17 points and six assists. With that win the Cards embarked on their second eight-day break in less than a month, which gives us an opportunity to step back and admire a few particulars of Smith's season so far. Consider: In 23 games, he has never failed to score in double-digits. (Even Doug McDermott can't say that.) And while his overall 3-point shooting hovers just below 40 percent, in league play he has been connecting at a 53.1 percent clip. Smith through 23: 18.3 points; 4.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals per game.

9. Adreian Payne, Michigan State

With Gary Harris having his worst offensive game of the season in Sparty's 60-58 loss at Wisconsin on Sunday -- 6 points on 3-for-20 shooting, including 0-for-7 from the three -- and with Keith Appling and Branden Dawson both out indefinitely, it only seemed right and proper to cede this space once again to the versatile big man from Dayton, Ohio. After sitting out seven games with a foot injury, Payne returned to action on Feb. 2, and got 12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and a block in 18 minutes in a win over Penn State. At Wisconsin, he delivered 24 points, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 58 with 12 seconds to go. Despite the loss, Michigan State's future looks bright. Appling and, possibly, Dawson, will be back eventually and Harris will bounce back to form. Payne through 16 (MSU has played 23): 15.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 52.5 percent from floor; 42.9 percent from the arc; 81 percent from the stripe.

10. Julius Randle, Kentucky

Every once in a while, we get a reminder that Randle is, after all, a freshman. In the Wildcats' win at Mississippi State on Saturday, coach John Calipari let Randle know he wasn't happy with the forward's help defense for Dakari Johnson. Randle's response? At the next opportunity, he helped in an exaggerated way, and gave up two 3s. "That's what babies do," said Calipari after the game. But babies do not deliver 16 points and 7 rebounds, a steal, a block and an assist. Randle is still leading the Wildcats in scoring and rebounds, but he hasn't had a double-figure rebounding performance since he pulled down 11 boards against Texas A&M on Jan. 21, six games ago. Randle through 23: 16 points, 9.8 rebounds, 53 percent shooting.

In the Wings: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State; DeAndre Kane, Iowa State; Kyle Anderson, UCLA; Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Chaz Williams, UMass; Lamar Patterson, Pitt; Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico; Aaron Gordon, Arizona; Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State; Jahii Carson, Arizona State; Melivin Ejim, Iowa State; Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Casey Prather, Florida; Tyler Ennis, Syracuse

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