San Diego State coach Steve Fisher peered down from an NCAA news conference platform Saturday and remarked, “This is a funny business we’re in.”
Fisher’s words came after Xavier Thames had scored 53 points in 48 hours to lead the Aztecs out of an NCAA tournament subregional in Spokane — funny in that it was about an 80-mile drive from Washington State University, where Thames played his freshman season.
But those trying to stop the senior, known as “X,” found few things so funny. Thames gave a point-guard tutorial against New Mexico State and North Dakota State.
“That kid had a couple moves where, well, put it this way, we don’t have anybody that can simulate it in practice,” North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said after Thames scored 30 against the Bison.
It’s a funny business, Fisher said, because “you never know what’s going to come around the corner.”
Like Thames finding his way to the beaches of San Diego from the pastures in the Palouse?
Fisher thought he had lost Thames for good after recruiting him and former Aztecs star Chase Tapley from Sacramento. He landed only Tapley.
“I thought we were going to get X, too,” Fisher said. “They’re good buddies, and I was very disappointed when he chose Washington State.”
Thames didn’t stay long in Pullman. Shortly after Thames signed his letter of intent, coach Tony Bennett and his staff left WSU for Virginia.
It was too late for Thames to reopen his recruitment, so he stayed in Pullman for a year before starting to look for other options.
Thames was beaten out by Rainier Beach High School graduate Reggie Moore for the starting role at point guard that year, though he played in all 31 games, averaging 4.7 points.
Fisher was in Indianapolis for the Final Four in 2010 when he got a call saying Thames had received his release from Washington State.
“And they wanted to talk to us,” Fisher recalled. “I didn’t have to recruit him. He said he wanted to come.”
Four years later, Thames is the reigning player of the year in the Mountain West Conference, leading San Diego State into Thursday night’s West Region semifinal against top-seeded Arizona.
“He’s developed his game to where he is light years better than he was when he came to us,” Fisher said.
Thames was a redshirt in 2011, the only other time the Aztecs advanced to a regional, also in Anaheim, Calif. He was the understudy then to star guard D.J. Gay.
“People said, ‘What are we going to do for a point guard now that we don’t have D.J.?’ ” Fisher said. “And I smiled, inwardly knowing that we had a guy waiting in the wings to deliver. And he has delivered, and then some, for us.”
Thames is as important to his team as any player left in the tournament. He is the Aztecs’ top defender and, with an average of 17.4 points per game, is the leading scorer by more than five points.
Thames is the table-setter and unquestioned leader on a team that plays great defense but struggles to score. He had one turnover in 43 minutes last Thursday in an overtime win against New Mexico State.
It came near the end of regulation, allowing New Mexico State to send the game to overtime.
“That was completely my fault,” Thames said. “I took my eye off it. I thought somebody behind me was going to foul me, but nobody was near me. … I take the blame on that.”
Thames is one of several key transfers Fisher has carefully blended into the roster. Forward J.J. O’Brien came from Utah, and Josh Davis, whom Fisher called the final puzzle piece, started at Tulane.
“We have taken transfers,” Fisher said, “but we have taken good transfers who are good people.”
The players surrounding Thames are lanky, long and skilled defenders. They held North Dakota State, which led the nation in shooting at 51 percent, to 32 percent.
Thames said San Diego State tries to play lockdown defense like Florida, the nation’s No. 1 team.
The question leading into Thursday’s Sweet 16 is whether San Diego State has enough offense to stay with Arizona, which beat the Aztecs in November, 69-60.
Fisher expects Thames will keep things on an even keel.
“We don’t get too overly excited, nor do we get too despondent,” Fisher said.
So how did Thames’ departure work out for Washington State?
The Cougars finished 10-21 this season and 3-15 in Pac-12 Conference play. Ken Bone, the coach who replaced Bennett and named Moore the starter over Thames, was fired last week. Moore was, by then, long gone. He had been kicked off the team.
Bone told The Seattle Times last year, “In our mind, Reggie was the better player.”
Thames didn’t know after he left Pullman whether San Diego State would take him. But assistant Justin Hutson, who recruited Thames, hadn’t thrown away his file.
“Once he found out I was leaving again, he jumped right back on it,” Thames said. “So I’ve got to give a lot of credit to him and to coach Fisher and the coaching staff for still wanting me after leaving Washington State.”
It was pure coincidence that Thames had such a big first NCAA weekend so close to Cougar Nation.
“I’ve still got love for everybody at Washington State and this area,” he said.
It’s a funny business, though, and Thames got the last laugh.