Thames leads San Diego State to Sweet 16

SPOKANE, Wash. -- San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has kept kind of quiet about this season’s theme for the Aztecs.

"We can be better than expected. We can accomplish things that have never been accomplished," Fisher said. "We’re not surprised we’re still playing. … We think we’re good enough to play with anybody."

But with a 63-44 win over North Dakota State in the third round of the NCAA tournament, he now believes they are where they deserve to be, and Fisher is being a bit more vocal about that.

But he also knows that he wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for senior guard Xavier Thames.

"X will get a lot of the accolades," Fisher said. "He has been special and fantastic."

From a national perspective, Thames is a relative unknown. Though he was named the the Mountain West Conference’s player of the year after averaging 17.8 points per game, he hasn't usually been mentioned as one of college basketball's stars this season.

But he accounted for more than a quarter of the Aztecs’ scoring and 31 percent of their assists in 2013-14.

And in the NCAA tournament, he has only gotten better. Through two games, he has scored 53 points, recorded 10 assists, blocked 2 shots (he had only three before the tourney) and tallied 4 steals.

He single-handedly kept the Bison at bay during the Aztecs’ win on Saturday. He had a game-high 30 points, and every time it looked like North Dakota State would start to make a run, he’d hit a big shot -- a runner in the lane here, a long 3-pointer there.

"That kid was awesome," North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said. "In fact, we’re a good defensive team. That kid did it to our best defensive player, and he did it to an entire team that was looking at him."

The Aztec game plan was to set high ball screens to get Thames into the lane (which he did), but he also hit shots from the outside, knocking down four 3-pointers. His presence on the floor stretched the North Dakota State defense and opened up holes.

"I’ve got to give credit to those guys because I was getting to the lane kind of easy, making my shots," Thames added. "Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do those things."

But without Thames, the Aztecs wouldn’t be able to do this one really big thing -- make the Sweet 16.