Thames Is Able

March 12, 2013

By Mick McGrane

LAS VEGAS -- In college basketball, as in any sport, auditions are largely reserved for the preseason, a period when position battles are part of the routine and flaws have time to be fixed.

As a rule, auditions during the regular season are often rife with risk, when there's little time for nurturing and even less for acclimating a reserve to the rigors of a starting role.

And so it was when Aztecs junior point guard Xavier Thames experienced a twinge in his lower back in early January that coach Steve Fisher found himself weighing options that, while practical, were hardly bereft of peril.

For Fisher, the alternatives were largely limited to two players: freshman Winston Shepard, a power forward by definition with point guard experience at the prep level; and junior JJ O'Brien, another power forward who had tinkered with playing the point at Utah before transferring to SDSU prior to the 2011-12 season.

Yet this was less about addressing a void than backfilling an abyss. Thames, who as a freshman at Washington State (2009-10) played in all 31 games, was coming off a sophomore season at SDSU in which he also played in all 31 games --- 30 of them starts.

"We're definitely a different team when (he plays)," junior forward Jamaal Franklin said of Thames. "We lose a lot of maturity when he's out of the lineup and you end up bringing in people who are new to (the position). "X" makes us much more mature. He's a leader of our defense and a leader of our offense, so it makes a huge difference when he's out there."

Thames, who ultimately missed four of the Aztecs' first eight league games, has returned to play in the last eight, starting five. In Saturday's 69-65 setback at Boise State, he finished with a team-high 18 points while contributing three rebounds, three assists and two steals. Thames' scoring total represented his second highest of the season behind a 19-point performance against UCLA in December. He has scored in double figures in three of the last four games and in consecutive contests for the first time in more than two months. Despite not being 100 percent, he has averaged 33.5 minutes in his last two games and has just 12 turnovers in his last 282 minutes played.

"We need everybody ready to roll," said Fisher, whose No. 4 seed Aztecs will square off against No. 5 seed Boise State for the second time in five days when the teams meet in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Reese's Mountain West Championship at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Wednesday (9 p.m. PT). "Xavier Thames is a big piece to the success we've had the last two years. We need him, we need him playing, but more importantly we need him playing well.

"He's getting better. He needs to shoot the ball better, but we all do. It's nice having that comfort of being able to say, `We've got Xavier Thames, and I'm not worried about his back any longer.' I don't think he's in the same physical shape that he was in December, but that's the way it is. Every team in the country has nicks and bruises at this point in the season."

Nicks and bruises, however, do not come with the same warning label as back issues. In the Aztecs' 55-34 dismantling of regular-season champion New Mexico in late January, Thames, who finished 1-of-7 from the floor while playing 23 minutes, admitted to being in as much distress as he had been since the injury initially occurred.

"That was probably my toughest game," he said. "My back really hurt, but I fought through it and just tried to do the little things I could to help the team. When I couldn't play in the losses we had at Wyoming and Air Force, my mind was telling me I needed to get out there, but my body was telling me that I wasn't ready to go yet, that I had to be patient.

"Only people who have gone through something like this can appreciate how hard it is not being able to help your teammates. It's really hard having to sit out games like that, but everything happens for a reason. All you can do is move forward and try to stay patient and not get frustrated."

Following the team's win over New Mexico, Thames missed the ensuing two games against Air Force and Boise State, but said lessons learned from his vantage point on the sideline convinced him that silver linings to be located even on the darkest of days.

"When you're on the bench, you see a lot of things going on that you don't see on the court," he said. "I just tried to tell (Shepard and O'Brien) what I was seeing and tried to help them any way I could. There are a lot of aspects of the game that you see when you're not playing, and I think it's helped me since I've been back." It's certainly helped solidify the Aztecs, whom Fisher referred to as "headless" when Thames was initially forced to take a seat.

"I'm probably 85-90 percent right now, but I'm getting closer to 100 percent every day," he said. "I've been able to go for the full length of practice the last two or three weeks, so I feel like I'm getting there.

"But there isn't anything that's going to keep me out now. I don't care if I'm 40 percent; I'm playing. This is March Madness. Thankfully, I'm getting healthier now and we can make a run. It's time."