There’s a good chance Derrick Marks thought Wednesday night was his chance. This would be the time he and the Broncos would best Thames and the Aztecs. Then the final minute of regulation came. Marks v. Thames has been one of the sneakiest match ups to watch this season in the Mountain West Conference. Both lead guards are well established leaders for their teams, but are also surrounded with quite a bit of talent. Neither player is the in-your-face or crazily excitable type. They’re both as cool as they come. And they put the ball in the bucket.
Boise State trailed big at Viejas Arena earlier this year, only to have their late comeback attempt thwarted by the Aztecs, who always seem to find a way to finish off close games. For most of Wednesday night’s contest, it looked like the same would happen, but Boise State was the home team this time.
J.J. O’Brien was called for a walk with one minute to play. Boise State ball with a three point lead. Not even three seconds went by. Marks relaxed for just a split second as he brought it up against what he thought was just light pressure from Xavier Thames. Suddenly the ball was poked away and X was on his was to the free throw line to shoot two. It was a tough break for Marks. I’m not quite sure how many guys even apply that light pressure as Thames did to make that steal possible. But the senior leader of this top 5 squad wasn’t ready to see that ranking slide.
Thames hit both free throws. About 20 seconds later, Marks drove the lane, but had his shot in the lane sent away by Dwayne Polee. Amazingly in hindsight, that wasn’t even Polee’s biggest play of the night! Marks got the ball back in his hands off the inbound and saw Thames right across from him. Those two once again. Marks made his approach and as he attacked he got Thames backpedaling. X took a swipe as Marks stopped to pull up from the left elbow area. Remember, X took a swipe at the ball in the hands of Marks before a shot attempt late in the first meeting this season and was rewarded with a no call. This time, X came up empty. Marks had a clean look. But it came off strong.
Now you surely know the end result of the game if you’re reading. The final play still seems to be the only highlight anyone finds to show of SDSU. Blows my mind that one or two plays is all that seems fitting to recap the game of a top 5 team (Wichita State fans can relate), but I’ll admit I’m a fan. Dwayne Polee (and J.J. O’Brien!) scored 9 apiece against Boise State, but the timing of each point those two scored was crucial. I could point at each spot in the box score and explain it, but there’s a much bigger point to make here.
Dwayne Polee hit the shot. He’s hit big shots for this team already this season, but this one stands alone. Remember – the Aztecs were down just one when he took the shot. If he had missed some people would probably be angry at him for choosing not to drive in. Or, we might have wished Xavier Thames had taken a contested floater and at least known J.J. O’Brien and Josh Davis would be in fairly decent offensive rebounding position. And that brings me to my point.
Relatively speaking, Xavier Thames has taken a beating for his “low” assist totals. I can’t keep track of the seemingly dozens of commentators we’ve heard thus far between ESPNU, CBS Sports Network, and the infamous ESPN3, but I’ve heard that same point in two of the last three games, and multiple times before that. That idea is so flawed. And it discredits Thames, who is a top 5 candidate for the Wooden Award today.
Assists are not the only measuring stick for playmaking. An assist takes two. So, if a guy finishes a lay in on the roll from Thames, it makes him look better, but if those guys aren’t finishing, someone turns that into a reason to pick X apart. I really wish these stats were readily available, but I’d be willing to bet the majority of field goal attempts for the Aztecs this season have come from Thames, Shepard, and O’Brien within 15 feet of the basket. Those three guys account for so much of the offense, and they do it off their own drives. Sometimes they require a screen, but stats can’t always tell the full story.
San Diego State is a team built around Thames pick and rolls, Shepard isos or drives, and O’Brien quick dribble drives or post ups. This isn’t a offensive with the ball flying around the perimeter with jumpers going up left and right. This team takes most of their shots after a few dribbles to the rim. And they shoot a ridiculous amount of free throws.
You can’t assist a free throw, and the passer can’t make the lay up for the recipient. The shooting percentage is not always pretty with the Aztecs. I’ve never denied that. But the looks they get wear teams out. They get in the paint time after time. Once they get there, your choice is simple. You’re going to have to foul or get out of the way.
Xavier Thames often shoots out of the pick and roll because that is this team’s number one option when they need a score. It’s what they went to Wednesday night. Thames might not boast an 8 assist per game average, but 8 is just a number. The Aztecs run pick and rolls not to initiate offense, they run it to get Xavier Thames a shot. His first, second, and third job in a pick and roll is to score the basketball. Guys are rarely going to leave the roll guy for a dunk. And when Thames gets a running start from the top, help from the weak side will be too late. He’s great in the mid range, and he’s been great from three.
As Thames drove right toward the basket in the final 10 seconds, he had Aqeel Quinn spotting up in the corner. Josh Davis had set the screen, J.J. O’Brien was setting up camp on the opposite block, and Dwayne Polee started at the opposite wing. After Thames turned the corner, he essentially had three men converging on him. He could have gotten off a floater, but it would have to be quick.
If Xavier Thames can’t make enough plays for his teammates, how could he have known exactly where Dwayne Polee would be to receive that pass? Why wouldn’t he have taken the shot for himself? X took everything the Boise State defense did in stride and reacted. He slung the pass to Polee across the lane and was right on the money. And you can bet nobody was happier for Polee than – you guessed it – Xavier Thames.