ANAHEIM — At the end of San Diego State's 67-59 victory over Marquette in the title game of the Wooden Legacy tournament, Xavier Thames knew just what to do with the championship trophy.
Thames climbed into the Honda Center stands, held the gleaming silver ball aloft and allowed a throng of black-clad San Diego State students to join in the revelry.
"I just wanted to give everyone who gave up their Thanksgiving break to come watch us a chance to touch the trophy," Thames said. "They travel wherever we go, whether it's Las Vegas, Anaheim or New Mexico. I wanted to show love to them for sticking behind us."
Hoisting the trophy was especially fulfilling for Thames and his teammates Sunday night because few believed San Diego State would have such moments this winter. This was supposed to be a transition year for the Aztecs with standouts Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley moving on last spring, no double-digit scorers returning and a top 10 recruiting class not set to arrive until next summer.
It's a testament to the strength of the program Steve Fisher has built that San Diego State (5-1) appears likely to overcome that roster turnover and make a bid to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. Not only did the Aztecs push fourth-ranked Arizona until the final two minutes on Nov. 14, they also notched back-to-back victories against ranked teams this weekend for the first time in program history.
On Friday, they won a high-scoring duel with a finesse-oriented Creighton team loaded with skilled perimeter players and long-range shooters. On Sunday, they out-slugged a rugged, bruising Marquette team in a game Fisher predicted would be the most physical San Diego State plays all season.
"Our commitment when I came here was to build a program," Fisher said. "It's not make a tournament one year, go two years when you're not heard from and then be good again. We've got a program. We have a program that people who know basketball would say can compete with anybody, anytime, anywhere. That makes all of us proud."
Whereas Fisher built his program on the backs of overlooked recruits and transfers from bigger schools, the formula has begun to change in recent years.
Highly regarded high school prospects have flocked to San Diego State because the staff has done a superb job of identifying elite players early and because the program has many selling points. Sophomores Winston Shepard and Skylar Spencer and, freshman Dakarai Allen are among the Rivals 150 prospects wooed by the chance to thrive in a free-flowing system, to compete for NCAA tournament bids and to play in front of the West Coast's rowdiest crowd.
That trio and next year's loaded recruiting class provided hope for the future, but this season's prospects were less certain for a San Diego State team projected fourth in the Mountain West. The Aztecs had the length and athleticism to defend, rebound and get out in transition. The question was whether they could score consistently enough against a half-court defense for it to matter.
Shepard's rapid improvement, Matt Shrigley's lights-out shooting and Tulane transfer Josh Davis' arrival have all helped bolster the offense, but the development of Thames is the biggest reason the Aztecs have been able to absorb the loss of Franklin and Tapley. Thames is averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game and he followed up a 26-point effort against Creighton with an efficient 27 against Marquette.
"Xavier Thames is playing as good a basketball as anyone in the country right now," Fisher said. "[He's in] complete control, not trying too hard, making plays that a fifth-senior makes to help his team be successful."
Whereas lingering back issues hampered Thames throughout his junior season, the former Washington State transfer spent the offseason strengthening his core and improving his conditioning to ensure he'd be fully healthy as a senior. Shepard's emergence has also taken some of the pressure off Thames by providing him with a teammate who can help bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
That all paid off against Marquette as Thames sank big shot after big shot.
There was the 3-pointer that extended San Diego State's first-half lead to 10 and signaled that the Aztecs were a threat to the Big East's preseason favorites. There was another three early in the second half that put San Diego State up four after Marquette had been on the verge of taking the lead. And there was yet another three late in the second half to put the Aztecs up one and reignite a crowd that had gone silent with the Golden Eagles on a run.
Thames' outside shooting barrage earned him tournament MVP honors and gave San Diego State a win that could propel the Aztecs into the AP Top 25 on Monday. Their resumé is already strong and they'll have a chance to add to it with games against San Diego, Washington and Kansas left before the start of Mountain West play.
If Thames continues to embrace the role of go-to scorer, complementary players chip in and the rebounding and defense remains strong, there's no reason San Diego State can't build on its performance in Anaheim.
Perhaps the Aztecs will even get the chance to climb into the student section and hoist another trophy later this winter.
Said Davis, "We haven't reached the top of our potential from what I've seen in practice. Honestly, it's scary because we're not even close."