Time has not scrubbed Xavier Thames out of mind. Not by a long shot.
The senior guard took it upon himself to torch Utah State last time out, almost single-handedly bringing his San Diego State team out of a deficit, then scoring 12 of the Aztecs' last 19 points to close the door on the Aggies. His long 3-pointers and his clutch appearances at the free throw line have stuck with Utah State in a painful way since that Jan. 25 outing.
It can feel a little personal - it's not. Thames has been the hero for San Diego State all year, a big reason why the Aztecs are 6-1 in games decided by six points or less this season.
"He's done that a lot, it's not just us," Stew Morrill said. "He's kind of bailed them out when they've been in a situation where they could lose. He's definitely the guy to be aware of if we're in a tight game. We better be aware of him the whole night."
Utah State is already on notice for its defense, which couldn't control another one of the league's top guards in Bryce Dejean-Jones last week.
Two areas where the Aggies will have to watch out for Thames: the 3-point line and the free throw line. He's shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc, so he'll be San Diego State's main threat from there. But he also is one of the nation's best at getting to the stripe, where he makes 81.9 percent of his shots. His 140 makes from the free throw line is No. 34 in the country this year.
Utah State has done its studying for this game, and is aware they'll need to be on top of their game to contain Thames and keep the home team from streaking away.
"Thames is a great player, one of the best in our league and one of the best in the country," Kyle Davis said. "We'll have to step up in the post, and our wings will have to shrink in and create condensed defense so he can't get lanes. He had a ridiculous game against us last time, so we don't want him to do that again."
When the Aggies took San Diego State to overtime in January with a sold-out crowd at its back, sophomore forward Kyle Davis was resigned to be one of the cheering spectators - not exactly the role he wanted against the then-No. 7 team in the nation.
"I think it was one of the hardest things for me in my athletic career to sit," he said. "It was great to see my teammates fight and push them to an edge, but it's hard not to be able to help."
Davis will get that opportunity on Tuesday night, a chance to give Utah State the benefit of his production.
He's been flirting with double digit scoring all season, but the big boost he provides is rebounding. The first-year Aggie is second on the team with 7.7 rebounds per game, but KenPom.com ranks him the No. 22 offensive rebounder by percentage in the nation. His effort on the glass combined with Jarred Shaw's - KenPom's No. 14 defensive rebounder by percentage - is a big reason why the Aggies have seen their rebounding margin rise again to the No. 8 mark in the country (plus-seven).
Davis' presence won't be overlooked by the Aztecs. Coach Steve Fisher named-checked Davis in his pre-game press conference, calling him a "vital" piece for Utah State to have back.
One of the keys to SDSU's success this year has been turnovers: The Aztecs take away a lot, and give away a little.
San Diego State is the No. 17 team in the country giving away only 10.2 turnovers per game, while averaging a plus-3.7 turnover margin which is No. 14 nationally. Those extra few possessions have made a big difference for a team that has played a lot of close games.
Last time out, Utah State gave SDSU way more than that typical advantage: The Aggies had 17 turnovers while the Aztecs had 6. Three different USU players had four turnovers apiece: Spencer Butterfield, Jarred Shaw and Marcel Davis.
Davis, in particular, will have to be on guard: His four turnovers came in only 13 minutes. The Aggies relied on TeNale Roland a lot to handle San Diego State's pressing defense, but after he fouled out, Davis struggled a bit to bring the ball up the court. It was after that game that Davis was out of the rotation for two games.
The sophomore has regained some confidence and strung together a few good performances since then, and he's currently No. 19 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. But SDSU is likely to harass him early, and USU can't afford another minus-11 turnover margin.
"We can't turn it over 17 times like we did last time we played them and expect to win on their court," Morrill said. "Taking care of the ball is going to be huge, too."
Most USU fans know by now, but it seems somewhat remiss to ignore: Stew Morrill is taking his second shot at his 600th win in his career.
The odds are against him facing a top-10 team that is nearly unbeatable at home, but Morrill has beaten ranked teams before in his career (it's been a while though). Morrill is looking to become the 41st coach ever to reach 600 wins, and the 14th active coach to have 600 wins.
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