Xavier Thames a mirror of his coach

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In the right light, the 69-year-old coach on the sideline in the suit coat and black-rimmed glasses appears the exact same as the 23-year-old in the No. 2 uniform, running up and down the court at the peak of his college career.

X, as San Diego State guard Xavier Thames is known, is the spitting image of Steve Fisher's coaching and conduct. He has the skills of the Fab Five, whom Fisher recruited to Michigan in the late 1980s, with the demeanor of Fisher -- calm, reflective, sensitive.

Like Fisher, he redirects every question about individual performance to the team. "How did you score 30 against North Dakota State?" quickly becomes an answer filled not with how he scored (which was virtually from everywhere) but how his teammates made his shots easy to get to, how his coach trusted him to run the game and how he really had the easy job in all of it. He's not the star. The statistics just make it look that way.

Fisher will beat that drum too. After that 63-44 win over North Dakota State that allowed SDSU to reach the Sweet 16, one of the first sentiments out of Fisher's mouth was "X will get a lot of the accolades. He has been special and fantastic.

"But we have a team."

It's what so many of the players and coaches say. But it's what Thames and Fisher actually mean.

"What has set X apart from so many is his sincerity," Fisher said. "He cares about others, and it shows in everything that he does. He's very sensitive to other people's feelings, and I think that's what has made him so good."

Fisher would know. It's what made him a good coach.

Players laud his ability to relate to each individual player despite the 50-year age difference. Yes, he might be 69 and still trying to figure out how to use his iPhone 5, but there's no one better to ask about basketball, school or life. He has an open-door policy, and his players know that each fleck of white hair on his head represents a lesson just waiting to be shared.

That personality is what brought Thames back to San Diego State in the first place. He had been recruited to the Aztecs out of high school but signed with Washington State. Shortly after he signed his letter of intent, Tony Bennett and his staff left for Virginia.

It was too late for Thames to reopen his recruitment, so he stayed in Pullman for a year before starting to look for other options. He knew he needed to find a place that had a stable coaching staff.

In his freshman year at WSU, Thames kept in touch with his childhood friend Chase Tapley, who had signed with the Aztecs. Tapley and Thames had played Pop Warner football together since they were 8 and had played against each other in basketball for almost as long. For an entire year, Tapley kept telling Thames about Fisher and his coaching style.

Thames liked what he heard, so he transferred in before the 2010-11 season and did something he had never done in basketball -- sat the bench, as his transfer made him ineligible for a season.

For a season, he and Fisher were on the same side of the sport. During games, Thames studied how Fisher called plays, how he reacted to opponents' defensive schemes and how he interacted with players in-game and on the sideline. Then he put it into action. Thames coached himself the way Fisher coached players, saw film the way Fisher saw film and helped the team the way Fisher helped the team.

Fisher recognized the discipline in Thames' personality immediately. It was one of the reasons he accepted the transfer in the first place.

"No one I've coached has done more to improve his game in a redshirt season than X," Fisher said. "He worked hard when no one was watching. ... All those things that everyone talks about doing, he did."

Thames and Fisher both understand commitment and dedication. Both were raised by mothers who were teachers -- women who instilled a practice-what-you-preach mentality in their sons. And that went into Thames' practices during his redshirt year. The Aztecs might have gone 34-3 in 2010-11, reaching the Sweet 16, but Thames was already previewing the future on the practice courts in San Diego. A future that three seasons later would see the Aztecs back at the Sweet 16 with Fisher, the man who has been kept young by his players, and his extension, Thames, whose soul seems to get older with every practice, finally working together.

But now that extension has basically turned into a mirror. Ask them each a question about the team, a game plan or life and they will give strikingly similar responses. In news conferences, in private, it doesn't matter.

Because of how close they are, Fisher never has to filter himself around Thames.

"You can say what you feel in that moment with X," he said.

Heading into the Sweet 16, the two have never been more similar. After two career performances in the second and third rounds, they're hoping it only gets better. Ask either to reflect right now and it's no surprise the answers are the same.

"I'm hoping that best moment is yet to come," Fisher said.

"Hopefully," Thames said, "we can have the best memory coming up in these next few weeks."

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