SAN DIEGO (AP) — No. 22 San Diego State will quickly have an idea where it stands in the Mountain West Conference.
Last season's defending co-regular season and MWC tournament champions, the Aztecs (14-2) open conference play at home Saturday against No. 12 UNLV. On Wednesday, San Diego State travels to Albuquerque, N.M., to face New Mexico.
The Runnin' Rebels (16-2) and Lobos (14-2) were the only programs picked to finish ahead of the Aztecs, who lost four starters and one key reserve off a team whose school-record 34 wins included SDSU's first two NCAA tournament victories.
SDSU coach Steve Fisher knows his team will immediately face its biggest challenges in conference play.
"It doesn't matter whether I like it or not, I'd rather not play either one of them at all," Fisher joked. "But we've got 'em. We're jumping into probably the best two that we will play."
Fisher is a little surprised by the way his team has responded this season considering it lost Kawhi Leonard and Malcolm Thomas to the NBA and graduated senior starters Billy White and DJ Gay. Senior Brian Carlwell was also expected to return, but wasn't granted an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA last August.
Those players accounted for nearly 70 percent of SDSU's minutes played last season.
But the emergence of junior guard Chase Tapley and the immediate impact made by sophomore transfer Xavier Thames at point guard have helped the Aztecs offset those losses. SDSU posted victories over Pac-12 opponents USC and Cal at home and at Arizona in nonconference play. The team's only losses are to No. 4 Baylor and No. 23 Creighton.
"Having all the guys that are not here who were here, and looking at the schedule we had, especially that seven-game stretch, I'm very pleased with where we are both in our record and the way we've achieved that record," Fisher said. "But this league is good. There's not a team in the league with a losing record. ... There are no gimmes in this league. We're going to have roll up our sleeves and play our best basketball."
San Diego State has won its last five meetings against UNLV, which defeated then-top-ranked North Carolina 90-80 on Nov. 26. The Aztecs played a tough nonconference schedule early, but have gone relatively untested over the last month of their schedule. SDSU's past five opponents have included UC Riverside, Elon, Division III Redlands, NAIA San Diego Christian and winless Chicago State.
Tapley realizes conference play signals a step up in competition.
"The level of intensity is greater by 10 times," he said. "You're playing teams that kind of know your plays. Every game is going to be a barnburner. The competiveness in our league is getting greater and greater each year. You have to really be on you're A-game when you're playing in league. Every game counts and as long as we keep playing hard and keep listening to Coach, we'll be fine."