San Diego St.-Fresno St. Preview
San Diego State has matched its second-best start, but the conference season is where it wants to make its mark.
The 16th-ranked Aztecs will open their bid for a third consecutive Mountain West regular-season title on Wednesday night when they'll renew their rivalry with host Fresno State, which makes its conference debut.
A 72-57 victory over Cal State Bakersfield last Wednesday improved San Diego State to 12-2 for the first time since 1970-71, but the Aztecs left plenty of room for improvement ahead of conference play - they were outscored in the second half and reigning player of the year Jamaal Franklin committed five of their 13 turnovers.
The Aztecs were the MWC co-champs with New Mexico last season after sharing the title with Brigham Young in 2011.
"Conference play always brings a higher level of energy, especially early," coach Steve Fisher said. "We're going to Fresno State, a new member of the Mountain West. We have played them before in my tenure here. Last time we played them we had a really hard-fought, close game at their place (a 62-58 victory on Nov. 23, 2009). I would expect more of the same."
The Bulldogs (6-7), who have dropped four straight in this series, are anticipating a difficult run though the conference slate after moving from the Western Athletic Conference. Along with San Diego State, the MWC has two other ranked squads - No. 24 UNLV and 25th-ranked New Mexico, which hosts Fresno State on Saturday.
"Our whole league is going to be a tough challenge, but we welcome that," coach Rodney Terry said after his team ended a four-game skid in its last contest, an 89-64 victory over Division II Sonoma State on Dec. 30.
The Bulldogs have shot 56.8 percent (21 for 37) from long range and 50.9 percent overall in their last two games - but if they're going to end an eight-game skid to ranked opponents, they'll likely have to lean heavily on a defense that ranks third in the MWC in points allowed per game (59.2) behind Wyoming and San Diego State (57.9).
The Bulldogs, though, will face one of the most talented backcourts in the Mountain West. Franklin is the league's third-leading scorer (17.2) and second-leading rebounder (9.9), while senior Chase Tapley is averaging a team-best 18.5 points on 26-of-50 shooting from beyond the arc over the last eight contests.
"He's playing the best basketball of his career, and you hope your seniors do that," Fisher said.
The Aztecs are hoping starting guard Xavier Thames will be able to go after he missed Sunday's practice - as well as the second half of Wednesday's win - with a shoulder problem.
Bulldogs freshman Aaron Anderson, who left the Dec. 30 game in the second half after taking a shot to the head, is expected to start a third consecutive game alongside guards Kevin Olekaibe and leading scorer Tyler Johnson (10.8 ppg), who has a team-high 41 points over the last two games.
Freshman Marvelle Harris is second on the Bulldogs during that stretch after following up his 19-point effort in a 91-78 loss at UCLA on Dec. 22 with a season-high 20 versus Sonoma State.
San Diego State, which opened a program-best 20-0 two years ago, has faced Fresno State more than any other opponent (102 times), and has won 54 of those matchups.