Here's the problem with fattening up on a cupcake-heavy non-conference schedule for six weeks in December and January: The transition back to more credible opponents can be turbulent and abrupt.
Since San Diego State split a pair of home games against Missouri Valley favorite Creighton and Pac-12 favorite Cal on Nov. 30 and Dec. 4, the Aztecs have played a collection of teams barely recognizable to most college hoops fans. City rival San Diego, Big West also-ran UC Riverside and little-known Elon College were the best of the group. Winless Chicago State, Division III Redlands and NAIA San Diego Christian were the worst.
San Diego State will find out Saturday whether it's ready for a step up in competition when Mountain West favorite UNLV visits Viejas Arena in the conference opener for both teams. The 12th-ranked Rebels (16-2) will not be lacking for motivation either since they dropped three games to the Aztecs last season, all by six or less points.
"This is where all your flaws if you have any get exposed," San Diego State assistant coach Brian Dutcher said. "This is a great conference, a lot of great coaches. They watch the tape, they find out what your deficiencies are and they try to expose those. It's always fun to get into conference play and see what others perceive as your weaknesses. Then it's up to us as coaches to say, 'This is what we need to improve on.'"
Although San Diego State has not played any real competition in six weeks, the good news for the Aztecs is they've shown the ability to hang with or even beat teams of UNLV's caliber earlier this season. They snapped Arizona's long win streak at McKale Center. They defeated Cal and Long Beach State at home. And they lost by two points to Creighton and trailed undefeated Baylor by just one point in Waco with less than two minutes to play.
What makes UNLV a different challenge for San Diego State is the Rebels' familiarity with the Aztecs. Not only has first-year coach Dave Rice prepared for San Diego State numerous times as an assistant at BYU, his top assistant Justin Hutson spent the previous five years on Steve Fisher's staff with the Aztecs.
Hutson is probably one of the few who aren't surprised by the level of success San Diego State has enjoyed in what was expected to be a transition season.
The Aztecs lost four starters from last year's historic 32-win team and lack much size or depth in the frontcourt, yet they've reloaded behind one of the league's best backcourts. Chase Tapley has made a seamless transition from complimentary player to go-to scorer, Washington State transfer Xavier Thames has played capably at point guard and Jamaal Franklin has provided a spark off the bench with his athleticism and improved shooting.
San Diego State looked a little complacent on Tuesday night when it fell behind by seven early in the second half against Chicago State before waking from its slumber. The Aztecs may not be used to top competition right now, but they won't be sleep-walking Saturday against an opponent who has become one of their biggest rivals.
"Theyve been so good and UNLV has been good," Rice said. "It is a rivalry, but it's a healthy rivalry. Certainly it will be a challenge for us going into San Diego on Saturday when they're so good and particularly good at home."