SAN DIEGO — Each season in college basketball, there are a handful of so-called surprise teams that far surpass most expectations. It’s probably accurate to stick that label to San Diego State, even if Xavier Thames disagrees.
“I knew we were going to be good,” the senior point guard said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
Did he expect the Aztecs to upset Kansas and end the Jayhawks’ 68-game home nonconference winning streak?
“It was not a surprise,” Thames said.
Most players might exude the same confidence, especially after the fact, but Thames sounded as if he believed it from the beginning. And in the beginning — or when the Mountain West preseason poll was released — San Diego State was picked to finish fourth in the conference.
The Aztecs (15-1, 4-0) are ranked 10th in the nation as they prepare to host UNLV (11-6, 2-2) at 3:05 p.m. today at Viejas Arena. Preseason polls are nothing but a reference point, but for the record, New Mexico was voted the league favorite with the Rebels and Boise State tied for second.
UNLV is 2-0 on the conference road after a 76-73 victory over the Lobos on Wednesday.
“It’s one game, it’s one win, but it’s a terrific win and a confidence booster for us,” coach Dave Rice said. “The most important game is the next game, and our next game happens to be against a team playing better than anyone in the conference. It’s a bear of a game.”
It was also a two-game series the Rebels swept last season for the first time since 2008, and their 82-75 win in San Diego was perhaps their finest performance of the season.
“I know we went through a stretch where people said, ‘San Diego State has UNLV’s number.’ We went through a stretch where we won eight out of nine games against them,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “And now you could say UNLV has San Diego State’s number, because they won the last three.
“I don’t think we’ll be thinking revenge, anger and hatred because they beat us last time. So it makes good rhetoric, but I don’t think it makes much sense to say that. This has turned into a nice rivalry, but I will say it is a respectful rivalry. Were playing a very, very good UNLV team that is coming in on a very huge high after a great win. So this will be a much-anticipated game.”
Aztecs sophomore swingman Winston Shepard, a former Findlay Prep standout, said the Rebels’ sweep a year ago “doesn’t sit well with me.”
Shepard is San Diego State’s No. 2 scorer behind Thames, who averages 16.9 points and is shooting 48 percent (34 of 71) from 3-point range.
“Thames makes that whole thing go,” Rice said. “He’s become my new favorite player in the league.”
The Aztecs did not have a player voted to the Mountain West’s six-player preseason all-conference team, but Thames is emerging as the favorite for Player of the Year. He said he played through pain for most of last season with a slipped disk in his back.
He’s feeling good now and filling the voids left by San Diego State’s departed stars, Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley.
“Coach Fish talked to me over the summer and wanted me to do a lot more things offensively and defensively,” Thames said. “I knew I was going to have a bigger role, and I had to take advantage.”
Thames figures to exploit his matchup advantage against UNLV point guard Deville Smith. But no one-on-one battles will decide the outcome, and the Aztecs are focused on containing Bryce Dejean-Jones, Khem Birch, Roscoe Smith and the rest of the Rebels on the break.
San Diego State, with the help of former UNLV assistant coach Justin Hutson, who switched sides in the rivalry after last season, ranks second nationally in scoring defense at 55.9 points per game.
“We take a lot of pride on defense,” Thames said. “If you’re not going to play defense here, you might not see the floor. We want to get stops and get out and run. We take it upon ourselves to shut teams down.
“I know UNLV is a great team, and they’re going to get out and push that rock. We’ve got to stop them in transition. I think they’re starting to click at the right time. I’m not expecting anything but a close game.”
San Diego State has won 107 consecutive games when leading with five minutes remaining, a streak that Thames said is “crazy when you think about it.”
After his freshman season at Washington State, Thames was thinking about transferring. His relationship with Hutson helped lead him to the Aztecs, and San Diego’s fine weather was another factor.
“It’s 80 degrees right now and it’s January,” Thames said. “I don’t think it’s like this anywhere else. It feels like summertime.”
■ NOTES — UNLV leads the all-time series 35-21, winning the past three meetings after losing six straight. … Top-ranked Arizona beat the Aztecs 69-60 on Nov. 14 in San Diego before beating the Rebels 63-58 on Dec. 7 in Tucson. “I watched the whole game when (the Rebels) went to Arizona and played Arizona better than anybody has played them, including ourselves,” Fisher said. “They could have won the game.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.