There used to be a time when Viejas Arena (then known as Cox Arena) sounded like Las Vegas South.
With just a little over a five-hour trip between San Diego and Las Vegas, it was easy for UNLV and its fans to invade Montezuma Mesa and make it feel like the desert.
And for San Diego State, it was kind of a nuisance.
“The closeness allows both teams to get fans there,” Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher told the media this week. “When our building was not sold out, there were more (UNLV) fans than Aztecs fans, and they let us know about it.”
But times have changed, and when SDSU (14-1, 2-0 in the Mountain West) hosts the Rebels on Wednesday night (7 p.m. on CBS Sports Network) expect not just a raucous crowd there to support the Aztecs, but also expect one on edge.
San Diego State needed clutch performances late in its first conference games of the season to notch wins over Fresno State (65-62 in Fresno) and Colorado State (79-72, at home and in overtime).
The Aztecs may need the same kind of effort Wednesday night against what has become a pesky rival.
UNLV (14-3, 1-1) has dropped in and out of the AP Top 25 over the last three weeks, but it started the season with eight consecutive appearances in the top 25.
Most of that is due to the stellar play of freshman forward Anthony Bennett. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward is a force to be reckoned with. Not only can he play on the inside, but he can also knock the three-point shot, shotting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Bennett’s skills and mere physical presence has allowed him to lead the conference in scoring, averaging 19.6 points per game.
Add the return of Mike Moser—who came back to the team last week after dislocating an elbow and scored 19 on the Aztecs in a win last year—and the SDSU front line may have trouble in the post.
The duties of guarding Moser and Bennett will fall to J.J. O’Brien and DeShawn Stephens, but the duo hasn’t faced a front court tandem like this since the Aztecs’ season-opening loss to Syracuse. And that loss was atop a windy aircraft carrier.
“I'm very confident we'll throw it into those guys, and they'll get fouled and they'll make (the free throws) the next time around," UNLV coach Dave Rice was quoted by the AP.
Wednesday’s showdown between two of the most successful programs in the Mountain West will also be a showdown between two of the best players in the country.
Bennett was named to the Wooden Award Watch List. So, too, was SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin.
Both are double-double machines. Bennett has recorded eight double-doubles this seasons. Franklin has seven.
Wednesday night gives both the opportunity to show the conference and the nation who is the best player in the MW, an award the Franklin won last season.
“Those are two guys who make a double-double a regularity. As much as they get a lot of exposure for scoring points, they are both terrific rebounders," Rice told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "They both play with a lot of confidence, they can score from a variety of places on the floor, and they make their teammates better."
Just don’t expect many one-on-one matchups between the two. While Bennett is built to play in the post, Franklin takes his game on the wings. After all, Franklin is just 6-foot-5, even though he has a knack of cutting through the lane to grab a rebound or take a miss and turn it into a highlight reel dunk.
“At the end of the day, he's way bigger. I feel he has a motor, he's real competitive and he likes to win,” Franklin said. “So I can see that in myself and him. But at the same time, I feel aspects of my game are a little different than his. He's a real competitor, I'm a competitor, so we'll see when we play tomorrow.”
There is one more aspect of Wednesday night’s game that may add fuel to whatever competitive fire is between these two rivals.
As it stands, San Diego State is still slated to move to the Big West for basketball next season, when its football team moves to the Big East.
If that plan is seen through, this might be the last time the Rebels visit Viejas Arena and San Diego for a very long time.
“We just want to reverse (last year’s loss to UNLV) and get a victory against them tomorrow,” senior Chase Tapley said, “and just stay on top in this rivalry.
And if tomorrow night’s the beginning to the end of what has become a blossoming series?
“Or end the rivalry right if (we) change the leagues," Tapley said.