University at Buffalo women's basketball coach Cheryl Dozier faces an unenviable task tonight against three-time defending national champion Connecticut (7:30 p.m., Radio 1340 AM).
There will be the usual Gampel Pavilion sellout crowd of nearly 11,000. And the fans will be roaring early as the Huskies raise their 2003-04 championship banner before the season opener.
But Dozier, with six newcomers trying to erase the taste of going 6-21 last year, is upbeat for her seventh season.
"We've got some international players who may not know the aura of UConn's tradition but you still have to see how they'll be when they run out in front of 11,000 people," she said. "Our mood and our preparation have been very good. We're just trying to stress worrying about ourselves and what we'll do."
Dozier had loud music and fake crowd noise pumped into UB's practice Wednesday to prepare for the atmosphere but it may not make a difference.
Last year against ranked opponents, the Bulls got blown out at Auburn (82-32) and Colorado (98-47). And UConn coach Geno Auriemma figures to be in a testy mood after his club won its exhibition games over AAU opponents by just six and 11 points, respectively.
"There's no doubt we'll face adversity but you do in every game," Dozier said. "I hope we keep our heads. We have a plan and a process and we have to stick to that plan."
Dozier and UB men's coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose team opens against the UConn men here Saturday night, agree they have to try to treat these openers no differently in spite of the opponent.
"UConn laces 'em up just like we do," Dozier said. "And you really just concentrate, like you do in any game, on giving yourself as many offensive opportunities as UConn gets."
UB will start three guards in seniors Talia Merlino and Allison Bennett and sophomore Belinda Gibb. Junior Amy Kucheran opens at forward. The other forward will be either 6-foot-3 junior college transfer Viorica Badinici, a native of Finland, or 6-foot freshman Heather Turner.
Turner, the 2004 News player of the year from Mount Mercy, has impressed Dozier thus far.
"She's earned a lot of respect from her teammates, she's physical and clears people out," Dozier said. "She's my type of post kid. I have high expectations for her."
UConn has won five of the last 10 national titles and is ranked fourth in the preseason Associated Press poll even though it graduated national player of the year Diana Taurasi.
Forward Barbara Turner is the Huskies' top returning scorer (13.7 ppg) and joins junior guard Ann Strother and senior center Jessica Moore as Naismith Award candidates.
While tonight's game figures to be a tough learning experience, UB has little time to fret because it plays Sunday at Patriot League favorite Holy Cross.
"Geno Auriemma had a course and a plan at UConn and people forget it didn't happen overnight," Dozier said. "It took him 10 years (before UConn's first national title in 1995). We send that message to our kids all the time. We're just trying to stay on course with our plans."
Also tonight, the St. Bonaventure men open at Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (7:30 p.m., Radio 1300 AM, 95.7 FM). Bona went 7-21 last season, with one of the wins over Iona in Olean. The Gaels are 1-1 after beating Northern Arizona and losing to Creighton.
The Niagara women, coming off an 18-10 season, open against Syracuse at 7 p.m. in SU's Manley Field House.