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This is the season fans of the University at Buffalo men's basketball program have been waiting for. When preseason national magazines hit the stands, they were unanimous in touting UB's ascent as a team to beat in the Mid-American Conference.

Tonight in Gampel Pavilion, the Bulls get their first chance to show what all the fuss is about.

UB will plunge headfirst into its 14th Division I season with a monster opener at defending national champion Connecticut (7 p.m., Empire, Radio 550 AM).

"You can't ask for a better situation given how we finished last year," said guard Roderick Middleton, referring to UB's 12-3 record over the final 15 games and the consistently whirring turnstiles in Alumni Arena. "We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

"We have to leave it on the court. Everyone expects us to lose except the people that come every day to practice in our gym."

"There's no pressure on us. None," added senior point guard Turner Battle. "They're supposed to beat us. We have to just go in relaxed and try to get after them and out-hustle them."

Bulls coach Reggie Witherspoon is curious about this one. Witherspoon usually knows how his team will react, but he's interested to see how the charged atmosphere of a sellout crowd boosting a team ranked No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press poll will affect his veteran club.

"Let's see how our guys have developed and how they'll respond," Witherspoon said. "How will we respond if things happen that aren't good? The building will be sold out and excited. What if we're not for a minute or two? Can we respond? That's got to be a benefit of this game."

Despite the teams' relative stature in the college basketball world, it will be UConn -- not UB -- spending more time trying to find its identity.

UB returns its top eight players from last season, including four seniors. UConn, meanwhile, has an iffy situation at point guard and will be playing its first game without four-year point guard Taliek Brown as well as the gone-to-the-NBA duo of center Emeka Okafor and guard Ben Gordon.

"My biggest fear about playing a team like Buffalo early is that we're playing a veteran team while we're trying to put a team together," UConn coach Jim Calhoun told The News by phone this week. "It's a great opportunity for Reggie and Buffalo to come in here. . . . They're good, and the biggest thing is they're experienced and have good players. Reggie has done a really fabulous job, and it hasn't gone unnoticed in the coaching profession, believe me."

Calhoun expected to open the season with star freshman A.J. Price of Amityville as his point guard. But Price nearly died last month from a cerebral hemorrhage and may not play this season. It leaves sophomore Marcus Williams as the likely starter at the point, giving Battle the edge there.

"We don't really have a great matchup for Battle right now like we did last year (with Brown)," Calhoun said.

Of course, the Bulls don't have a great matchup, either, with UConn's massive frontline. In 6-foot-10 sophomore Josh Boone, 6-11 sophomore Charlie Villanueva, 6-9 freshman Rudy Gay and 6-8 junior Ed Nelson, the Huskies have plenty of beef to make up for the loss of Okafor.

"It's going to be a real measuring stick to see where we are," 6-10 UB senior Mark Bortz said.

"Let's see what they bring and if what we're doing has little parts that need to get better," Witherspoon said. "As the game goes on, other things might evolve where we can settle in and work on things that we've practiced well. Then the game might take on a different meaning."

The Bulls have to hope UConn will be a little distracted. Right after the game, the Huskies will bus to Boston to prepare for a Sunday morning departure to England for a four-game exhibition tour.

UConn is 15-0 in Gampel openers. UB is just 3-10 in season openers and has dropped six straight.

In tonight's other Big 4 men's game, Niagara (0-1) tries to erase the memory of Tuesday's collapse at Providence when it plays its home opener against American (7 p.m., Radio 1440 AM).

On the women's side, the St. Bonaventure Shootout will be played in First Arena in Elmira. In today's opening round, St. Bonaventure meets Colgate at 2 and Canisius plays St. John's at 4 in the debut of new Golden Griffins coach Terry Zeh. The championship and consolation are Sunday.
News sports reporter Rodney McKissic contributed to this report.

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