UVA begins NCAA title defense with tough test at Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- It’s been more than a half-century – UCLA at Purdue in 1967 – since the reigning NCAA champion in men’s basketball opened its next season on the road. And Virginia hasn’t tipped off a season with an ACC game since losing to Maryland in 1960.

But a few things have changed since the Wahoos celebrated their first NCAA title in Minneapolis last April. The ACC has launched its own network, and expanded its schedule to 20 conference games.

That’s why UVA finds itself in Syracuse this week, playing its ACC opener on opening night against the Orange on the ACC Network.

"I mean, I wish it was here. I don't know why the ACC scheduled us for an away game, but that's another conversation for another day,” UVA senior guard Braxton Key said last week. “But we're excited. Syracuse is a great team, great coach. In football, they always have a first game of the season that's usually highly talked-about. And for basketball to do it, and open up with another Power-5, in-conference opponent, it's great."

“I mean, it just shows you the caliber of basketball in the ACC,” said UVA sophomore guard Kihei Clark. “Defending national champs on the road at Syracuse. It's definitely going to be fun, and I think it's going to be a good battle to test what we've got."

It will also be a first chance for UVA coach Tony Bennett to see what he’s got with this year’s team in a game setting. A half-dozen players are gone from last season’s NCAA title team, including top three scorers Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome – all now NBA rookies – and senior center Jack Salt.

Bennett is 9-1 in season openers as UVA coach – the only loss coming at George Mason in 2012 – and 10-0 in ACC openers. But the combination of questions up and down the roster and visiting a conference opponent to start the year make this the most unique opener Bennett can recall.

"Those two things would be a situation that we haven't experienced here since I've been here. Maybe my first couple years, but those weren't conference games on the road,” Bennett said. “So combining those two I think does create that uncertainty, without a doubt, against a high level team."

The potential starting five provided by UVA in its pregame notes for Wednesday’s game include Clark and Key, plus forward Mamadi Diakite – the preseason All-ACC forward who averaged 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in last year’s NCAA Tournament – junior forward Jay Huff and sophomore guard Kody Stattmann. None of the four players on the bench – freshmen Casey Morsell, Justin McKoy and Chase Coleman, and junior college transfer Tomas Woldetensae – were on last year’s NCAA title team.

"We're focused a little more on the things that we think are going to give us chances to be competitive to start, and as sound and tough-minded as we can be. And again, that's a process,” Bennett said. “And I just think everybody trying to push hard, and not be too consumed with what happened last year, or what's expected this year. Can we max out and be ready to go? It's kind of that simple."