Virginia and Virginia Tech face contrasting basketball openers this weekend amid similarly modest expectations for the season.
The Cavaliers play at 7 p.m. Friday at George Mason, a game to be shown by MASN. The Patriots were 24-9 last season, 15-1 at home, and represent the most challenging start for Virginia in Tony Bennett's four years as coach.
The Hokies and rookie head coach James Johnson host East Tennessee State at 2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3). The Buccaneers were 17-14 last season and tied for fourth in Atlantic Sun Conference.
Both contests are rematches from a year ago. Virginia dusted Mason 68-48 in Charlottesville. Tech defeated visiting ETSU 64-53.
A road game against a perennial postseason contender is hardly the conventional opener for an ACC team, especially one that lost its best player (forward Mike Scott) to the NBA draft and isn't expected to match last season's 22-10 record (9-7 conference) and NCAA tournament bid.
Plus, the Cavaliers likely will be without their two best point guards, Jontel Evans and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom have foot injuries. That leaves wing Joe Harris and freshman Taylor Barnette to man the point.
Veteran Akil Mitchell, Harris, Barnette plus freshmen Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson are Virginia's likely starters, according to Bennett.
"I'm kind of eagerly awaiting to see what happens," he said Thursday of the three-rookie lineup. "I know they'll grow from it. … Throw 'em in the deep end and see if they can swim."
Virginia and Mason also are depleted by suspension. Freshman guard Teven Jones will miss the game for the Cavaliers, sophomore forwards Erik Copes and Vaughn Gray for the Patriots, all for violating unspecified team rules.
Jones will return for Monday's home opener against Fairfield. Copes, a projected starter, and Gray will miss two more contests.
Colonial Athletic Association media tabbed Mason to finish third behind Drexel and Delaware. Coach Paul Hewitt's team returns two starters and nine lettermen, guards Sherrod Wright, Vertrail Vaughns and Bryon Allen the most notable.
"They can play fast," Bennett said. "They can pressure you. They have some physicality with their guards."
East Tennessee was picked fourth in the Atlantic Sun behind Mercer, USC Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast. Senior guards Sheldon Cooley and Marcus Dubose headline the Bucs' returnees, but coach Murry Bartow, a former William and Mary assistant, has no established post player.
With only eight scholarship players, Virginia Tech faces the same quandary. A perimeter of Erick Green, Robert Brown and Jarell Eddie is the Hokies' probable strength, with C.J. Barksdale and Cadarian Raines the probable interior starters.
Johnson wants the Hokies, 15-17 last season and tied for last in the ACC at 4-12, to play faster on offense than under former coach Seth Greenberg.
"Defense is usually behind when you start," he said. "Right now I think they've picked up the offensive game plan a little quicker (than the defensive)."
An assistant at seven Division I schools prior to replacing Greenberg, Johnson is only the third rookie head coach in the last 20 years to take over an ACC program, joining Bill Guthridge (North Carolina in 1997) and Frank Haith (Miami in 2004).
"I'm excited," Johnson said. "I don't know if I'll be nervous."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times