Raptors reality check

Jalen Rose knows expectations for the Raptors this season are low but he's not letting that bother...

Jalen Rose knows expectations for the Raptors this season are low but he's not letting that bother him. Rose intends to "get out there and play and have an exciting season." (Toronto Sun/David Lucas)

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

That everlasting sports cliche -- it's us against the world -- will ring true for the Raptors beginning tonight.

After an off-season of doom-and-gloom forecasts from loads of outsiders and one notable insider (general manager Rob Babcock), the Raptors are ready to begin the process of trying to silence their many critics.

The team nobody believes in will play its season opener tonight against the Washington Wizards before an expected non-sellout crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

One can argue that expectations for the inexperienced Raptors -- a team which features six first-, second- or third-year players in its starting 12 -- are at their lowest since the club's expansion campaign of 1995-96.

"They have none," Jalen Rose said of outside expectations. "Let the world tell it. We stink. We might as well not show up for our 82 games. That's why we're going to be pros, get out there and play and have an exciting season, we hope."

While coach Sam Mitchell did not unveil the starting lineup yesterday, Mike James, Rose, Joey Graham, Chris Bosh and Loren Woods wore the black starter's jerseys at practice and are expected to be the first five on the court tonight.

The party line for this team seems to be, "We're not as bad as everybody thinks." After all, the Raptors were a respectable 3-4 against NBA opponents in pre-season play, during which rookies Graham, Charlie Villanueva and Jose Calderon showed positive signs. All three need to make solid contributions for the Raptors to win games this season.

PLAY HARDER

"I think (all the negative reviews) make me play a little harder and make everybody play a little harder," Graham said. "They have us ranked last in the league and that just kind of pisses us off a little bit. We're going to surprise a lot of teams, I think."

For Villanueva, his personal situation reflects that of the entire team. He has read numerous individual criticisms of himself since the Raptors selected him seventh overall in this season's NBA draft, but he led all rookies in pre-season scoring and is looking forward to tonight.

ANXIOUS

"It hasn't hit me yet, but I'm pretty sure around 6 (p.m., tonight) it will probably hit me (that he is making his NBA debut)," Villanueva said.

"I'm just anxious. I'm like a little kid in a candy store. I can't wait to be out there."

Calderon, a point guard from Spain, feels much the same way.

"Now, the dream is real," he said. "I feel different, my body and sensations are different than the past eight exhibition games."

With seven of their first 10 games at home, the Raptors can't afford a bad start.

"(Tonight is) the beginning of a beautiful future for me," Graham said.

Whether that statement also applies for the Raptors remains to be seen.


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