We were clever and a little bit sneaky this year, because we decided to wait until after the season opener before we started writing a preview for a new season of Virginia Basketball. Well, part of it was that we were being clever/sneaky. The other part was being lazy, and also caught up in football for the first time since this site was established. But that's all just details. The point is, basketball season is here, and we're ready for it. Today's is part one of however-many-parts-we-decide-we-need-to-properly-preview-the-season.
The Cavaliers are hyped for the first time in about a decade, picked in the preseason by ACC media to finish fourth in the conference behind Carolina, Duke and Florida State. The last time the Hoos were ranked this high was in the 2001-02 season, when the Hoos were picked to finish third in the conference. Add to this that senior forward Mike Scott was named to the preseason All-ACC team, and what you get is a Virginia squad receiving votes in both the AP and Coaches preseason rankings for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
You all know the returning cast already. All of Virginia's starters except for Mustapha Farrakhan will return for what seems to be an epic season this year. This includes Sammy Zeglinski (who is one three-pointer shy of entering the top ten in Virginia history for treys), Jontel Evans (who led Virginia with 109 assists last year and is a beast when defending on the ball), Assane Sene (who I hope has been working on converting his giant flyswatters-for-hands into hands-for-hands), and Joe Harris (who led the Hoos with 65 treys last year, as a freshman, and had the highest three-point-percentage for an ACC freshman since 1999-00). Sophomores KT Harrell and Akil Mitchell also both return and will be looking to up their game from a decent freshman year. McDonald's All-American nominee and ESPN 100 recruit James Johnson was redshirted last year and will be in the action this year. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has also stated that he intends on redshirting Wisconsin Player of the Year Paul Jesperson this year, unless circumstances change.
The out-of-conference schedule is one that should lend itself to a strong record heading into ACC play. The Hoos looked dominant on Sunday over South Carolina State, albeit after a rocky, slow start. Virginia came away with a 75-38 victory, and as a result, somehow lost the five votes they had in the coaches poll. Turns out, the coaches know what they're talking about, because last night's matchup against Winthrop (in what was technically the opening round of the Paradise Jam) turned out to be a bit of an early season scare. Sure, the Hoos pulled through with a 21 point victory, 69-48, but what you won't find from the bottom line is that Winthrop at one point well into the second half, Winthrop, one of the better midmajors out there, had a 44-41 lead. Regardless, the Hoos have started off the season with a 2-0 record.
So let's start with the out of conference schedule today. The Hoos are out in St. Thomas for the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. Virginia faces a reeling TCU squad. They started off last season 9-5, before completely collapsing and finishing 11-22, 1-15 in the Mountain West. They lost two of their starters, which won't help their cause. The good news for TCU is that they have their senior point guard Hank Thorns returning. You think Bub Evans is short? Take a look at 5'9 Thorns. But don't sell him short (see what I did there?). Averaging 10.7 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game and 7.0 assists per game, Thorns led the Mountain West last year in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.71). Still this all-star Virginia squad should not have difficulties getting through to the winners' bracket. Also, he is a former Virginia Tech player.
So then the Hoos will face either Drexel or Norfolk State in the next round. I'd rather face Norfolk State, who is now 0-1 and went 12-20 last season. But we'll likely be facing a very strong Drexel team who was picked to finish first in the CAA (the same conference with George Mason, VCU, ODU, and so on). The Dragons finished with a 21-10 record and only lost one starter. Among others, they return the CAA Freshman of the Year Chris Fouch, as well as senior double-doubler Samme Givens, who averaged 12.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Honestly it wouldn't surprise to catch a loss here. (Eds. Note: This was written before the Paradise Jam started, and it turns out Norfolk State defeated Drexel. Count this as a good thing, though I guess it makes me sound like a dummy.)
At this point, the Hoos will play one of either Winthrop (who the Hoos have already beaten), Marquette, Mississippi or Drake. Of these, Marquette is the clear favorite, having gone finished last season 22-15 with a trip to the Sweet 16. I don't think this would be easy, but I think doable. I say that Virginia can walk out of Paradise with three wins, or at worst, 2-1.
Next up the Cavaliers host Tony Bennett's former team, Green Bay, on ESPNU. They finished 14-18 last season, 8-10 in the Horizon League, losing to Butler twice, but only by six and two points, respectively. In fact, they had 13 games decided by five or fewer points last year. They won seven of them, which means that they could be 20-12 or 8-24. Still, I don't think this is one we should be losing sleep over.
Then comes a fun one - Virginia hosting Michigan for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In years past, I've joked on why they even call this a "Challenge," but the Big Ten has proven me wrong. I think the ACC is stronger this year than in the past couple, so hopefully this time next year I'll be able to return to our regularly scheduled programming. Michigan finished last season with a surprising 21-14 and is returning four of their starters. They started with a rocky 1-6 Big Ten schedule before powering through to finish 8-3 and 9-9 overall, falling to Duke, barely, in the second round of the Tournament. They lost Darius Morris in an early jump to the NBA (lol at NBA), which means that they're going to need a lot of help from some of their incoming talent. They've got Ohio's Mr. Basketball in Trey Burke, who averaged 23.6 points per game his senior year, and went undefeated in the Columbus City League for his entire career (57-0). I think Virginia's semi-experienced backcourt (assuming Zeglinski is back) is going to light it up against Michigan's young squad, and the Hoos will earn their keep in the Challenge.
Next up, Longwood - the third of a four-game homestretch. Longwood is not good. They finished last season 12-19, and while they return almost everybody, Virginia doesn't exactly schedule Longwood for its RPI boost. Go ahead and pencil in a W.
So for those of you playing along at home, so far I've predicted a 9-0, possibly 8-1 record. We'll be back Monday with the rest of the non-conference schedule, because it's 3:00 on a Friday afternoon now, which means it's time to get ready for the weekend.