There is no tougher 10 days of the year for the college student than final exams - more specifically, the exam break for UVA's athletes. Though finals may be a nice break from the stress of the basketball season, the gap between the heart of the non-conference schedule and the start of ACC play is a lowpoint for the Wahoo faithful. Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as the Hoos finally return to JPJ tonight.
Looking forward, Virginia has business to attend to before North Carolina visits Charlottesville on January 6th. Three non-conference games remain, as the Hoos will see Morgan State and Wofford at home, with Old Dominion at the Governor's Holiday Hoops Classic in Richmond sandwiched in-between. Facing lesser competition during the remainder of the calendar year gives Tony Bennett further opportunity to develop first-year players and get fourth-year point guard Jontel Evans healthy; still, the team must avoid a let-down in doing so.
The Morgan State Bears, tonight's opponent out of the MEAC, enters at 3-4, ranked 241st nationally by KenPom. Two of those wins, against VMI and Liberty, came on the game's final possession. The one area that the Hoos must focus on will be rebounding. While dominating Mississippi Valley State 67-39 last week, Virginia was actually out-rebounded by 7% on the offensive and defensive boards. Despite Morgan State's struggles, they are 14th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage; when the Bears miss shots, Virginia must end their possessions without allowing second chance points.
Saturday, UVA will travel to a neutral site in Richmond to face an Old Dominion team that has fallen far since putting together four straight 20+ win seasons and two NCAA appearances. ODU is 1-9, with its one win coming against, you guessed it, Morgan State at home. The Monarchs present the third (and best) chance for Virginia to pick up its first win against CAA competition this year. Once again, ODU has one apparent strength, and its their 7th nationally ranked offensive rebounding percentage.
The Hoos will finish their out-of-conference slate December 30th at home against the offensively challenged (but defensively sound!) Wofford Terriers. Wofford is 4-6 and ranked 199th by KenPom. Before you look it up, Wofford is a liberal arts school of 1,500 in South Carolina. This is also a good opportunity to look back at our interview with senior guard Taylor Wagener.
When the coaching staff put together the schedule, mostly about a year or two ago, it appeared substantially stronger than the season's reality. The staff likely assumed a trip to Madison Square Garden to face two quality opponents, Old Dominion looked like a perennial tournament team, and even Mississippi Valley State was fresh off a conference title. The Hoos must make the most of the hand that they have been dealt and finish 2012 off strong. KenPom has the Hoos at 90%+ favorites in each of the three remaining games; however, this still leaves a ~20% chance that the team drops one somewhere.
Win three winnable games, and the Hoos will face UNC at 11-2, on a 10-game winning streak, with plenty of momentum, and at least on the radar of the AP Poll. That road starts tonight at 7 PM against Morgan State, a game available on ESPN3.