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Basketball Breakdown: Out-of-Conference Clashes

Experience. Stand-out player. Crowd support. These are all things that the Virginia men’s basketball team lacks heading into the 2010-2011 campaign, which kicks off tomorrow night against William & Mary at 7:30 at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers finished 15-16 overall last season, 5-11 in the ACC, which includes losing nine straight games and ten of the last eleven of the season. Head Coach Tony Bennett, now in his second year at the helm, will look to improve on this, despite taking some serious hits to his roster.

Virginia has only six returning scholarship players – Mike Scott, Mustapha Farrakhan, Will Sherrill (together with Scott and Farrakhan, this year’s tri-captains), Sammy Zeglinski, Assane Sene and Bub Evans.

Sammy is out for eight weeks due to hip surgery, which means it’s point guard by committee.

Does anyone feel like Sene has been around for well over four years now? For someone who has not displayed much production, it sure does feel like he’s been around for a long time. And, to top it all off – he’s a true junior. There’s still another whole year left! I digress. Bennett promises that this is the year though.

"He has improved from last year and is stronger and he has had some real good practices," Bennett said following the exhibition game against Roanoke College. "There were some solid moments, for him, today. I think he has taken a step in the right direction and will be relied upon this year."

That’s great, coach. But my question is, has he figured out how to use those oven mitts as hands yet? He’s a solid seven-foot giant. He’s got a little bit of muscle on those bones. And, again, he’s seven feet tall. And yet consistently last season, the offense stopped with him, rather than with the bucket. Here’s a fun statistic: he averaged 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes of playing last season. That’s right. Extrapolated, he would have fouled out of every single game.

But this article is not intended to bash on Sene, who, to his credit, has worked hard the past two years and continues to try to make up in effort what his hands lack in fingers. As you know by now, The Virginia roster was slashed following last year, with Jerome Meyinsse graduating, and three Virginia players (Sylven Landesberg, Jeff Jones and Tristan Spurlock) prematurely leaving the program (with the former two being impact players).

Tuesday you saw the preview of the six scholarship freshmen joining the team this year. This is the class, folks. Regardless of what shows up on the win/loss column come April, I have a strong belief that this is the class that will be making the difference, and that will be leading the Virginia Cavaliers back to the glory years, and perhaps to the promised land. K.T. Harrell. James Johnson. Billy Baron. These are the three guys I am most excited about in this army of freshmen, and while we won’t know exactly what they’re made of until perhaps December 5 in our ACC opener at Virginia Tech, I’d keep a very close eye on these guys until then.

With only six scholarship guys, Virginia lacks the experience you need to make a true tournament run. But, as it’s trial-by-fire here in the Atlantic Coast Conference, lacking experience doesn’t mean you can’t get there.

Let’s take a look at the schedule here now, shall we?

The season starts with a pair of home gimmes against William & Mary and USC Upstate. There’s a reason they are scheduled at the beginning. We should win them. I know it’s not much of a preview to say that we should, but that’s all you’re getting out of me (partially because I’m not entirely sure how to adequately scout USC Upstate).

Then of course, enters the tough part of the OOC season. Stanford is the first of three PAC 10 teams Virginia faces this season, with their fancy new triangle logo. By most accounts, Stanford is predicted to go approximately nowhere this season. But then again, so is Virginia. Stanford returns four of its starters, which includes Jeremy Green, who averaged 16.6 points per game and shot .381 from beyond the arc, breaking a school record for three-point shooting. Honestly, I think this is a coin flip, with the coin slightly weighted towards Stanford, as the ‘Hoos have to travel across the country to face a team against whom we’ve fared 1-5 in the series, including losses in 2006 and 2007 (it was only a one-point loss in ’07).

That game is on a Thursday. The Monday after, the Wahoos will be in Maui, Hawaii to participate in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the premier pre-season tournament in the country, and the tournament that was started after what most consider to be college basketball’s greatest upset in history – host Chaminade University (a school then with an enrollment of 800 and no gym) took down 77-72 top-ranked Virginia (led by the one and only Ralph Sampson).

The jet-lagged Cavaliers will face another PAC 10 team in Washington, a squad that’s ranked 17th or 18th in the country depending on poll. It’s a midnight (ET) tipoff – I don’t understand time travel well enough to have a guess as to what time that will feel like for our players, but I predict it won’t turn out well. Washington did exactly the opposite of Virginia last season, starting off poorly and finishing by winning nine of their final 10 games, not to mention a Sweet 16 appearance. Oh, and four of their starters from that 26-10 team are coming back. Doesn’t look good, ‘Hoos.

The winner/loser of that game plays the winner/loser of Kentucky/Oklahoma. Kentucky, as you might imagine, is Kentucky, despite having 83 players selected in the first round of the NBA draft last year. But if we end up playing Oklahoma, who went 13-18 last season and is returning only one starter, we stand a decent shot. Plus they have Jeff Capel as their coach, and beating him would please me just as much as beating Duke. Almost just as much.

The other half of the Maui bracket includes Wichita State, UConn, Michigan State, and host team Chaminade. To which I say, "meh, hm, whoa, meh." Depending on how fate decides to play our cards, I foresee us escaping the tournament with at most a 2-1 record, losing the first round but winning out.

Virginia continues the road stretch with a trip to Minneapolis to face Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten challenge. Minnesota went 21-14 last year, a record which took Minnesota to the first round of the NCAA Tournament before being bounced by Xavier. By the way, Minnesota has Ralph Sampson III, who led the team in rebounds last season and was fifth in the league in blocked shots. Yes, he’s the son of UVa’s Ralph Sampson. Yes, I’m aware that this is the second time this article I’ve mentioned Sampson. No, I’m not trying to relive the glory days… In any event, the Gophers have an incredible backcourt, one which includes senior guard Alen Nolen, who had 43 steals in 18 games (2.4/game) before he was declared academically ineligible for the last 17 games of the season. By comparison, his former teammate Damian Johnson led the league at 1.8 per game at the end of the season. Nolen also had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.91:1. If he performs as well this year as he did last year, Minnesota’s going to be a tough team to beat.

After taking a break from all this out of conference action with a little ACC opener on the road against the Hokies, the ‘Hoos start an eight game home stand, with the first seven of those being against out of conference teams.

Going chronologically out of order because, well, this is my preview and not yours, here are the teams we should dispatch: Radford, Norfolk State, Seattle and Howard. Radford went 19-12 last season and was 2nd in the Big South Conference, but they return only one starter and…are Radford. Virginia is 5-0 all time against this team, including a win last season (albeit it was 68-66). Norfolk State went 13-18 last season – surprisingly, I believe this is the first matchup between these two teams. I’m not entirely sure what division Seattle is in and whether that division has conferences. And to round out my dismissal of these four teams, Howard went 7-25 last season. Seven.

Are you guys still with me? We’re almost done with the out-of-conference schedule, which I know is all you care about anyway. Atlantic Coast what now?

Oregon's new basketball courtOregon has that fancy new $227 million arena, with the psychedelic court that’s made to intimidate teams, but that won’t help them this year, since they’re visiting Charlottesville. The team went 16-16 last season and is returning 4 of its starters, together with a first-year head coach. But aside from their starters, there’s not much left of the team, a team which lost four sophomores (they had EIGHT!) to Boise State, Boston College, UCF and Marquette. Then they lost a junior center to a team in Israel. In fact, Oregon had to cancel a trip to Italy because they only had six players available. Their bench is nonexistent. The team is going through a lot of turmoil right now and I don’t think they have enough to give them the W.

Iowa State, the team I always forget is in the Big XII, went 15-17 last season and also has a new first year head coach. I think they’re stronger than Oregon, but they have same bench problems. They do have a big man in Chris White, 6’8 and 250 lbs, who just transferred from Minnesota and is expected to be granted an exemption from the one-year-out rule. I think this game is a coin flip again, but this time our home court advantage gives us the slight edge. (Although, see the final paragraph of this preview.)

Lastly, the ‘Hoos play host to LSU, a team that went from 27-8 (13-3 SEC) in 2009, with the regular season title, to the SEC cellar in 2010, at 11-20 (2-14 SEC). Like Virginia, they have a top 20 recruiting class to make up for the talent they may have lacked the year before. Like Virginia, they are a young team – no seniors on the roster and eight freshmen/sophomores. Also, for comedic purposes, you should know that LSU head coach Trent Johnson described last year as painful, "like dying a slow death." Not exactly the thing you want to hear from your coach.

This is also a good time to point out the strange love-cycle that goes on in our out of conference teams. Iowa State picks up a Minnesota transfer. LSU picked up an Iowa State transfer (who sits out this year). Is this how the UVa scheduling machine works?

There are fourteen out of conference games scheduled. For the first time in what seems like a decade, there is no throwaway OOC squad scheduled in the middle of ACC play – the ‘Hoos will have to fight through 15 straight ACC games, after an early season opener against VT on Dec. 5.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect an 11-3 or 12-2 record coming out of the OOC play. Even winning the games we should and losing every game that’s evenly balanced, the team should be able to come out with at least an 8-6 or 9-5 record out of this. Last season Virginia had a 10-15 out of conference record, which means that, for improvement, we need to improve on our 5-11 ACC record of last season.

The ACC preview will come out later, because I figure it will take you approximately 3 days to read this little novella that I’ve put together today.

On a side note, John Paul Jones Arena saw an average of only 10,141 last season. Home attendance has steadily and consistently dropped every year since the opening of JPJA, which holds 14,593 and has a record crowd of 15,219, against Arizona in the stadium and season opener. With an unimpressive slate of out-of-conference home games, this number will likely drop again, though query whether the home ACC schedule is enough to get the students and fans out there. Coach Bennett has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a strong home crowd support at each and every game – it’s up to you the fan to give that to this team.