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Virginia Cavaliers 2014-2015 Out Of Conference Schedule Preview

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Before playing 18 games in the toughest conference in the land, UVA plays a 12-game out-of-conference slate. Here's our breakdown:

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Virginia takes on Maryland this year in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge
Virginia takes on Maryland this year in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, when the Selection Committee unveils the March Madness bracket, there are inevitably teams that the public deems have been snubbed, and others that end up as surprises in the field.  Predicting the Committee's reasoning, however, is simple. "They challenged themselves out of conference," they explain.  To outside observers, it seems that all games should count equally.  But, in reality, the decision-makers prioritize non-conference strength of schedule over the degree of difficulty in conference games.

This is what the team's out-of-conference schedule looks like:

UVA OOC Schedule Strength
Date Opponent Preseason KenPom Ranking 2013-14 RPI Rank
Nov. 14 @ JMU 221 235
Nov. 16 Norfolk State 278 228
Nov. 18 South Carolina St. 339 331
Nov. 21 George Washington 62 37
Nov. 25 Tenn. State 311 208
Nov. 28 vs. La Salle (BCC) 101 98
Nov. 29 vs. Rutgers/Vanderbilt (BCC) 91/103 190/122
Dec. 3 @ Maryland 33 83
Dec. 6 @ VCU 17 18
Dec. 18 Cleveland State 89 90
Dec. 21 Harvard 30 44
Dec. 30 Davidson 139 132
Average: 143 137

After a weak out-of-conference slate hurt the Hoos when they fell just short of the Big Dance in 2013, Tony Bennett has done a strong job beefing up that part of the schedule.  Per KenPom, UVA's full schedule was 21st hardest in the nation last season, with the out-of-conference a respectable 112th.  This year's edition looks to be in a similar category, with a few major showdowns.  Here's what to expect:

Cupcakes:

Sadly, these are unavoidable.  NCAA teams have to fill their schedules somehow.  UVA has 3 games in which KenPom projects a 98% or greater probability that the Hoos will emerge victorious...but calling these "wins" may be too generous, as Virginia takes an RPI hit from just walking on the court.

UVA's home opener against Norfolk State is the first such matchup.  NSU has given the Hoos troubles in the past. Most recently, the Hoos led by just 1 early in the second half last December before pulling away.  And most traumatically, UVA needed a last-second tip-in by Assane Sene to win in 2011.  But, err, this one should be easy.

The Hoos have a short turn-around before South Carolina State, an even softer "cupcake," comes to town - the Hoos easily beat the Bulldogs 75-38 in their opener 3 years back.

Finally, Tennessee State, coming off a 4-25 season, plays at JPJ in a pre-Barlclay's Classic tune-up.

Not quite cupcakes, but let's not blow it:

These aren't "cupcakes," in the sense that the result is not quite a given. But a loss in any of these would qualify as a major upset.

I'm putting Virginia's season opener at James Madison in this category. The dangerous parts of the JMU game are obvious.  It's on the road (which gives UVA a nice RPI boost), and London Perrantes and and Evan Nolte will not play because of violations of team rules.  The good news is that JMU is ranked the #221 team in the nation by KenPom, with an offense that struggled to score last season.  Underdogs like to play the 3-point lottery to pull upsets, but the Dukes were a paltry 27% from behind the arc last year.

The Hoos' home games against Cleveland State and Davidson also belong here. Both are decent teams, especially the CSU Vikings, which rank 89th in KenPom's rankings.  But KenPom gives UVA an 89% and 93% of winning, respectively.  If we want to hold on to a top-ten national ranking, we'll have to take care of business at home.

Should-wins:

The Cavaliers almost saw George Washington in last season's NCAA tournament (GW lost to Memphis in the round of 64), but they'll get their chance this year at JPJ.  GW loves transfers; they graduate their two biggest senior contributors, who came from Indiana and Villanova, and they'll get Tyler Cavanaugh from Wake Forest eligible this season.  UVA's bigs will be tested against 6-10 Kevin Larsen, who posted a 115 ORtg last season. Coach Mike Lonergan has the Colonials on an upward trajectory, but this is a game where the Hoos should take care of business at home.

In the Barclay's Classic in Brooklyn, UVA will play #101 La Salle, then either #91 Rutgers or #103 Vanderbilt.  Virginia finally shook off its early-season tournament demons when they took the Corpus Christi Classic last season.  They'll be a favorite to bring home another title this Thanksgiving Weekend as well.  (Per KenPom's probabilities, the Hoos have a ~70% chance at winning it all in Brooklyn.)

Showdowns:

Virginia's most dangerous home game comes against Harvard in late December.  The Ivy League power will be geared up big time for this game - it's their only matchup of the season against a team in KenPom's top 70 (UVA has 15 such games).  They're projected to start an experience-laden lineup of 4 seniors and a junior, led by guards Siyani Chambers and Wesley Saunders.  Fun fact: Harvard is on a 6 game winning streak against BC. Thankfully, Virginia is 1) Not BC and 2) Playing at home.  KenPom has UVA as 78% favorites.

The Hoos also have 2 big time road games, which they'll play back to back.  On Wednesday 12/6, UVA heads to College Park to face a Maryland team that just won't go away. It's REALLY hard to keep track of who is on the Terps, since most of their players have transferred, but familiar names like Dez Wells, Evan Smotrycz, and Jake Layman have declined to flee for greener pastures.  After the Terps upset Virginia in the teams' regular season finale last season, the Hoos will be out for revenge.  Let's not overlook Maryland - KenPom has the Hoos as just 1 point favorites.

UVA's "redemption tour" continues 3 days later in Richmond against VCU and its "Havoc" defense.  The Rams bested the Hoos last season on Treveon Graham's game-winner at JPJ, but that was before the part of the year when Virginia realized it was really good (pre-Tennessee turnaround).  This year's rematch is a hot ticket, as both squads are in the top 15 of the preseason AP Poll, and VCU was the unanimous pick by media to win the A-10 this season. The Rams return most of their major contributors, including the aforementioned Graham.  (Here's SBNation's full VCU preview.)