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Virginia Basketball Season Countdown: Out-of-Conference schedule preview

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Hoos face challenging out of conference slate featuring Big-12, Big Ten foes.

NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As we continue to countdown to Virginia’s season opener in 15 days, here is an overview of the Hoos’ out-of-conference schedule.

Throughout this preview, I’ll use KenPom’s preseason rankings and projections. They’re not the only preseason metric, but they are a decent and standardized metric to use and compare across past seasons. However, it is important to note that KenPom ranks Virginia at #9 preseason. Despite the relative optimism throughout the fanbase, this is an outlier from preseason polls that have UVA just outside the top-25. While my guess is that the answer is probably somewhere in between, take probabilities cited below with a grain of salt as “optimistic case” projections.

Cupcakes:

11/10 vs. UNC-Greensboro (KenPom #161)
11/13 vs. Austin Peay (322)
11/19 vs. Monmouth (165)
12/2 vs. Lehigh (181)
12/19 vs. Savannah State (321)
12/22 vs. Hampton (301)

KenPom Projected Wins: 5.9 (87% chance of 6-0 record)

Like all years, a heavy dose of early-season cupcakes is unavoidable. Fully half of UVA’s 12-game out-of-conference slate is against teams ranked by KenPom as 150th or lower in the nation, and all take place at JPJ.

Obviously, there is substantial variation within this group, which is led by UNC-G, who will visit JPJ to open the season for the second year in a row. In last season’s matchup, the Spartans closed the game to 17-15 seven minutes in before the Hoos used a 30-2 run (!) to put the game quickly away. UNC-G.

UNC-Greensboro isn’t the only familiar face visiting Charlottesville. Hampton came to town in 2013 and Lehigh in 2015. The games against Austin Peay and Monmouth are both part of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

Despite the relative ease of each individual game, KenPom does allow a greater than 10% chance that Virginia falls somewhere along the way. Virginia’s last loss to a team ranked worse than 100 at home came in 2012 when Delaware stole won at JPJ...also as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off, a game that would haunt Virginia when they narrowly missed the tournament that season.

Really should win:

12/16 vs. Davidson (86)

KenPom Projected Wins: 0.9

I couldn’t quite fit this in the “cupcake” category, nor is the difficulty enough to drop to the next tier. Virginia played Davidson in 2013 and 2014, falling behind by as many as 10 points in that second game at JPJ before coming back to win.

Larry Aldridge, who averaged 21 ppg last season while shooting 41% from behind the arc, will be the man to watch in this season’s game. While UVA’s talent and homecourt advantage should be plenty to overcome the team picked to finish sixth in the A-10, Davidson is no cupcake.

Challenges:

11/17 @ VCU (83)
11/23 vs. Vanderbilt (Neutral) (38)
11/24 vs. Seton Hall/Rhode Island (Neutral) (28/62)
11/27 vs. Wisconsin (31)

KenPom Projected Wins: 2.7

Virginia and VCU kick-off a second home-and-home in Richmond with an odd 4 PM Friday start time (necessitated by VCU’s participation in the Maui Invitational starting three days later). The Rams will sport a new coach once again, with Mike Rhoades moving over from Rice, and a new-look team with five seniors lost to graduation, though they’ll have two returning senior starters in Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams, along with two eligible JUCO transfers.

UVA will play Vanderbilt, then either Seton Hall or URI in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brookyln. It’s a deceptively solid field, especially if the Hoos get past Vandy to take on Seton Hall in a final. UVA has won four consecutive “early-season tournaments,” but none have been close to this competitive.

This year’s ACC-Big Ten challenge features a battle between UVA and fellow slow-bro Wisconsin in Charlottesville. The Badgers missed the Elite 8 last year in an OT shocker against Florida, but should be back despite losing four starters, because having Ethan Happ is probably enough to overcome that. Happ was a force on both sides of the ball, leading last year’s team in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, and putting up a 113.1 ORtg while using 28% of possessions for the team. He’ll be quite a chore for Isaiah Wilkins and a young UVA frontcourt.

In this block of four tough games, three wins would be a big success, with two a more reasonable outcome.

Opportunities:

12/5 @ West Virginia (7)

KenPom Projected Wins: 0.4

West Virginia, who gave eventual national runner-up all they could handle in last year’s NCAA Tournament, will probably be Tony Bennett’s toughest out-of-conference road test of his UVA career. The Mountaineers already handed UVA its first OOC home loss since 2013 last year, fighting back from an early deficit and pulling away late at JPJ.

The Hoos do catch a break with Esa Ahmad suspended for the early part of the year because of NCAA eligibility issues, but they’ll need to prep for defensive force Jevon Carter, who grabbed three steals in last year’s matchup.

Conclusion:

The structure and difficulty level of UVA’s schedule is similar to that of past years’. There are six “gimmes,” (REVERSE JINX!) two tough road tests, and an interesting home matchup against Wisconsin. (Even the actual teams that the Hoos will be facing are similar, as all four of the “non-cupcake/non-tournament” games were on at least one of the past four schedules.) Tony Bennett has done a good job of “scheduling for success” in the out-of-conference.

When I add up the KenPom “projected wins” above, I get to about about a 10-2 record. That’s probably a fairly optimistic case, with 9-3 as my best guess. Luckily, I have confidence that the Hoos will “hold serve” at home, not too bold a prediction, as all the non-Wisconsin matchups are quite winnable.