In the past, both Virginia Cavaliers fans and general college basketball enthusiasts alike have criticized Tony Bennett’s teams for having a relatively weak non-conference schedule. And, to be fair, they’ve had some reason.
Looking at both last season and 2018-19, UVA’s best game in non-league action during the regular season was probably a road win at No. 24 Maryland. That victory came on the heels of the only other ranked out-of-conference team they’ve played in the last two years: No. 25 Wisconsin (whom they beat in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game).
But, for what’s been seen as lacking in the past, the schedule can be seen as anything but in 2020-2021. Let’s take a look at who the Hoos will get before ACC play kicks into gear:
Maine (11/25): The season begins innocently enough for Virginia in Bubbleville, otherwise known as the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, where they’ll face the Maine Black Bears on Nov. 25. The two teams last met in Charlottesville last fall, when Virginia earned a sloppy 46-26 (!) win.
Having finished dead-last in scoring average a season ago in the America East conference (61.4 ppg), Maine will need forward Nedeljko Prijovic (10.7 ppg) and a bevvy of incoming freshmen to help try and pick up the slack.
On Monday, Florida announced that they would be postponing their scheduled games against UMass Lowell and Virginia in response to positive COVID-19 tests. Assuming this matchup eventually gets played out (which is a big “if”), let’s still march ahead with the primer.
For the Gators, it all starts with last season’s leading scorer and junior forward Keyontae Johnson (14.0 ppg), who returns to Gainesville after some potential NBA Draft buzz. Pair him with fellow returning starters Noah Locke (43.2% from three in 19-20) and Scottie Lewis, in addition to several proven transfers, and this team has the makings of a fringe Top 25 squad.
Of course, maybe most importantly, this is a program that blew out UVA in two NCAA Tournaments within the past decade (71-45 and 65-39 in 2012 and 2017, respectively). Tony Bennett won’t soon forget that.
Saint Francis (PA) (12/1): UVA first returns to John Paul Jones Arena on Dec. 1, when they play host to Saint Francis (PA), who is coming off of one of the program’s strongest seasons to date (22-10, 13-5 NEC).
Hoping for similar success this fall, the Red Flash will need to make up for the loss of NEC Player of the Year Isaiah Blackmon (18.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg). On a team with eight freshmen, expect junior forward Myles Thompson to shoulder much of that lost contribution.
Kent State (12/4): The Golden Flashes come to town for the second matchup of what will be a four-game home stand. Listed at just 174 in the newest KenPom standings, Kent State lost four of their five top scorers from a year ago, and will turn to senior guard Danny Pippen, in addition to transfer Michael Nuga and a host of JUCO incomers, in 2020-21.
No. 13 Michigan State (12/9): The first of two signature non-conference matchups, Dec. 9’s tilt with No. 13 Michigan State should make clear whether or not Virginia is truly Final Four ready, or if there is some work to do.
For Michigan State’s part, heralded players and leading scorers Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman are gone, but basically everyone else will be back for Head Coach Tom Izzo. That includes Joshua Langford, who returns from a left foot injury that sidelined him for all of 2019-20. Beyond him, forward Aaron Henry and guard Rocket Watts should figure to have big roles yet again, as will Joey Hauser, Sam Hauser’s brother, who transferred to Michigan State after averaging 9.7 points per game at Marquette two seasons ago.
Much like Florida, the Spartans have given Tony Bennett-led teams struggles in recent years; Virginia posted consecutive losses to Michigan State in the NCAA’s in 2014 and 2015.
William & Mary (12/12): Head Coach Dane Fischer led William & Mary to a solid 21-11 record (13-5 CAA) in his first year in Williamsburg. Unfortunately, do-it-all big man and conference player of the year Nathan Knight, who led the team in points (20.7), rebounds (10.5), and blocks (1.5), is gone. Attempting to replace that output will be the key to the Tribe’s hope of remaining competitive.
No. 3 Villanova (12/19): As two of the most consistent programs in the country and owners of three of the past four national championships, I think there’s a clear argument for this to be called the marquis regular season game of 2020-21. Suffice it to say, this is a big one for Cavaliers, and will likely be a telling sign of how real a postseason run could be.
On the court, the Wildcats, despite the departure of Saddiq Bey to the NBA, will do what they do best: spread the floor. Senior guard Collin Gillespie (15.1 ppg) will help lead that attack, along with sophomore guard Justin Moore (11.5 ppg), and forwards Jermaine Samuels and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.7 and 10.5 ppg, respectively).
And, of course, let’s not forget to mention the most important thing this game will give us: a Jay Wright-Tony Bennett matchup, which, for my money, is a pairing of the two best head coaches in college basketball right now. That’s worth the price of admission alone.