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Virginia’s non-conference schedule is challenging, and that’s a good thing

The ‘Hoos are set to face four top-tier opponents before beginning ACC play this season

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Houston Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As of today, the Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s basketball 2022-2023 non conference schedule has been set in stone. The ‘Hoos have 10 non-ACC opponents officially on the docket with a number of challenging opponents highlighting early season play.

The team has their usual lineup of likely victories on the schedule: for example, NC Central in the home opener on November 7. They also have two games they should win, but that will at least be interesting: a home rematch against local rival James Madison, who defeated Virginia 52-49 in Harrisonburg last season, and a feisty Northern Iowa team that lost star guard AJ Green (who is coincidentally the same height as the seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver AJ Green) but will pose a challenge when they come to Charlottesville in mid-November.

However, what should have Virginia fans excited about this schedule is its difficulty: Virginia is guaranteed four games against teams that finished last season in the top 30 of the NCAA in KenPom — and four teams that just won an NCAA tournament game. They’re locked in against Michigan as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and Houston as the second half of a home-and-home (the Cougars knocked off the Cavaliers 67-47 last year). They’re also guaranteed games against two of Illinois, UCLA, and Baylor in a stacked Roman Legends Classic field in Vegas.

Historically, Virginia has never been tested to this level in non-conference play. In the past eight seasons, only thrice have they faced more than one team in non-conference play that finished in the KenPom top 30 for the previous season. In 2018-19, Virginia knocked off Wisconsin and Maryland; in 2015-16, they defeated Villanova, West Virginia, and California; last season, they lost to Houston and Iowa. They have never played four top-30 teams under Tony Bennett before.

This team will face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country in terms of top-end opponents, and one of the toughest in Virginia history. And while it’ll probably hurt in the win-loss column — there’s a very real chance the ‘Hoos are 6-4 entering conference play — the intense non-conference schedule is beneficial for Virginia fans, this Virginia team, and the basketball program as a whole.

For fans, the benefit is obvious: more entertaining, high-level games of Virginia basketball. Beating up on bad teams in non-conference isn’t entertaining, and more importantly, it doesn’t tell you anything about the team. Facing good teams is telling. Virginia’s 2019 wins over Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis and over Maryland in a hostile College Park environment were good omens for the rest of the year; their blowout defeat to Houston and home loss against Iowa last year were the opposite.

As revealing as early-season games are for fans, they’re twice as useful for the team and the coaching staff. Marquee matchups against elite teams early in the year will give Tony Bennett & Co. the opportunity to experiment and test their roster’s limits. Tony might see how Jayden Gardner and Ben Vander Plas look in space guarding some of the top stretch fours in the country: UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez and Illinois’s Matthew Mayer. He might have Reece Beekman slide into Kihei’s role as lead-guard-defender against Houston’s Marcus Sasser or Illinois’s Terrence Shannon Jr. He might just throw some of the incoming freshmen on the court for a few minutes against Baylor and Houston to see how they handle a high-level physical game.

Are any of these guarantees? No. But it’s great to have the option to test new looks and get a feel for the roster.

For a Virginia team that looks on paper like an NCAA tournament squad, these early matchups are also a great chance to pick up resume-boosting wins. Victories over top teams are much more valuable than defeats against top teams are damaging. Even going just 2-2 in those four games would give Virginia an elite non-conference resume to point to on Selection Sunday.

The final benefit of scheduling high-level teams in non-conference play? It helps propel Virginia to elite-program status by association. What defines a great basketball program? Well, playing other great basketball programs is certainly part of it. Tony Bennett is highly respected in the realm of college basketball, and he’s used that respect to secure matchups against other high-level programs — for example, this year the Hoos will play the back end of their home-and-home against Houston, who’s been one of the best teams in the nation under Kelvin Sampson.

Facing elite opponents and playing them tough is a great way to develop those relationships and create future opportunities. I would love to see Virginia schedule more games like their 2020 matchup with Purdue, their 2021 matchup with Gonzaga, or their 2016 and 2017 home-and-home with Villanova.

Did the Hoos go 1-3 in those four games? Yes. But in hindsight, was playing them good for the program? Unquestionably yes. This year’s non-conference schedule is a great sign that Virginia learned the right lessons from those games and plans to schedule a tough non-conference slate in the years to come.