As I’m sure you know by now, Virginia Cavaliers Basketball opens its title defense on the road against ACC foe Syracuse. In the past, ACC teams have always opened with non-conference games before getting into ACC play later in the year. This gives teams a chance to grow and gel before the most important games occur. Not so this year.
Combined with the new 20-game ACC schedule, the non-conference schedule is shorter than it has ever been before. Virginia will play just ten games outside of ACC play. A year ago, it was 12 non-conference games. Ten years ago, it was 13.
After that Syracuse game, Virginia plays six consecutive non-conference games before facing UNC in early December. The final three non-conference games follow that before ACC play starts in earnest.
JMU - The Dukes last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2013, and in 10 meetings have never beaten the Hoos. JMU’s pre-season ranking, according to KenPom, is 224. However, they return most of last year’s 14-19 team. That includes leading scorer Matt Lewis and leading rebounder Dwight Wilson. This will be an interesting test for Virginia’s new lineup, as JMU does not have much size. Will Tony matchup with their three and four guard lineups or force JMU to deal with Virginia’s size on the interior?
Columbia - The Ivy League doormats have not seen the NCAA tournament since 1968 and have not had a winning season since 2016. Kenpom ranks them 151st preseason, which actually isn’t too bad considering they were 215th last season. Most of the team from last year returns, but as that team was 10-18 it’s not necessarily a good thing. As above, this team has very little size, so there would be matchup problems on both ends. Would Tony let his big men try to guard on the perimeter or will Tony go small?
Vermont - Not including the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, this is the toughest of the out-of-conference games this season. The Catamounts are perennial contenders in the America East Conference and won 27 games a year ago before losing to FSU in the NCAA Tournament. In a recurring theme, they also return most of that team, which includes Anthony Lamb, last year’s American East Player of the Year and an honorable mention All-American while leading the league in scoring and rebounding. The Hoos and Catamounts have never played, which adds some intrigue. Make no mistake, Virginia could lose this game if they don’t come out firing on all cylinders. Vermont ranks 78th in preseason KenPom rankings, ahead of three ACC teams.
UMASS - The Minutemen finished 11-21 last year and lost five of their top six scorers. Basically, the entire roster is turning over. They are 240th in KenPom’s preseason rankings. They will probably not be a very good team this year. That said, there won’t be much film on the new guys, so it could be a tough game to prepare for. Vanderbilt transfer Djery Baptiste was eligible for the second half of last season and excelled defensively and on the glass. He’ll be the first real interior presence the Hoos face this year. After UMass, the Hoos will play either Arizona State or St. John’s.
Maine - The night before Thanksgiving, Virginia fans can be thankful for the easiest game on the Hoos’ schedule. This is their last tuneup for the rematch against Purdue, so it’ll be a good chance for Tony to play around with lineups and get some rest for the starters. KenPom gives Virginia a 99.7% chance of winning this game.
Purdue, December 4 - This is the ACC/B10 challenge and after the all-time-classic Elite Eight matchup between these teams, it came as no surprise when the matchups were announced. Though the Boilermakers lost Carsen Edwards and a few other guys, they haven’t had nearly the roster turnover that Virginia has. This will easily be the toughest out of conference game of the season, and would be a huge early season win for the Hoos. The Hoos also have to look ahead to UNC the following weekend, which could be a distraction.
Stony Brook - Following that UNC game, the Hoos have their exam break before their final three OOC games. The first of the three is Stony Brook. The Sea Wolves won 24 games last year and played in the NIT. Most of that team returns, though leading scorer Akwasi Yeboah transferred to Rutgers. Unlike most of Virginia’s OOC conference schedule, Stony Brook can match Virginia’s size.
South Carolina - The Gamecocks finished 16-16 last year, but won 11 SEC games. They beat Virginia’s Final Four opponent Auburn as well as winning at Florida. But they also lost to Wyoming (KenPom #317). And, of course, the Hoos crushed them in Columbia 69-52 behind Ty Jerome’s season high 25 points. They lose last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, but almost the entire roster is back beyond that. South Carolina has talent and Virginia will need to be geared up for this one.
Navy - If Maine isn’t the worst team on the schedule, then Navy is. The Midshipmen were 12-19 last year in a poor Patriot League. Much of the team returns, but they lost their top two scorers. They have some size, but very little shooting. That’s not a good combination against the Pack Line. This has a high likelihood of being a Pack Line Pledge game.
It’s a bizarre season with the opener against Syracuse and another early ACC game. Obviously, the ACC games are the most important, but performing well in OOC games is also key for NCAA seeding. A bad loss or a good win can impact the Hoos on Selection Sunday.