As you all certainly know by now, UVA released the non-conference schedule today. Most of the release was somewhat anti-climactic, as we already knew all but two of the opponents. Getting the dates of some of the games was the big reveal. StLouHoo asked me what I thought of the schedule, and so I took a look at it. The games fall into three baskets for me: I Like, Don't Like, Don't Care.
First, the slate:
Now for my three buckets.
My first impression of the schedule as the matchups were being revealed was, "ho hum." Even the Battle 4 Atlantis slate was a bit of a letdown. It seems every year that the slate for that tournament is loaded with powerhouses and every year I cry out, "Why can't we ever get into a tournament like this?" Now this year we are in it ... and the consensus is that there are no real powerhouse teams in it. At best are some borderline top 25 teams. Our only guaranteed opponent is Middle Tennessee State, the type of opponent you might rather NOT have in November: a mid-major power fresh off the NCAA Tournament. After MTSU comes Butler or Dayton, then one of Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Stanford. Meh.
No potential Final Four opponents or top 5 stalwarts jump off the schedule at you. While Duke opens with Kentucky in the State Farm Challenge, goes to Madison Square Garden to take on Texas Tech, and has Arizona, Gonzaga and Xavier in the field in Maui; and North Carolina gets Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Kentucky, and either Michigan State or UCLA in the Las Vegas Invitational; the team most likely to actually win the ACC gets its annual "gee, thanks ACCESPN, for the thoughtful and exciting matchup" with Maryland, the above-discussed meh Bahamas slate, and South Carolina as its marquee matchups. But when I looked at the games individually, there were several contests that I do like:
at South Carolina
While this is not the team that went to the Final Four a couple years ago, Frank Martin's team will always play tough, physical defense, and attack the backboard on offense. They will start with 6-9 Chris Silva, a powerful forward who tested the NBA waters and returned to be one of Andy Katz' "20 best returning players" (along with Kyle Guy). Silva will be joined in the post by Maik Kotsar, a Jack Salt type with a little more offensive skill, and a bunch of new players who have a lot of potential. They will have an experienced point guard in Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell, and added two freshmen who could make immediate impact: A.J. Lawson from Canada and Alanzo Frink from the Dominican Republic. Lawson reclassified from 2019, where he was a top 40 prospect. Both Lawson and Frink played in the FIBA competition with Francisco Caffaro, and both showed extremely well. Frink, a 6-6 265-pound power forward, outscored Matthew Hurt of the USA 16-12 and went craycray on Caffaro with 27 points. Lawson is a smooth and athletic wing who showed well for Canada alongside Florida signee Andrew Nembhard. In their gym, this team will be a tough out who will test the Hoos' interior defense and toughness early. They also present one stylistic challenge that could come up again in March.
Last year's Thundering Herd advanced farther in the NCAA Tournament than did everyhoo's favorite team, beating Wichita State in the first round before getting summarily dismissed by Jevon Carter and West Virginia. They will bring a backcourt with NBA aspirations to JPJ Arena on New Year's Eve - and a lot of confidence. Marshall won Conference USA before that NCAA Tournament win, and now "[p]layers are feeling a difference when they walk into Cam Henderson Center. 'I think we're just a lot more confident and a lot more experienced in comparison to last year at this time,' sophomore guard Jarrod West said." Huntington Herald-Dispatch. Marshall is coached by Dan D'Antoni, who brought analytics to college basketball with heavy reliance on the three-point shot - particularly the corner three, the most statistically efficient shot in basketball. Guards Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks are two of the best players in CUSA - and seniors. They will lead an experienced and confident team into Charlottesville that will test UVA's defense heading into ACC play. "Our goal isn't just to be satisfied and win Conference USA, it's to win the whole country. That's what we work for every day," Elmore told the Herald-Dispatch. They will be hyped to prove they can do it against what could be a top 5 Cavaliers team, and they are just the kind of team the Hoos will have to be ready for on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Battle 4 Atlantis
The potential matchups with Butler and Florida add some spice to this Carribbean holiday. Yes, we could wind up with Dayton and Wisconsin instead, but Butler is highly likely and with Virginia and Florida being the best teams in the two brackets, that rematch has a good chance of happening. Butler will be tough and experienced, with a pair of big centers and a group of physical wings. Kamar Baldwin will be the centerpiece of the offense. Only one starter for the Bulldogs will be under 21, Aaron Thompson. If these two teams tangle on the court, there will be a lot of game experience represented. The problem for Butler will be that their defense has not been top-flight the last few years. If they have trouble defending, they are going to be hard-pressed to keep up with Guy, De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.
Under Mike White, Florida has become a big player again. The Gators finished third in the SEC and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year, after an Elite Eight run the year before. The Gators will be very talented this year, although much of that talent will be brand new to college basketball in November. White and the Gators feasted in recruiting for 2018, led by Canadian point guard Andrew Nembhard, who is likely to step right into the starting lineup. Nembhard is good - very good. Noah Locke from the Baltimore area also joins the Gators backcourt. Chase Johnson, Keyontae Johnson and Isaiah Stokes will be freshmen in the frontcourt. With Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, Gorjok Gak, Kevarrius Hayes and Dontay Bassett returning, Florida has a lot of quality players. Come March, they could end up looking like the marquee opponent they don't look like today.
Still, with Virginia's luck, Dayton will upset Butler and Wisconsin will win the other bracket.
Look, the Terps are probably one of the favorites in the Big Ten and have a lot of talent. As a basketball matchup, this one could look like a heavyweight fight come March. They are considered part of the Big Ten's top tier along with the Michigans and Indiana, with a strong returning backcourt in Anthony Cowan Jr. and Darryl Morsell and a bruising big man in Bruno Fernando. They add a couple of guys Tony Bennett coveted: Jalen Smith and Aaron Wiggins (who in a just universe would be a Hoo).
But I just hate playing Maryland. They should have simply vanished from Virginia sports when they left the ACC. Turd buckets. I hated when they came to our arena every year with their turd bucket fans from their turd bucket state. Sorry if you're from Maryland and are a Hoo reading this - it just means you rose above your circumstances and should be proud. And it's the second time in four years. If we don't get Wisconsin for the easy story line we get Maryland for the easy story line. Or we get a shitty Ohio State. Really, just fuck the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. It's been more than five years since we had an interesting matchup out of it. We should be playing Michigan (2011) or Indiana (never played) or even Michigan State, whom we have not played in the Challenge since 2002.
I hate Maryland.
The rest of the schedule is just meh. William and Mary and VCU are fine in-state opponents, and I guess either of them could beat a listless Wahoo team. George Washington beat us a few years ago in their place, but the Colonials look like just another mediocre A-10 team. The rest is just filler.
In the end, the non-conference slate is not going to matter much. It's good enough to provide some challenges and help the team come together and prepare for what comes next. There will be some fun games, some pretty good wins, and Virginia is not in a place where "resume" is a major concern. The ACC grind and what comes after it are going to tell the story of this season. So just forget quadrants and indexes and SOS and all that shit and just focus on watching some good HOOpS!