Virginia released it's nonconference hoops schedule today. You can read the press release here. It breaks down as follows:
11/11 George Washington
11/16 Coppin State
12/3 Morgan State
12/9 Virginia Commonwealth
12/22 William and Mary
Neutral (3) - Battle for Atlantis
11/21 Round 1: Middle Tennessee
11/22 Round 2: Dayton OR Butler
11/23 Round 3: Florida/Oklahoma/Wisconsin/Stanford
11/28 at Maryland
12/19 at South Carolina
On the surface, it's a little yawn-inducing. There are no true heavyweight clashes like we've seen with Villanova or West Virginia or peak (Bo Ryan era) Wisconsin in recent years. None of these opponents are consensus Top 25 teams. And whoo boy those home dates are not going to sell tickets. But lets look at the schedule from the perspective of a few key strategic goals.
#1) Strength of Schedule
This is going to be a brutal year in the ACC. I've got 8 ACC teams as at a minimum fringe Top 25 worthy (Clemson, Duke, FSU, Louisville, UNC, Syracuse, VT, and Virginia), with Miami and Notre Dame also being tough outs. January and February will be wars. The nonconference schedule must be assessed in the context of the overall schedule. Here's our opponent breakdown for ACC play this year:
Home and Away: Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
Home: Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Pitt, Wake Forest
Away: Boston College, Clemson, North Carolina, NC State, Syracuse
We don't get a H+A against any of the bottom-third teams (GT, Pitt, and Wake should flounder this year, and NCSU and BC probably have the NIT as their realistic goals). ACC play will bring four or so ranked teams into JPJ and send us away to face as many as six. Our SoS is going to be just fine without star power in the non-conference. VCU, Bahamas Round 2 & 3, @ Maryland, and @ South Carolina should all be Quadrant 1 games according to the NCAAT committee, which will be fine enough to augment the ACC gauntlet from an SoS perspective.
#2) Win 10+ games.
10-2 is the floor of where you want to be coming out of December, assuming you're not one of the Blue Bloods playing in those round-robin made-for-TV heavyweight circuits.
Towson, Coppin State, and Morgan State are all very safe bets. GW, Marshall, and MTSU (first game of an international trip) are pretty safe bets. W&M and VCU are should wins barring a mental breakdown. There's 8 wins. That leaves us with needing two more out of the Atlantis 2nd and 3rd days, @UMD, and @USC-E. Let's say for arguments sake we split those, which I consider the floor, 3-1 is most likely, but sometimes fluky things happen on the road. We're better on paper than every team we'll see save for maybe Florida in the Atlantis finals. I see a 10-win non-conference as a safe bet, probably 11-win, barring extenuating circumstances.
#3) Prepare but don't overburden the starters.
This is going to be a major theme of mine all year, that we need the starters fresh come March. That means not riding them unnecessarily hard during the regular season. The non-conference isn't as huge a deal due to the long layoffs in December allowing guys to rest up prior to ACC play (between VCU on the 9th and Marshall on New Years Eve, we play only twice). And these starters don't need a ton of preparation... they're all veterans at this point. We're starting two true junior returning starters (Ty and Kyle), a RS Soph ACC 6MoY (Hunter), a RS Jr (Diakite), and a RS Sr returning starter (Salt). These guys know what to do, they don't need a ton of run to get ready. All the same, it's worth looking at the overburden part, at least.
All of the home games will see Virginia safely favored, if not strongly favored. The starters shouldn't be asked to break 30 minutes in most of those, maybe even capping out around 20-25 in many. GW, VCU, and W&M may have some of the tools to pull an upset, so UVA may have to put in some extra work, but we expect the machine to do it's job. Ditto with MTSU, who's had an awfully tumultuous offseason. The only place where the starters may wear down is the 2nd and 3rd days in the Bamahas (11/22 and 23), followed by a long flight home on the 24th, and then a few days later boarding a bus to College Park for a feisty Maryland squad. That'll be 3 power-conference games in 7 days, all away from home. But they'll have ample time in December to bounce back after that Maryland trip. So consider this a relative non-issue.
#4) Develop the heck out of the bench.
I saved my biggest point for last, because I want to really, really stress it. The goal of November and December this year isn't to sell tickets. It isn't to get a lot of TV exposure with high profile games. It isn't to strengthen the resume for March. It isn't to prepare our starters for ACC play. Those factors set a few constraints on the schedule (the home/neutral/away balance, a baseline of Quad 1 power conference teams), but otherwise this schedule sets up to allow Tony to really, truly develop his reserves. (For the sake of argument, we're not counting Braxton Key in this exercise.)
Those reserves are going to play an integral part in our NCAA Tournament hopes this year. We need some of those youngsters to enter ACC play ready to not just chip in occasional minutes, but to shoulder extended workloads. It'll provide injury insurance. It'll allow Tony to cap his starters' minutes at a reasonable level. It'll enable versatile lineup deployments such as sliding Hunter to a small-ball 4 against certain teams.
Kihei Clark. Marco Anthony. Kody Stattmann. Frankie Badocchi. Jay Huff. Francesco Caffaro.
That's four relatively unheralded freshmen and two sophomores with exactly one good game against a power opponent between them (Marco against Louisville). To say question marks abound on the bench is an understatement.
The strategy for November and December will be to give as many minutes to these six (or however many don't redshirt) as possible to let the potential shine through, to develop some confidence (both Tony's confidence in them, and their confidence in themselves), and reach New Years Day with a real comfort level with players 6-9 in a regular rotation.
That means more than extended runs against Coppin and Morgan State or MTSU. Jay Huff's explosion vs Austin Peay last year proved meaningless in the grand scheme of things. They need to play 10-20 minutes each against GW. They need to see the floor against Butler/Dayton in the Bahamas, and to get some run in College Park, and then again when VCU visits and when they travel to South Carolina. They need to get that run even if they're struggling, and even if it's temporarily hurting our margin on the scoreboard.
The benefit of this schedule is that, outside of maybe the Bahamas title game, these teams are all at best equivalent to a middle-third ACC squad, which are the types of teams our bench should be expected to hold its own against. So if there's any hope that we can consistently go to our bench when facing the Miami's, the Notre Dame's, or the Louisville's of our conference schedule, then the VCU's, the Maryland's, and the South Carolina's of the non-conference slate need to be where that consistency is developed.