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Previewing key matchups of the 2019-20 men’s basketball season

The Cavaliers face No. 5 Louisville and No. 9 North Carolina home and away, but play No. 4 Duke just once at home

<p>With a tough schedule featuring three top-ten opponents, Virginia looks to rely heavily not only on seasoned veterans like senior guard Braxton Key and senior forward Mamadi Diakite, but also newcomers like freshman guard Casey Morsell.&nbsp;</p>

With a tough schedule featuring three top-ten opponents, Virginia looks to rely heavily not only on seasoned veterans like senior guard Braxton Key and senior forward Mamadi Diakite, but also newcomers like freshman guard Casey Morsell. 

After winning the program’s first national championship — suffering just two regular season defeats in the process — No. 11 men’s basketball now enters a new season filled with uncertainty. With three preseason top-10 opponents on the docket, along with a rematch against last year’s Elite Eight foe No. 23 Purdue, the 2019-20 season is sure to be filled with both hardship and success. 

Given this, here are some key matchups that could potentially make or break the Cavaliers’ season.

Nov. 6 at Syracuse

Last year, the game at the Carrier Dome was more than successful for Virginia, as De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome combined for 18 three-pointers against Syracuse. However, with the famed Virginia trio now pursuing their NBA dreams, an away game at the raucous Carrier Dome will be a tough test for the Cavaliers to start the 2019-20 campaign.

Coach Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 matchup zone defense could cause some havoc in a Virginia offense that is looking for a consistent perimeter shooter to replace Guy and Jerome. On the other side of the ball, Syracuse sophomore guard Buddy Boeheim and junior forward Malek Dolezaj stand out — both featured heavily for the Orange last season. Opening the season with a conference game will be tough for a young Cavalier squad, especially when not given the chance to work out kinks against easier non-conference opponents.

Dec. 4 at No. 23 Purdue

Virginia and Purdue meet in a rematch of the 2019 Elite Eight overtime thriller Dec. 4. Like the Cavaliers, the Boilermakers have had key players from their 2019 tournament run depart, losing guards Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards, who averaged 12.0 and 24.3 points per game, respectively. Notably, Edwards went on a tear against Virginia in the Elite Eight, scoring 42 of Purdue’s 75 points and shooting 53 percent from three. 

Nevertheless, the 2019-20 Purdue team features the return of two key starters in junior guard Nojel Eastern and junior center Matt Haarms. Eastern and Haarms were pests on the glass last season, both averaging over five rebounds per game and will be a tough challenge for senior guard Braxton Key and junior forward Jay Huff. 

Dec. 7 vs. No. 9 North Carolina

Three days after a road trip to West Lafayette, Ind., Virginia faces yet another ranked opponent in North Carolina for the Cavaliers’ ACC home opener. The Tar Heels — upset by Auburn in the Elite Eight last year — strengthened their 2019-20 team with the nation’s ninth best recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. 

Freshman guard Cole Anthony — the third-ranked recruit in the Class of 2019 — and freshman center Armando Bacot look to fill in gaping holes left by the departure of guard Coby White and forwards Nassir Little, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye. These four players combined for 57.7 points per game for North Carolina and will be sorely missed. Nevertheless, the skilled Anthony will challenge the defensive prowess of sophomore guard Kihei Clark and will be key if the Tar Heels look to leave Charlottesville as the victors.

On the flip side, if Huff is able to dominate Bacot on the glass, and Clark can shut down Anthony, the Cavaliers would earn a huge momentum boost as they enter the throes of conference play. Overall, an early win against North Carolina would be pivotal in Virginia’s hunt for a third straight ACC regular season title.

Jan. 20 vs. N.C. State

Last year, Virginia’s only game to head to overtime in the regular season was a 66-65 win against N.C. State. In that contest, the Wolfpack came back from down 14 points to send the game to overtime, until a late overtime three-pointer by Guy helped the Cavaliers pull away. 

This year, Kevin Keatts’ team returns double-digit scorers in senior guards Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce alongside three-point threat Braxton Beverly. Last year, however, the three Wolfpack scorers were remarkably inconsistent, as they shot just 35 percent from the field against the Cavaliers — and subsequently scored nine of N.C. State’s 24 total points against Virginia Tech four days later. With more consistent play, these experienced scorers can challenge the Cavaliers. 

Feb. 8 at No. 5 Louisville

After falling in the first round of the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Chris Mack, Louisville — just six years removed from a now vacated NCAA title — is widely cited as one of the teams to make a deep run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. Junior forward Jordan Nwora — who won the ACC Most Improved Player of the Year last year — has received mountains of preseason hype, most notably being named an AP Preseason First-Team All-American. Last year, Nwora averaged 17.0 points per game for the Cardinals along with 7.6 rebounds and could very well lead the ACC in scoring this season. 

However, Nwora isn’t the only player poised to lead Louisville on a potential national championship run. Three key seniors in center Steven Enoch, forward Dwayne Sutton and guard Ryan McMahon all return for the Cardinals alongside junior forward Malik Williams. As a whole, despite all of the preseason hype around Nwora, Virginia fans shouldn’t overlook the immense depth Louisville possesses. 

Notably, this game will be at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, which has been sort of a second home for the Cavaliers in the last few seasons. The only time Virginia fell to Louisville away was in the 2014-15 season, and since then the Cavaliers have had the Cardinals’ number, winning nine straight games. The Elite Eight thriller between Virginia and Purdue was also hosted in Louisville. Despite the strength of Louisville’s 2019-20 squad, Virginia’s affinity with the KFC Yum! Center could push the Cavaliers to a huge conference win.

Feb. 26 at Virginia Tech

Although this year’s Virginia Tech team is far from the Hokie squad that toppled Duke in the regular season and almost defeated the Blue Devils once again in the Sweet 16, rivalries often tend to bring the best out of teams. Last year was the first time since the 2014-15 season where Virginia Tech was unable to defeat Virginia, falling at home and away to the Cavaliers.

This year, the Hokies feature a depleted team that has seen all five leaders in minutes per game leave the team either due to graduation, the NBA draft or transfer. Redshirt freshman guard Landers Nolley II and junior guard Wabissa Bede — who started 26 games last season due to an injury to guard Justin Robinson — will have to shoulder the load for first-year Coach Mike Young’s team. Unlike former Coach Buzz Williams, Young is known for teams with high offensive efficiency and strong perimeter shooting — one of the few recipes for success against the Cavaliers. If the Hokies can take advantage of their scoring opportunities and have their three-pointers fall, Virginia will be more than adequately tested in the cavernous Cassell Coliseum.

Feb. 29 vs. No. 4 Duke

This is by far the game that is circled the most on Virginia fans’ calendars. Although this won’t be the same Duke juggernaut that featured top-ten NBA draft selections in Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, it is still an especially potent team that includes four top 40 recruits, according to 247 Sports.

Center Vernon Carey Jr., power forward Matthew Hurt, small forward Wendell Moore and shooting guard Cassius Stanley form a freshman starting quartet for the Blue Devils that will join forces with former five-star sophomore guard Tre Jones. Jones’ lockdown defense, combined with a dynamic offense that has excellent perimeter shooting and presence in the paint, will surely test the Pack Line.

In addition to Jones, other notable returners from last year’s ACC tournament winning team include senior forward Javin DeLaurier and junior guard Alex O’Connell. Jones, who last year was initially pegged as an early entrant into the NBA draft, had 13 points and six rebounds in 40 minutes against Virginia at John Paul Jones Arena. Although this year Virginia will not travel to Cameron Indoor to face Duke and the famed “Cameron Crazies,” the Cavaliers will once again face a strong Duke team that, like every year, looks to capture a national title.