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Previewing key matchups of the 2020-21 men’s basketball season

In addition to the persistently challenging ACC schedule, the No. 4 Cavaliers have a number of must-watch non-conference games

<p>Senior forward Jay Huff and the Cavaliers will face one of Virginia's toughest non-conference schedules of the Bennett era.&nbsp;</p>

Senior forward Jay Huff and the Cavaliers will face one of Virginia's toughest non-conference schedules of the Bennett era. 

Amid the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the 2020-21 college basketball season, No. 4 Virginia is finally set to begin their season next week in “Bubbleville” — a season-opening event designed to keep coaches and players safe during the safety hazards presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these precautions, Virginia has already experienced a scheduling change — the team’s Friday matchup with Florida was canceled after the Gators paused athletic activities because of COVID-19 issues. Even with a non-conference schedule shortened by four games, the Cavaliers will face one of the program’s most daunting schedules in recent years, highlighted by several marquee non-conference matchups. 

With the challenging schedule, however, Virginia comes into the season with a roster fit to compete for the program’s second national championship in as many tries. Look to these games as strong indicators of the team’s success throughout the season.

Dec. 9 vs. No. 13 Michigan State

After five years of disappointment, Virginia fans finally have their long-awaited rematch, facing the Spartans as a part of the yearly ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Although no player remains on the roster from the Cavaliers’ consecutive March Madness losses to Michigan State in 2014 and 2015, Bennett and the Virginia faithful certainly look forward to the opportunity to — at least somewhat — avenge their season-ending losses.

Further adding to the excitement of the game — apart from it being a top-15 matchup between two prestigious basketball programs — is the matchup between Sam Hauser and Spartans’ junior forward Joey Hauser. The two brothers played with each other at Marquette before both decided to transfer to different schools. With Joey Hauser at 6 feet 9 inches tall — only one inch taller than his brother — it is certainly possible that the two could be matched up against each other in a battle for brotherly bragging rights.

Headed by Hall-of-Famer Coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State will look to continue its undefeated streak against the Cavaliers. With junior forward Aaron Henry — selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team — and graduate student guard Joshua Langford leading the way, the Spartans will travel to Charlottesville with a balanced squad capable of matching Virginia’s slow and methodical style of play. With the game’s many compelling storylines, this game is must-watch TV for any fan of college basketball.

Dec. 19 vs. No. 3 Villanova

Following the Cavaliers’ conference-opener against Wake Forest Dec. 16, Virginia will have a quick turnaround in travelling to Madison Square Garden for a top-five showdown against Villanova. In their most recent matchup in 2017, former Wildcat guard Donte Divencenzo tapped in a buzzer-beating follow-up to sink Virginia’s hopes of upsetting the then-No. 1 team in the nation.

Despite losing its best player from last year in then-sophomore forward Saddiq Bey, Villanova returns everyone from a team that finished the season ranked 10th in the country in the 2019-20 season. With future hall-of-famer Coach Jay Wright at the helm, the Wildcats have established themselves as a blue-bood in college basketball and have followed much the same trajectory that Bennett and the Cavaliers have followed over the past decade.

Although many comparisons can be drawn between the programs, their styles of play differ drastically. Villanova, similar to ACC foes Duke and North Carolina, plays an up-tempo, high scoring brand of basketball, as shown by the team’s over 73 points per game and 853 attempted threes — nearly 300 more than Virginia — in 2019-20. With the Cavaliers’ added offensive firepower this upcoming season, going head-to-head against one of the nation’s best squads will prove to be a litmus test heading into the gauntlet that is ACC competition.

Jan. 2 vs. Virginia Tech

While certainly not the most talented of Virginia’s opponents, all records can be thrown aside in the rivalry matchup that more-often-than-not is decided by only a few possessions — indicated by the fact that at least one meeting in each of the past seven years has been decided by six points or fewer. Undermatched Virginia Tech teams have often played up to the level of elite Cavalier squads, such as when the Hokies handed then-No. 2 Virginia its lone ACC loss of the season in 2018 — and during College Gameday, no less. 

Following the surprise departure of former Coach Buzz Williams in 2019, Coach Mike Young has hopes to show improvement with a retooled roster in his second year as head coach. It will be no small task, however, as Young lost key players from a year ago such as then-redshirt freshman guard Landers Nolley II — the team’s leading scorer. With an influx of freshmen and graduate transfers, the Hokies will look to pull off the upset in Charlottesville.

Feb. 13 vs. No. 16 North Carolina

It will be nearly two months from the beginning of ACC play that Virginia competes in its first marquee conference matchup. North Carolina, coming off a historically bad season for the program, will look to reassert themselves as a perennial powerhouse. Led by senior forward Garrison Brooks — who beat out Hauser for Preseason ACC Player of the Year — the Tar Heels will likely prove to be a tough opponent for the Cavaliers.

Standing at 6 feet 10 inches tall, Brooks will likely draw Hauser as his defender, possibly setting up each player with a late-season opportunity to make their case for ACC Player of the Year. Notably, this will be a difficult defensive challenge for Hauser, who will look to show his development as a key piece for Bennett on that side of the ball. Heading into March, Hauser’s defensive capabilities will be an important measure in determining whether Virginia has a shot at the national championship.

Further, the game will set up the Cavaliers for a late-season stretch that includes matchups against Florida State, Duke and Louisville. A win here would not only have ACC tournament seeding implications, but would also give Virginia a boost of confidence going into their difficult end-of-season gauntlet.

Feb 20. at No. 9 Duke

Just a week after playing North Carolina, the Cavaliers will travel to Durham, N.C. in hopes of completing a Tobacco Road sweep. Virginia will look to win at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the second time in the last three years following a 23-year losing streak in the historic building. Although the atmosphere will undoubtedly look different due to COVID-19 protocols, securing a road win against the Blue Devils will be no small task.

As is typically the case, Duke will be working with a revamped roster chock-full of talented young players. Notably, five-star freshman forward Jalen Johnson was selected to the Preseason All-ACC first team, and sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. was selected to the conference’s second team. 

Despite a thrilling win in Charlottesville over the Blue Devils last season — fueled by 10 blocks from senior forward Jay Huff — Bennett is 4-11 against Duke in his 11 seasons with the Cavaliers. However, with one of his stronger rosters to date, Bennett has a good chance at making it two straight wins against the Blue Devils. As Duke is Virginia’s last opponent ranked in the preseason top-25, look to this game as a measuring stick for the Cavaliers heading into postseason play.

The Cavaliers kick-off their 2020-21 title defense against Towson Wednesday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and the game will be streamed live on FloHoops. 

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