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Previewing pivotal games of the 2021-22 men’s basketball season

Despite a less intense non-conference slate, the Cavaliers will have their fair share of competition from both the ACC and some new opponents

<p>Virginia — the defending ACC regular-season champions —&nbsp;will play 10 home conference games, 10 away conference games, 6 home non-conference games and 4 away non-conference games.</p>

Virginia — the defending ACC regular-season champions — will play 10 home conference games, 10 away conference games, 6 home non-conference games and 4 away non-conference games.

After a year of empty arenas and various roster moves, No. 25 Virginia is returning to John Paul Jones Arena to start its quest for another successful basketball season. Many Cavalier fans remember the crushing March Madness loss to No. 13 Ohio last season, yet a blank slate awaits as Coach Tony Bennett and company welcome the Navy Midshipmen Tuesday in the first contest of the year. As usual, the Cavaliers will undergo the test of the ACC regular season after the non-conference slate ends — another sequence of games that features some key matchups for this young roster.

Dates against old friends and an up-and-coming powerhouse lie ahead for a team with much to prove. Let’s examine some of the tide-turning games which will hopefully bode well for Virginia.

Nov. 16 at No. 15 Houston

In their third game of the season, the Cavaliers will have to take on Houston — a team that made the Final Four last April — on the Cougars’ home floor. Despite losing a prolific scorer in Quentin Grimes, Coach Kelvin Sampson will look to reload and rely on junior point guard Marcus Sasser — an integral part of last year’s team after averaging 13.7 points per game. Kyler Edwards, Texas Tech transfer and senior shooting guard — who coincidentally saw Virginia defeat his Red Raiders in the 2019 National Championship game — will do his best to fill in for Grimes’ absence at the shooting guard spot.

One feature of both Sampson and Bennett’s coaching styles has always been their defense, as the Cougars anchored one of the nation’s best after holding teams to an average of 58.2 points per game. Sounds oddly familiar. The Cavaliers also pride themselves on their defensive tendencies as they used the infamous Pack Line to hold opposing teams to 60.5 points per game during the 2020-21 season. Houston ended the regular season as the second best scoring defense in the country, while Virginia finished sixth. Expect nothing drastic to change with regards to Bennett’s and Sampson’s approaches, as the team who capitalizes on limited opportunities will probably end up on top.

Houston has established itself as a household name even while coming from outside a Power 5 conference, earning a No. 2 seed in last year’s tournament and ultimately losing to the national champions, Baylor. This will be a clash of defensive titans and an unlikely meeting between two non-conference foes, with Bennett’s and Sampson’s systems butting heads at last.

Jan. 8 at No. 19 North Carolina

With the legendary Roy Williams finally calling it quits, Virginia will face North Carolina and will witness a new era of rivalries against Coach Hubert Davis — who was formerly North Carolina’s assistant coach. Another storyline to monitor is the return of Justin McKoy, a current junior at North Carolina who transferred after two years with the Cavaliers, as he welcomes his old team to Chapel Hill, N.C. for an ACC showdown.

While Virginia has gotten the upper hand over the Tar Heels in recent years, the blue blood program returns several stars and some key transfers aside from McKoy. North Carolina managed to hold on to its two top scorers from last year — junior forward Armando Bacot and sophomore guard Caleb Love — all while adding a touted transfer from Marquette in sophomore forward Dawson Garcia. As they always seem to do, the Tar Heels have successfully rebuilt their roster despite the losses of draft picks and transfers.

The last time Virginia traveled to Chapel Hill, then-junior guard Tomas Woldetensae drilled a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the Cavaliers off with a 64-62 win. Hopefully history repeats itself in the one outing between the two schools this year, with the storylines of McKoy and Davis making things ever so interesting as Virginia takes on an old rival — one of the only teams on the Cavaliers’ schedule ranked ahead in the preseason rankings.

Jan. 12 vs. Virginia Tech

Only four days after a meeting with the Tar Heels, Virginia will play host to its in-state archnemesis in one of two matchups between the schools. Last year, the Hokies bested the Cavaliers in a 65-51 debacle in Blacksburg, with junior forward Keve Aluma controlling the frontcourt with 29 points of his own. Aluma — who returns alongside junior guards Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne — will once again pose a difficult test for the Virginia forwards.

Coach Mike Young, who has amassed a 31-23 record in two years at Virginia Tech, will also welcome one of his former players back from Wofford — graduate transfer Storm Murphy. Even if the Hokies don’t jump off the page with respect to roster talent, they will depend on Aluma and a veteran group of guards to spearhead a run for the ACC title. 

The Cavaliers understand the importance of the annual rendezvous with the Hokies and have grappled with losses in past years, including a shocking overtime defeat during Virginia’s 31-3 season in 2018. Regardless of record, both schools will have that extra motivation to spoil each other’s seasons in a likely matchup of two ACC contenders.

Feb. 7 at Duke

This might not come as much of a surprise, but Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils have once again created a roster laden with five- and four-star talent. Coming off a rather underwhelming 13-11 season last year, Duke lost several integral pieces yet gained even more in the offseason in freshmen forwards Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin and freshman guard Trevor Keels. All of the additions ultimately led to the Blue Devils boasting the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation and the top class in the ACC.

The key for the Cavaliers is to stop Banchero. Touted as a potential No. 1 draft pick in the 2022 draft, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound power forward does not move as he should for someone his size. A combination of lethal slashing ability, an unbelievable vertical and rebounding make him a matchup nightmare. Expect Bennett to game-plan around Banchero and sophomore center Mark Williams by clogging the paint and making things difficult inside.

A 66-65 loss to the Blue Devils in 2021 marred what would have been an exceptional road triumph for the Cavaliers. With revenge on their minds, Virginia looks to win at one of the most hostile environments in college basketball — Cameron Indoor Stadium. The history between these schools in Durham, N.C. — including Blue Devil Grayson Allen’s game-winner in 2016 and Ty Jerome’s incredible fake and three-pointer in 2018 — only indicate that this will once again be a primetime matchup. 

The Cavaliers begin their 2021-22 season with a home game against Navy Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the game will be aired on the ACC Network.