Coming off of what many would consider a down year under Coach Tony Bennett, Virginia men’s basketball will look to contend in both the ACC and at the national level this year.
A fully returning starting lineup — highlighted by graduate student guard Kihei Clark, graduate student forward Jayden Gardner and junior guard Reece Beekman — gives the Cavaliers a plethora of experience. Injecting new life into the lineup will be a highly-ranked recruiting class featuring freshman guard Isaac McNeely, freshman forward Isaac Traudt, freshman guard Leon Bond III and freshman guard Ryan Dunn. With those two groups paired together, the Cavaliers are poised to have a monster year.
Both the non-conference and ACC portion of Virginia’s schedules have plenty of intrigue. November and early December will provide lots of opportunities to see how Virginia fares against strong non-conference teams.
The Cavaliers notably will appear in the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas in November, facing off Nov. 18 against No. 5 Baylor and Nov. 20 against either No. 8 UCLA or No. 23 Illinois.
When it comes to the end of the season when teams are being evaluated for seeding in the NCAA tournament, neutral court victories against ranked opponents — which Virginia will have a chance to earn in Las Vegas — are considered one of the best resume-builders. If the Cavaliers are able to come out of the mini-tournament with a pair of wins, a statement will have been made to the rest of college basketball.
Virginia will also square off on the road for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at No. 22 Michigan, then will return to Charlottesville for a massive three-game homestand against Florida State, James Madison and No. 3 Houston.
After suffering a 20-point drubbing at the hands of Houston on the road last year — a team that advanced to the Elite Eight in the 2022 NCAA Tournament and to the Final Four the year prior — the Cavaliers will undoubtedly be hungry to both avenge their loss and prove themselves against a highly-ranked opponent.
The matchup against the Cougars will be the last major non-conference game for Virginia, as ACC play will be in full swing as the calendar turns to 2023. Key matchups to watch include home games against preseason No. 1 North Carolina, Virginia Tech, No. 7 Duke and Notre Dame. Virginia will also travel to North Carolina in late February which could be a decisive game in the ACC regular season title race.
In the first preseason AP poll, the Cavaliers came in ranked No. 18 in the nation. While North Carolina and Duke are the only other ACC teams to make an appearance in the preseason rankings, Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame all received votes.
Within the conference, Virginia was picked to finish third behind the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils with Miami and Florida State picked to finish fourth and fifth, respectively. Georgia Tech Coach Josh Pastner had interesting words of praise for the Cavaliers at the ACC Tip-Off event in early October after the preseason picks were released.
“North Carolina should be preseason number one nationally, but Virginia should be picked number one in the ACC,” Pastner said.
While Pastner’s opinion may be confusing to some, Pastner has some experience seeing Virginia in the ACC as he has coached at Georgia Tech since 2016. Since the 2013-14 season, the Cavaliers have finished worse than tied-second in the ACC just twice, finishing tied-fifth in 2016-17 and sixth in 2021-22. Even projected to finish third overall in the ACC seems low for the Cavaliers under Bennett. Although the talent of the likes of Duke and North Carolina has been superior to Virginia on average, the Cavaliers have almost always found a way to finish near the top of the standings, and Pastner believes this Virginia squad will be no different.
Bennett knows that expectations for this team won’t just fulfill themselves, but he acknowledges the depth and experience that the Cavaliers have this year. When asked about how highly the media has viewed Virginia in the preseason, he expressed cautious excitement about the strength that comes with experience.
“Well you’ve still got to win the games,” Bennet said. “But yes, this team has experience.”
With college basketball and the ACC known for major upsets and parity, each and every conference game Virginia plays will surely be a challenge.
The season kicks off at home on Nov. 7 as the Cavaliers will host North Carolina Central University. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. and the game will be streamed on ACC Regional Sports Networks.