After opening last season with a dud and ending it without an NCAA Tournament bid, No. 18 Virginia doesn’t want to start 2022-23 with another misstep.
The Cavaliers begin their 14th season under head coach Tony Bennett on Monday against the visiting North Carolina Central Eagles in Charlottesville, Va., the first meeting between the two schools.
Virginia started off with a 66-58 home loss to Navy last season, a stunning stumble for a program that captured its first national championship in 2018-19. The Cavaliers dropped two of their first three contests, wound up sixth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and settled for a trip to the National Invitation Tournament.
Virginia returns all five starters, including leading scorer Jayden Gardner (15.3 points per game) and fifth-year point guard Kihei Clark (128 games, 108 starts). Third-year guard Reece Beekman has NBA-level talent and transfer forward Ben Vander Plas was a three-time All-MAC selection at Ohio.
“Last year our depth wasn’t great and we probably didn’t shoot the ball at the level we needed to, so we tried to improve in those areas,” Bennett said at the ACC Tipoff event in October. “But experience is golden, I think, in college basketball, and we have that.”
The Cavaliers were picked third in the ACC preseason poll behind North Carolina and Duke.
“We have a gauntlet of a schedule,” Gardner said. “We’re going to be battle-tested for conference play.”
The opener for Virginia isn’t the headliner of that rough schedule, which puts the Cavaliers in Las Vegas for the loaded Continental Tire Main Event and a matchup with Baylor, then a game two days later at the same site against either Illinois or UCLA. On Nov. 29, Virginia plays at No. 22 Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
North Carolina Central, entering its 13th season with head coach LeVelle Moton, was picked second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference preseason poll behind Norfolk State. The Eagles finished above .500 (16-15) last season but haven’t made the NCAA Tournament field since 2018-19.
A program-record four players earned All-MEAC preseason honors, including guard Justin Wright on the first team. He averaged 20.1 points in conference play last season, including a 32-point outburst against Delaware State.
Moton hopes things are back to normal after the Eagles lost 64 days to COVID-19 complications in 2020-21 and 34 more days last season.
“Pandemic LeVelle is gone,” Moton said, per CBS17.com. “(He) kind of softened us all up so I’m excited about it. I’m just ready to coach a great group of guys.”
–Field Level Media