I was pretty conflicted on where to put Virginia in my pre-fall top 20. The Cavaliers will enter 2013 with lots of holes to fill from 2012 departures -- notably, Steele Stanwick, Matt Lovejoy, Chris Bocklet, Colin Briggs, and Rob Fortunato. There is a lot of pieces still kicking around Charlottesville -- Matt White, Chris LaPierre, Charlie Streep (transfer from Bucknell), and Rob Emery -- but it's unclear right now where the Cavaliers are going to be at the start of the spring and what, exactly, their ceiling looks like as the season progresses. As a result, I put Virginia in the 11th position, partly on the faith of Dom Starsia's record and partly due to the fact that the Cavaliers do have a lot of talent on the roster. Looking back at that piece and thinking about what Virginia did in the fall, I'm not sure where I'm going to put Virginia in my preseason poll, and that's kind of the issue, right? I don't know what the Cavaliers are going to be in 2013, and that's a weird concept to grasp.
Compounding that issue is the schedule that Virginia will face next spring. It's not an especially notable departure from the schedules that the Cavaliers have played in the past, but this isn't exactly the Virginia squad that has played those schedules in the past. The slate mirrors the Cavs' overall outlook in 2013: Full of potential, but nobody knows exactly how things will shake out. Let's beat this into oblivion.
Like a Billy Club to the Head
February 16: Drexel; February 23: @ Stony Brook; March 1: @ Syracuse; March 9: Cornell; March 16: Ohio State; March 23: v. Johns Hopkins
There are four distinct tiers to the meat of Virginia's non-conference schedule: Tier I -- Johns Hopkins and Cornell; Tier II -- Syracuse; Tier III -- Ohio State and Drexel; and Tier IV -- Stony Brook. That slate won't get you committed, but it will make people in the subway stare at you and wonder whether you should be allowed to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with nothing more than a spoon and a wide grin.
It's not that the Cavaliers are indisposed to a grenade throwing contests with its adversarial peers; it's that this year -- a year in which Virginia will enter an era without Steele Stanwick and many assets that comprised its strength over the last few seasons -- the Cavaliers are especially vulnerable (at least early in the spring) to taking some blows to the head where, in the past, Virginia was generally protected. Early- and mid-March dates with the Seawolves, Orange, Big Red, and Buckeyes -- all landmines even if the Cavaliers were clearly among the hyper-elite of the country -- are now even more dangerous given when those games will occur and where Virginia will need to be from a competitive development standpoint that early in the spring. If the Cavaliers struggle through those games, a late-March date against the Blue Jays could be the turning point (either in the positive or grossly negative) for Virginia.
This isn't a Cavaliers teams without talent -- far from it, actually. It's just that in 2013, a year of transition for Virginia, the strongly front-loaded aspect of the Cavs' slate -- four games over four weekends against decent to quality competition, surrounded by two other mid-week games -- could create problems for a program that needs to define its identity.
No Rest for the Wicked
March 30: Maryland; April 6: North Carolina; April 12: @ Duke; April 26 & 28: Cockamamie ACC Tournament
This is Virginia's reward for a March filled with 'Cuse, Cornell, Ohio State, and Hopkins: Three consecutive weekends of ACC regular season play -- starting with presumptive preseason number two (Maryland), sandwiching in a North Carolina squad that has as much face-smashing force on its roster as any in the nation, and ending with a Duke squad that won't enter 2013 outside the top five. The Cavaliers will get two of those games at Klockner (which is nice), but it doesn't mitigate the fact that Virginia is looking at a long run of programs that will be itching to smite the Cavaliers for prior sins. This is all wonderful for strength of schedule purposes -- which is the primary thrust of the ACC Tournament, assuming you don't listen to party propaganda -- but it may not matter much at the end of April if Virginia can't survive these dates. There are no certainties with the Cavaliers this season, and they are -- right now -- somewhere behind Maryland and Duke (and arguably even the Heels) in the ACC pecking order. That's a different kind of ACC reality.
For more on Virginia, check out Streaking the Lawn.