How you can tell what Tony Bennett thinks of his team going into a season is to look at his non-conference schedule.
Bennett must think a lot of his 2022-2023 team.
“This is an experienced team, and there’s a chance to really have a chance to go get some big wins, which is important,” Bennett said at this week’s ACC Basketball Tipoff event in Charlotte.
Bennett scheduled non-conference home games with Houston, which was 32-6 and an Elite Eight team last season, in addition to Northern Iowa, which was 20-12 and like UVA was an NIT participant.
And then there’s the trip to Las Vegas to play Baylor (27-7, #1 seed in 2022-2023) and then either UCLA (27-8, Sweet Sixteen) or Illinois (23-10, lost to Houston in the second round of the NCAA Tournament).
On top of that, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge has Virginia on the road at Michigan (19-15, Sweet Sixteen).
Last year, with an overhauled roster, Bennett scheduled light in November and December, and it came back to bite the team on Selection Sunday, with the non-conference strength of schedule, rated 131st nationally, cited as a key reason the ‘Hoos didn’t get an NCAA Tournament invite.
“A lot of times the die is cast (on) how does a team do in the non-conference,” Bennett said. “Fair or unfair, unfortunately that is kind of how it is, and I don’t think that’s always right, but there are some opportunities for us.”
The tough schedule strategy is one that coaches like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have used to their advantage when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to get together.
“When we’re doing rebounding drills in practice, I’ll say, hey, remember Houston last year, or we’re going against these teams, we have to be ready for that,” Bennett said. “But exciting, certainly, great programs, great teams, these guys have established a heck of a program, so that was the plan, and try not to take a backseat to any of those teams and go prepare well to play and enjoy the process.”
Bennett brought two fifth-year players with him to Charlotte, point guard Kihei Clark and power forward Jayden Gardner.
Both talked about how playing tough games against good teams is what you sign up for.
“I think it’s going to be very exciting to go against that type of competition and talent, playing in Vegas, playing in Michigan, those are like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for us, and it just helps us get ahead of the curve before we get into ACC play, because we’re going to be battle tested very early. I think it’s going to be great for our development as we go throughout the season,” Clark said.
“Yeah, I think just as a competitor, just to be able to play against those type of teams, those are the games you look forward to when you’re little, and those matchups, just preparing for those like any other game. But like Coach said, not taking a backseat to any of them and just go out and playing our game. Should be fun,” Gardner said.