CHARLOTTESVILLE – As he addressed the media following his team’s win over Radford on Friday night, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett glanced up at a television. At that moment, ESPN’s ticker showed the score from the Houston game.
The No. 15 Cougars, UVa’s next opponent, were up 44-15 on Rice in a game it went on to win 79-46.
“I know what’s coming the next game,” said Bennett.
What’s up next is the Cavaliers’ marquee non-conference game this season, their first trip to Houston since 1988, and a meeting with one of last year’s Final Four teams.
A challenging early season non-conference test has been a staple of most of UVa’s schedules under Bennett. In last year’s COVID-19 disrupted season, Virginia had Michigan State and Villanova scheduled in December, and, when those games were canceled, it added a neutral-court game in Fort Worth, Texas against Gonzaga.
“It shows what we’re about early on and what we need to improve on,” said transfer guard Armaan Franklin, who played two seasons at Indiana. “Going against teams that are experienced and good teams, you can really gauge yourself against high level competition. We live for that. We should live for that. We want this.”
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The results Virginia has gotten in big non-conference games early in the year have been mixed. Gonzaga drilled the Cavs 98-75 last season.
The year before, UVa beat Arizona State and lost to South Carolina and Purdue. In 2018-19, the Cavaliers beat Dayton, Wisconsin, Maryland, South Carolina and VCU, all before Christmas, then went on to win the national championship.
“It prepares you for ACC play,” said sophomore guard Carson McCorkle. “I can tell you that much. Getting early non-conference tough opponents, especially on the road, I think that’s important. To go into ACC play and be prepared and know those things are coming, that’s important.”
More immediately, a win at Houston (2-0) could pull Virginia – which faces Georgia the following Monday and Iowa later in the month in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge – back into the national rankings. It opened the year at No 25 but dropped out of the Associated Press poll on Monday, after going 1-1 the first week of the season with a loss to Navy and a win over Radford.
Winning at Houston, which the Cavaliers haven’t done in two previous trips there, figures to be a challenge. The Cougars, who needed overtime to slip by Hofstra in their opener before pummeling Rice, lead the American Athletic Conference averaging 44 rebounds per game, including a league-high 16.5 offensive boards per game.
The Cougars have three players in the Top 15 of the conference when it comes to offensive rebounds – J’Wan Roberts leads the league with 5 per game, followed by Josh Carlton (2.5) and Fabian White Jr. (2).
Kyler Edwards and Roberts also rank 1-2 in the conference in defensive rebounds, combining for 14.5 per game.
“They’re fierce on the offensive glass,” said Bennett. “They attack the glass.”
Conversely, Bennett’s club has struggled in that area through two games, giving up 21 offensive rebounds combined to Navy and Radford.
“That’s not the most comforting stat heading into what we’re going to,” said Bennett. “It’s a war on the glass. That’s what high level basketball is about. It’s played on the glass. We’re going to get a taste of that coming into the next couple of practices and then going to Houston.”
And it isn’t just second-chance points that have Houston averaging 81 points per game. The Cougars, in their seventh season under Kelvin Sampson – the former Houston Rockets, Indiana and Oklahoma coach – have a pair of dynamic scorers in the backcourt with Edwards and Marcus Sasser, who is scoring a league-high 25.5 points per game.
“They challenge you in ways that you need to be challenged and grow from,” said Bennett. “We’ll have to go in there and, as we say, lace em up tight and be ready to play, and play our kind of game and see where we stand. We haven’t been on the road yet. This will be our first road game and so we’ll see where we’re at.”