CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner spent part of the day at ACC Tipoff stumping for Virginia as always, saying the Cavaliers should be the preseason No. 1 in the conference.

Pastner followed up by saying North Carolina should be the preseason No. 1 in the country. Confusing math, but few teams in the country can match the experience Virginia returns with all five starters back, plus one of Tony Bennett's top recruiting classes.

Bennett felt last season's slow start for UVA was partly due to the inexperience on the roster, which led to the Cavaliers missing the NCAA Tournament. This year Bennett feels the team is more equipped for a stronger start to the season and sustaining it with the experience back on the roster.

"This might be the toughest non-conference schedule maybe we've had since I've been here," Bennett said, "But I think because of the experience returning, four good incoming recruits, a very good transfer in Ben Vander Plas, I think we're deeper and better prepared."

Virginia can ill afford another slow start to the season with a gauntlet including a trip to Las Vegas to play Baylor and potentially UCLA or Illinois, a road trip to Michigan, an ACC opener against Florida State and hosting Houston all before January.

"I think a good start will be good and then we're also going to have more challenging opponents this upcoming early games before we even get to the ACC play, which will be good for us because we're going to be battle tested win or loss," senior forward Jayden Gardner said, "We're going to have great experience against some of the top teams in the country before we even get into ACC play and I think we're going to be ahead of the curve."

Ahead of the curve was a common phrase used throughout the day by the Cavaliers. Not only does Virginia bring back one of the most experienced teams in the country and Bennett's most veteran roster of his head coaching career, they also spent most of August together in Italy.

"There's nothing like that, especially where we went to Italy and what we got to experience from the team bonding," Bennett said, "All the things you here, they really are true, it's not just lip service, you really bond, you get to see things you've never seen before. To talk through the Vatican, the Coliseum to go to a cooking class in the Tuscan hill side and to go to a soccer game and then play and do all those things."

Virginia played four games against international teams across the tour of Italy, finishing with a record of 3-1. Over the four games, Tony Bennett would sit three players and run with a ten-man rotation to get even playing time for the roster.
"You get to see your weaknesses early on, which other teams don't really get to because they don't get the game experience before that," senior guard Kihei Clark said, "We're basically ahead of the curve I would say."
Bennett last took an international trip like this in 2016 when another large recruiting class made their way to grounds -- including the likes of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De'Andre Hunter and Jay Huff -- a purposeful timing he said with another strong group of freshmen coming in with Isaac McKneely, Isaac Traudt, Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn.
On top of the playing experience, the trip provides invaluable time just building chemistry.
"It's been huge because it's a trip you just don't take, you don't just say I'm going to Italy," Gardner said, "A trip where we took 40 guys, 40 people to Italy. I think it was a great value to us and just to build that chemistry and play against someone other than ourselves in practice."
UVA will follow on once-in-a-lifetime experience with another in Clark's mind as the Cavaliers look to rebound from a disappointing season with a daunting and challenging schedule.
"A lot of your non-conference schedule helps you in March in getting those bids, so if we can string out a couple wins against those teams it'll help us," Clark said, "But I think just as a competitor just being able to go against those big names and those big schools, I'm looking forward to it."