Strong scheduling has always been a hallmark of head coach Bob Huggins, who believes that good competition will only serve to make his team better. (Huggins is also a master at working the RPI to his advantage, and typically schedules teams that will boost his own squad's strength of schedule and RPI mark.) A year ago, Huggins managed to guide a team lacking scoring punch to a 21-12 record and a final RPI ranking of 21, according to the NCAA's final rankings of May 13, 2011. That rating was helped of course, by the tough Big East schedule, as six league teams finished above the Mountaineers in the final RPIs, but West Virginia's strong overall ranking and strength of schedule numbers were also due to an excellent non-conference slate.
Over the last three seasons, the strength of West Virginia's non-conference schedule has improved from #60 (2009) to #26 (2010) to #4 last year, putting WVU in the Top 10 in the country in average SOS. While the Mountaineers probably won't be that high this year, they will certainly be good enough to again help their strength of schedule and RPI come NCAA tournament time, where seeding plays a key role in potential success.
West Virginia's marquee non-conference games this year are with Kansas State (Final 2011 RPI: 22 / 23-11 W/L) and Miami (69 / 21-15). While those are the "name" opponents, however, they aren't the only ones that will contribute to WVU's SOS this year. Kent State (63 / 25-12) is an excellent program that typically ranks high in these categories, while underrated Morehead State (126/ 25-10) shouldn't hurt. Even Marshall (72 / 22-12), which typically drags down the SOS of its opponents, shouldn't hurt this year. Akron (106 / 23-13), Mississippi State (121 / 17-14) and Oral Roberts (135 / 19-16) are also well within the upper half of the RPIs, leaving only lowly Alcorn State (337 / 4-24) at the bottom of the list.
WVU also has two yet-to-be-determined opponents in their portion of the Las Vegas Classic, which it will host on-camps before traveling west to complete the tournament with two more games at the Orleans Arena. Opponents there could include Baylor, St. Mary's or Missouri State.
Granted, last year's rankings won't tell the tale of opponents' strength this year, but with school and practice not even underway yet, those are the best broad scale indicators for this snapshot of opponents, and give the best basis for trying to piece together an early strength of schedule evaluation for 2011-12. Overall, WVU's non-conference slate isn't quite as tough as last year's, when it faced Purdue, Vanderbilt, Davidson, Miami, Oakland, Cleveland State and Minnesota, but overall it shouldn't be a major drag on West Virginia's ratings – and should certainly provide enough competition to help the Mountaineers see where they stand entering the Big East portion of the slate.
That schedule, of course, is a killer, and WVU didn't get much of a break in terms of its home and road foes, but it did fare all right in its three repeat league games, even though those squads combined for the best 2010 record of any trio that face an opponent twice in 2011. Of course, the Mountaineers are always going to face Pitt twice, and as long as the Panthers remain a national power, that's an automatic two games that are going to figure strongly in the RPI. But WVU is going to face another rebuilding team in Notre Dame, and also got Rutgers, which, despite a strong recruiting class, will also be something of an unknown entity in 2011. In a way, those six games will serve as a bit of a mini-tournament for WVU in the Big East, and help determine which of those squads will rise higher than their likely projected mid-pack finishes.
On the other hand, WVU's home and road slate seems a bit slanted toward the latter side of the equation. The Mountaineers must again travel to UConn and Syracuse, and also have another lengthy trip to USF. WVU gets Louisville for a single home date, but on the whole figures to see more tough road games than home visits. Of course, in the stacked Big East, there are only a couple of breathers, so it's not as if the Mountaineers can be expected to cruise through their home schedule.
The final factor in rating the schedule won't be known until September – the actual dates of the games. WVU looks to be facing a tough December, and if it's capped off by an early conference date against one of the Big East powers, it could contribute to a tough start that's difficult to overcome. Quick turnarounds and trap games (think long road trip returns followed by a sneaky tough home match-up) can be difficult to navigate. So too can a stretch like the one WVU faced last year, when it played seven ranked teams in a nine-game stretch.
With all that in mind, consider this a very preliminary look at WVU's schedule. Given an opening exhibition game and a likely early date with Alcorn State, the Mountaineers will get a bit of a gentle start to the season. However, the huge number of new players, coupled with solid opposition, won't make November a breeze, and December could provide a gauntlet of tough games. While many fans won't consider Kent State or Oral Roberts tough foes, they will definitely test West Virginia early on. The Big East slate, of course, needs little analysis.
So, at this point, WVU figures to have all the challenges it needs as it attempts to get back to the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive year. That will be a struggle, but given Huggins' proven ability, it would not be wise to bet against it.