West Virginia clearly has some recognizable names on its non-conference schedule this year, but the "eyeball test" has nothing to do with the strength of those opponents in RPI terms. While having a few of those names might help somewhere along the way in the NCAA selection process, it's the actual strength of the teams that hold the most importance.
For an example of this, look at WVU's non-conference foes for this year. Which team will be the best in RPI terms come the end of the season? And which were the strongest a year ago?
For most college hoops fans, Virginia is the easy choice as the #1 answer to both questions. The Cavaliers were #7 a year ago and figure to be highly-rated again this season. The second pick, however, isn't as easy. While most might vote Florida, the Gators were actually #69 last year, and face a coaching rollover this season. The second best is actually San Diego State, which held a shiny 26 RPI at the end of last year.
This isn't necessarily to say that the Aztecs will be the second toughest game for WVU, if in fact the pair do meet in the Las Vegas Invitational (LVI). It's just to point out that evaluations of the schedule shouldn't focus on name recognition -- at least in terms of potential to help WVU's RPI.
Of course, name recognition does come into play when determining television coverage for those games, but that doesn't have a big effect on tournament chances down the road. It's not to be ignored, as it does help WVU's exposure, but it's not a huge money factor. And with made-for-TV games such as Virginia, Florida and the LVI already set (and created for) TV networks, there's not a lot of impact in that regard this year.
So, with all that in mind, which games will be the toughest for the Mountaineers? We'll include all potential opponents for the LVI, but its likely that the two on-campus foes will be Bethune-Cookman and Liberty, and indications are the Mountaineers will open with Richmond in Las Vegas.
Virginia and San Diego State clearly head the pack, and Florida could sneak back in, given that WVU is playing the Gators on the road, and after they have had time to get acclimated to their coaching change. The neutral sites for the Cavaliers and Aztecs should help the Mountaineers somewhat, but these are by far the toughest of the lot. Behind comes Richmond, an always-solid team that won 21 games in 2014-15, California, an 18-game winner a year ago, and Virginia Tech. While the Hokies aren't a strong team, and were hit with defections this year, West Virginia just doesn't play well in dank and dim Cassell Coliseum. In many ways, they are very similar to Marshall, although the Herd has the little brother motivation that has been discussed so often in recent years. That elevates the game in Charleston to a level on par with the visit to the Hokies, with only the away-from-home factor helping WVU in RPI-building.
James Madison and Eastern Kentucky stand on the next tier, beginning a string of teams the Mountaineers should be able to readily handle. That duo is much better, though, than the bottom five of Bethune-Cookman, Kennesaw State, Louisiana Monroe, Northern Kentucky and Liberty, any of whom the Mountaineers should put neatly into the win column.
We're going to assume that WVU faces Bethune-Cookman and Liberty in the home games of the LVI as we take a stab at a potential record for the 13 non-conference games. The Mountaineers should be able to get off to a 4-0 start against Northern Kentucky, James Madison and the two home LVI games, although the Dukes have the potential to throw a fly in the ointment. The assignment in Las Vegas comes next, but there's no overwhelming power there, giving the Mountaineers a chance to grab their second consecutive holiday tournament title. That's not a gimme by any stretch, though, so marking a potential 1-1 trip to Sin City is prudent.
The six December non-conference games show three high-confidence games, along with the Virginia Tech/Marshall grudge matches and the Virginia showdown. WVU should be strong enough to get through that stretch with a 5- 1 record, although a 4-2 mark would not be a surprise, or a disappointment. Finally, there's the trip to Florida on Jan. 30, which is really a crapshoot -- and who knows what both teams will look like at the end of January? It's not unwinnable by any means, so throw that one in the toss-up pot with a couple of others, and we come out with a 10-3 record. So long as the Mountaineers don't stumble against a really low foe, or, better yet, can knock off a couple of the higher-ranked teams like Virginia and Richmond or San Diego State, and they should be nicely positioned for the grind of the Big 12 conference.