WVU faces a pair of teams expected to be highly-ranked in the form of Virginia and Texas A&M in the 13 non-Big 12 games that make up the Mountaineers' 2016-17 slate, but what about the other 11? Those who look at just the names, or those that ESPN hypes in its bilious coverage, may be concerned about the resume-building potential of some of those squads. However, there's an ace in the hole of the hand that builds West Virginia's schedule, and it's one that has played more hands than Doyle Brunson.
Firs, the apparent negative aspect of the baker's dozen of games. Using last year's final RPI numbers, the Mountaineers will play Virginia (3) and Texas A&M (18). The former, a road game, figures to be a big boost to WVU's strength of schedule, while the latter, although at home, will also help. Outside of that the pickings might appear to be slim, but there's more to this than meets a casual glance.
First, WVU will play two of the trio of teams including Temple (60), Florida State (83) and Illinois (149) in the NIT Season Tipoff in the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Thanksgiving and the Friday after. If those teams are up to expected standards, that's another very nice boost to the schedule, even though the games might get a bit lost on the tube competing against NFL Football. That's not the point here, though -- what matters is that these two games, on a neutral site, should help in RPI building.
After that, there's also Western Carolina (166) and Radford (191) inside the top 200. Neither of those games will move the needle much, but they aren't total dead weight. They are comparable to teams at the bottom of the Big 12 (Oklahoma State 172, TCU 174), so while they aren't games that the NCAA selection committee will point to as difference makers, they also won't be millstones -- so long as the Mountaineers don't stumble over them.
Past that, admittedly, are some stinkers. Mount St. Mary's (246) leads a group of four others that were near the bottom of the barrel a year ago (UMKC, Northern Kentucky, VMI and Mississippi Valley State). Additionally, two yet-to-be-named foes will make up the home portion of the NIT Season Tipoff, and those will likely have RPIs of 200 or below. So, that's seven of the 13 that would appear to do little or nothing to help WVU's strength of schedule or RPI.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this look, however. First, our quick take on the opponents is based on last year's results. While we know that the Cavaliers and Aggies are expected to be strong again this season, teams can obviously improve or decline a great deal from one year to the next. Florida State might take a nosedive, but Illinois or Radford could also have a banner year. So, simply looking at last year's results, while providing a snapshot, isn't the final word. And in reality, no one will know for sure how every team will look until well into the season.Who expected Louisiana Monroe to be 96 a year ago?
The second, and more powerful item, to consider is Bob Huggins. He is a demonstrated master of building a schedule that allows his team to succeed, but also offers plenty (he'll say more than plenty) of chances to test themselves and build that resume. In a familiar refrain, he did just that to assembled media recently.
“It’s too hard,” Huggins noted. “How am I ever going to win any games when we keep doing this?"
A bit of that, of course, is Huggins in joking mode.But behind it the point is clear. He knows how to construct a schedule that provides a pathway to meeting the tough dual goals of building a team while simultaneously pushing the RPI number up. Of course, the team has to do its part ("We've got to win some games" is Huggins' answer to about any mid-year question concerning tournament positioning). But the path is laid out -- as the someday Hall of Fame coach has done consistently every year.
Take, for example, last season. WVU had a game against Virginia (3) and Florida (55), but those were the only "name" schools on the list. Still, Huggins managed to divine that San Diego State (41), Virginia Tech (89), Louisiana Monroe (96), James Madison (103) and Richmond (122) would be solid "no-names", yet not unduly hurt West Virginia's RPI.
Granted, the ratings of those teams look, as a group, a bit better than the teams from this year. However, there's certainly some wiggle room for the Mountaineers, who finished last season with the 13th best strength of schedule in the nation. Even if that drops to, say, 20 or 25, WVU will still be very well-positioned -- provided it wins almost all of those games, as it did a year ago.
One of the factors in getting those wins is the timing of the games. While there is a month and a half of raw time available before the conference slate begins, that gets compressed by needed time off for finals preparation and a least a few days home for the holidays. WVU also tries to limit its early season road trips, so as to balance out for the tougher Big 12 forays to come, and this schedule does both fairly well, although there are a couple of sticklers.
One the good side, the Mountaineers get three home openers in a week then has six days off before making the jaunt to Brooklyn for the big boy portion of the NIT Season Tipoff. It plays those games on back-to-back nights, which doesn't leave much prep time for game two, but after that WVU has another week at home, with just one game, before the short trip to Charlottesville for a rematch with Virginia. Behind that, the rest of 2016 is played out in the Mountain State, with four games over the next two weeks before the Christmas break.
The negatives are fewer, but they are still there. The opening of practice event and the public exhibition game will both be played away from the Coliseum, as renovations to the entry gates and concourses will take longer than anticipated. While neither trip is lengthy, and both will give Mountaineer fans in different areas of the state (Wheeling and Beckley) a chance to see the team early, it's still not ideal. A midweek game against Western Carolina following the UVA contest might also be something of a trap, and having the Big12 / SEC Challenge game against Texas A&M interrupting the league schedule isn't seen with favor by many coaches. But outside those minor issues, West Virginia's non-conference schedule should be viewed as a winner.