West Virginia's Big East slate appears to be a reasonable match with its expected talent during the 2010-11 season, but a loaded road slate gives the Mountaineers a huge obstacle to overcome if they are to approach last year's outstanding record and league championship. Bob Huggins' team, which is expected to have a decidedly different look from last year's squad, will travel to Pitt, Syracuse, Villanova, all of which are expected to vie for the league title. Trips to Cincinnati, where West Virginia has struggled in recent seasons, Georgetown and Louisville will also be tough. Only the games at DePaul and Rutgers can be viewed as "should-win" games at this point in the preseason.
The home slate might be a touch easier, but in the Big East, is that really saying that much? Although Connecticut has been down over the past couple of seasons, and faces the potential of NCAA sanctions, it is still a roster with a great deal of talent, as WVU found in absorbing a road loss a year ago. The Mountaineers get return home dates with Louisville and Pitt, but also have winnable home games with DePaul, Providence, St. John's, and USF. Seton Hall, which could be something of a dark horse, and Notre Dame round out the home league side of the schedule.
The one missing factor to these games, the dates they are played, will have a huge effect in determining how many wins West Virginia is able to record in its 18 league encounters. While the Big East certainly does its best to space tough opponents out over the two months devoted to league play, there are always going to be some tough stretches. Add in the surprise factor, where a team or two that wasn't expected to be a power suddenly flexes some muscle, and suddenly you can get a four- or five-game stretch where just getting a win or two is a big accomplishment.
Say, for example, that WVU ends up playing both of its scheduled games with Pitt, along with the contest at Syracuse, over the stretch of two weeks. That's not a stretch, as the Mountaineers have often faced the Panthers in relatively quick turnarounds contests in their home-and-home series. Now suppose that the home game against Seton Hall and a road trip to pesky Cincinnati or always-tough Marquette are in that stretch as well. What once looked manageable can quickly become a trap fraught with danger.
WVU navigated such a stretch one year ago, when it faced Louisville, Pitt, St. John's Villanova and Pitt again over a 13-day stretch. The Mountaineers managed a 3-2 record (including the giveaway loss to the Panthers in the finale), but still managed to weather the storm. West Virginia then went 12-1 before its Final Four loss, but the way in which it handled that difficult stretch, as well as its only other loss at Connecticut, was a huge factor in its post season positioning.
The non-conference schedule doesn't look quite as tough as a year ago. Purdue is the headliner, but all of the other scheduled out-of conference clashes look manageable. The wild card, however, is the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament. WVU figures to face either Western Kentucky, Davidson or Hofstra in the opening round, but following that could face Vanderbilt, Minnesota or North Carolina in games two and three. That schedule hasn't been announced yet, and the match-ups there will also have a big impact on West Virginia's schedule strength.
Under head coach Bob Huggins, the goal isn't just making the NCAA tournament. The goal is a high seeding, which obviously has a big impact on advancing. WVU played good teams in last year's run to the Final Four, but there's no doubt that an opening round game against Morgan State allowed the Mountaineers to get their feet under them. The combination of WVU's excellent record, Big East tournament win and Top Ten RPI resulted in a great NCAA seed last year, and while the schedule might not yield quite the same degree of difficulty as it did a year ago, it should still have enough zip, combined with the league slate, to allow at least a top four seed – given, of course, a similar winning percentage.