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Marshall, WVU headed in the right direction

By Jack Bogaczyk

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Larry Eustachy may have appeared to have several screws loose when he bumped and cursed his way to courtside oblivion Saturday at the Henderson Center, but the Southern Mississippi basketball coach made one very good point.

He said he thought Marshall's 2010-11 club "is better than last year's team."

He's right about that, while those who continue to e-mail with worries of woe about Coach Bob Huggins' West Virginia team are far too fretful.

Is WVU as good as last year's club that reached the NCAA Final Four? Dumb question. Next question: Are the 2010-11 Mountaineers - a roller coaster club of role players - an NCAA Tournament team, maybe even with 11 losses or so?

Sure ... but as the regular-season midpoint arrives this week, it's hard (but OK) to focus beyond next week's Capital Classic at the Charleston Civic Center, because the prospects for that 39th meeting being even more contentious than this week's state Senate opening session are high.

Besides, before that Jan. 19 tipoff, the Herd and Mountaineers have significant dates to play.

Marshall should go to 12-4 with a waltz past road-weary Savannah State (2-16) tonight at the Cam, and WVU (10-4), which has emerged from its testy Big East start at 2-2, gets Providence (11-6, but in the Big East basement at 0-4) at home Thursday.

Then, the Herd has to travel to Memphis (12-3) for a Saturday noon game. WVU gets another quality non-conference foe in visiting Purdue (15-1) on Sunday afternoon. After that, the state foes will focus on each other.

Memphis has been the Conference USA kingpin for so long, everyone assumes that would be the case again. Honestly, although the Tigers always are tough in their raucous home, I'm not sure they're really the poll-sitting club they've been this season.

Memphis has played only one road game, and was blown out a week ago at Tennessee. It has an RPI of 78 - that's 35 spots below Marshall right now - and the Tigers have three "good" losses, to Georgetown, the Vols and Kansas, but few quality wins (1-3 versus the RPI top 50).

A year ago, the Herd won 24 games for then-Coach Donnie Jones, but too often they played like they were waiting for "Sultan of Swat" Hassan Whiteside to use his long limbs to win games for them.

Coach Tom Herrion's first MU team, with plenty of the same personnel but enough new quality parts to make a difference, plays like the deep and versatile team it is. If it doesn't make life difficult for C-USA foes in more venues than the Henderson Center, I'll be surprised.

If Marshall didn't learn what quality can produce this past week, it might never do so.

On Sunday a week ago, the Herd won at St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies were then No. 98 in the RPI. Not that big a deal, eight? Wrong.

One, it was a road win, which counts for more in the RPI, and because opponent's opponents count for 25 percent of the RPI (and St. Bonaventure had beaten St. John's and lost to Cleveland State and Virginia Tech), the Herd's shot from 188 to 79 with that win.

With its loss at UCF on Wednesday, Marshall climbed another 17 slots in the RPI, to 62 - because UCF was unbeaten and had whipped Miami, Princeton and Florida. In winning by 30 over Southern Miss on Saturday night, the Herd shot to 43rd in the RPI (and 46th in strength of schedule).

In the Big East, West Virginia has a built-in strength-of-schedule advantage. However, that doesn't help the Mountaineers win. The triumph Saturday at Georgetown was large because getting at least a 2-2 split for Big East starters was important, not to mention a second league road win.

Huggins' team also has six non-conference games against current top 50 RPI teams, led by No. 12 Purdue (also Vanderbilt, Cleveland State, Miami, Minnesota and Marshall).

At No. 13, West Virginia is only the seventh-highest Big East RPI team (and is seventh nationally in strength of schedule).

What helps Huggins' team is that by the end of the regular season, it will have played 16 of its 30 games against teams currently in the RPI top 50. He also will have played more road/neutral dates than his Big East contending peers.

The only conference team that has played more road games than WVU (five) is South Florida, with six (0-6). Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt have played one each.

If West Virginia is in a pack of three or four Big East teams vying for the eyes of the NCAA selection committee, that willingness to play on the road or at neutral sites could make a difference in a seed line or selection.

While Huggins is trying to figure out who will play well what night for his team - the best lineup he seems to have right now is guards Joe Mazzulla, Truck Bryant and Casey Mitchell with Kevin Jones and John Flowers up front - one thing he won't have to fret about is whether his schedule is an issue.

If the Mountaineers' defense plays half as tough as the schedule, they'll be fine.

If the Herd continues to give Herrion good reason to dig 9 or 10 deep in personnel, they'll be better than respectable more places than the RPI.

*  *  *

IF THERE were an RPI strength of schedule for NCAA Division II men's basketball, I'm sure West Virginia State would be in the top 10.

The Yellow Jackets, compared to their recent seasons, seem a sullied 7-5. They've already lost more than last winter's 29-4 club, and are nipping at the loss-column heels of the 24-6 in 2008-09

However, the five losses by Coach Bryan Poore's team have been to Bellarmine (twice), Southern Indiana, Wheeling Jesuit and Pitt Johnstown. Two were on the road, and one at a neutral site ... and State won't play West Virginia Conference power West Liberty (11-0) until Feb. 17 - on the road, of course.

The four teams that have topped WVSU are a combined 41-7 this season. Bellarmine and Southern Indiana are each 13-1, with USI's only loss to Bellarmine.

Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at jackb@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949.


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