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WVU basketball: Huggins seeks balance in scheduling

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For years, Bob Huggins made sure West Virginia played one of the harder schedules in the country, a quest most figured was helped greatly by being in the Big East, but one that benefited most from whom the Mountaineers chose to play outside of their conference.

Through 11 non-conference games this season, WVU's strength of schedule is ranks just No. 109, according to realtimerpi.com, though the Mountaineers have played - and lost to - three ranked teams by a combined 22 points.

"Really, I've done a terrible job," he said. "You ought to take your team into consideration. It'd be nice to make all those mistakes that we've made and still win."

Another challenge and a needed bump for the strength of schedule arrive Sunday. The Mountaineers (7-4) play host to the Big Ten's Purdue (9-3) at 1 p.m. on ESPNU. It's the second game of a four-game series the teams agreed to after playing a two-game series.

It's also a small step toward what statsheet.com projects will be the eighth-hardest overall schedule in the country and a big part of what Huggins now does to put together a schedule.

"A lot of it has to do with recruiting," he said. "I thought the Purdue situation was good for us because there are so many good players in Indiana and going into the Big 12, going out that way, I thought it was important that we get that way a little bit.

"But we still have to recruit the east coast. We're an east coach school. For whatever anyone wants to think, we're an east coast school. We've got to get back in New York. It'd be nice to get back into Philly. But you can't play on the road all the time."

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HUGGINS IS TRYING He said he's talked to Villanova Coach Jay Wright and St. John's Coach Steve Lavin about refreshing series lost when WVU left the Big East.

"It's more complicated than that," Huggins said. "It's who they have scheduled and who we have scheduled, and I'm not sure our people have figured it out, but you do have to generate some income, so you can't play all the games on the road - although, the way it's been (with home attendance), maybe it wouldn't hurt.

"But we are one of the sports that make money. So we have to play home games and make money. You can't play all home-and-homes or you don't have enough home games to fulfill what you need to do for budget purposes."

The problem isn't isolated to WVU. Countless schools try to strike a balance between playing games that are good for the RPI and games that are good for the budget. When one school goes looking for another to fit onto the schedule, be it for competition or revenue, it often bumps into a school having the same problem.

There are only so many open spots on a schedule, something Huggins relayed by telling a story about his interactions with North Carolina Coach Roy Williams.

"Roy says it's been on his bucket list to come to Morgantown because he's heard so much about the crowd and Morgantown and all that," Huggins said. "But they're playing Kentucky and Michigan State and whoever else. When you have existing contracts, you can't just say, 'I'm going to do this.' It's much more complicated than what people on the outside think it is."

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THAT HASN'T changed through the years. Scheduling has always been a tricky task, no matter the level a coach finds himself. Huggins learned that long ago when he was learning the trade at Akron. He reached out to major programs and tried to lock in a series in which the Zips played two road games and one home game.

Eventually, all the work landed a three-game series against Kansas State, but also a letter from then-Louisville Coach Denny Crum.

"It's incredible he took the time to do it," Huggins said. "It was about a three-page letter explaining to me how they play in Freedom Hall with 19,000, 20,000 people in there every game and he basically said at that time their football (stunk). He didn't say that, but basically what he said was they're the sport that generated money.

"He broke it down and explained why they wouldn't go on the road much. When they go on the road, it has to be for one of two purposes: Recruiting so you can be able to recruit a guy or to get on national television - and there weren't 600 games a night on TV then. He laid the whole thing out, and I read that like, 'Wow.' He knew what he was doing. When I got to Cincinnati, we did the same thing."

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BEFORE HE WAS in charge of the Bearcats, Huggins had another interaction with a famous coach. Huggins wouldn't name this one and said only that he was into "treacherous" things.

"He called me and said, 'We're going to play home-and-home, but you have to come here first and it's going to be nationally televised,'" Huggins said.

He was excited, but also suspicious. Huggins called other coaches he knew and ones he thought might know the treacherous one.

"They said he does it all the time and then he cancels the second game," Huggins said. "They told me if I did it, to put a big buyout in there. So I called him and said, 'Here's what I need. Put in the contract that if it's not a nationally televised game, we're not coming, and if you don't come back to our place, it's going to cost you X amount of money.'"

That series never happened.

*  *  *

HUGGINS IS three jobs removed from his time at Akron and there are fewer hurdles because of where he is, where he's been and what he's done along the way. This is not to say he doesn't have problems and ones he can't fix.

"This isn't really a destination point," he said. "This isn't going to New York City. This isn't going to Orlando. Coming here in the dead of winter?"

Even if it were a tropical place, the Mountaineers would still have some trouble getting teams to come to the Coliseum just because of the way college basketball is wired today.

"There are a lot of factors and coming here, we've probably changed a little bit," he said. "What we used to do was figure out who we thought was winning the MAC, the OVC and their RPI would be between 75 and 100 and our strength of schedule was better doing that than it is now playing the people we've played."

Scheduling those mid-majors is harder now because the leverage major schools have is no longer as strong. A wealth of recruits and excellent coaching has created parity that runs deep into the second-level conferences. Those conferences are stronger and now get multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament. They don't need to schedule multiple major programs to prop up their schedule.

"They don't want to come in and get beat by 30," Huggins said. "Why come in and play when we're really good? Everyone knows when they're going to be good and when they're not. Why come in and play us when you have a chance to go to another place and win a game and get the same check?"

They don't need a major opponent to get on television either because the list of networks has ample opportunities to get mid-majors on television. Many smaller schools now have different terms for their negotiations because they feel their time should be worth more to the larger programs. Huggins said some small schools will agree to play bigger teams, but then sort through multiple offers from bigger schools and pick the best deal.

"Honestly, it's so oversaturated now," Huggins said. "They're on TV already. You can flip through and find them on TV now. They don't need us to do it."

And that's where it can get messy. WVU has played No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 21 Gonzaga and No. 23 Missouri. They're a combined 32-1.

Only Gonzaga was a home game and WVU countered that by playing at Virginia Tech in the second game of a four-game series. The other seven opponents are ranked between Nos. 189 (Loyola) and 348 (Presbyterian) in the RPI with an average rank of 254. Purdue is No. 89, 17 slots lower than the Hokies.

"You've got to win games," Huggins said. "Everyone says you've got to play a great schedule and you'll get rewarded. You get rewarded more when you win than if you lose. Maybe we should have backed off a little bit being as young as we are, but the truth is, I didn't know we'd be this young."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.


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