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Chuck McGill: Non-conference jounrey ends in Charleston for WVU

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Christmas Day activities at this sports editor's household can be broken down into three parts: watch toddler open gifts, consume food, nap. As a relative newcomer to fatherhood, that is certainly the order of importance.

College basketball's three segments - non-conference, conference and tournament play - are not in order of significance.

That is especially true for West Virginia.

The Mountaineers (7-5) wrap up their first third of the men's hoops season Sunday when they play William & Mary (6-4) in a non-conference game at the Charleston Civic Center (3 p.m., ROOT). The Tribe, picked to finish fifth in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association, represents the eighth Mountaineers' opponent with an RPI of 201 or worse.

WVU is perfect in seven games against teams with an RPI rank between No. 201 and No. 351. The Mountaineers are winless in five games against teams in the top 100.

If West Virginia takes care of business at the Civic Center, where it has won four straight and 10 of its last 11, Coach Bob Huggins' group will enter the rigors of Big 12 competition with neither a signature victory nor an unsightly blemish.

It is never too early to start wondering how that'll affect the Mountaineers' postseason plans ... whether they are NCAA tournament aspirants or destined for a pay-for-play bracket or neither. WVU, which last season finished 13-19 and lost all four of its games in March, surely doesn't want to stay home and watch the madness of that month again.

After all, Huggins has been to 20 NCAA tournaments in 32 seasons, including 19 of the last 21. The last time he didn't reach the Big Dance in consecutive seasons happened during his first two years at Cincinnati, 1990 and '91. The last time his teams failed to reach any kind of postseason in consecutive years came during his last two seasons at Akron, 1988 and '89.

Even with a roster devoid of a senior, Huggins didn't rebuild simply with an eye toward the 2014-15 season. This is a team that needs postseason experience. Only junior Gary Browne played in WVU's most recent trip to NCAA tournament, a 77-54 loss to Gonzaga on March 15, 2012.

So far this season the Mountaineers have lost to Wisconsin (No. 1 in the RPI), Gonzaga (No. 18), Missouri (No. 24), Virginia Tech (No. 93) and Purdue (No. 95) - teams with a combined record of 49-10. WVU's five losses (all single digit defeats) came by a total of 28 points, an average of 5.6 points per loss.

For comparison Texas Tech, the Big 12 team which sits at the bottom of the league standings with WVU, is also 7-5 with nary a win against the top 100. The Red Raiders' five defeats have come by a combined 72 points, or 14.4 points per loss.

After Sunday's William & Mary matchup, WVU has five days before it opens Big 12 play at TCU on Jan. 4. The Mountaineers play twice in three days in their Long Star State swing, which is capped by a game at Texas Tech on Jan. 6.

Although the games are on the road, that is about as easy as it is going to get in the Big 12 this season.

The league has six teams in the top 30 of the RPI: Kansas (3), Iowa State (5), Baylor (11), Oklahoma State (14), Texas (26) and Oklahoma (28). That means WVU will play 12 of its 18 conference games against teams currently in the top 30. Those six teams are a combined 61-8, and Iowa State is one of nine remaining unbeatens in Division I.

The Big 12's early-season success has the league No. 1 overall, according to the RPI. The Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and ACC trail the Big 12 in the twilight of non-conference play.

Only two of the Mountaineers' first six league games are against the aforementioned Big 12 teams that are in the top 30 of the RPI. As WVU's youthful roster matures, the degree of difficultly of the schedule will increase.

In one stretch, the Mountaineers have six consecutive games against those half-dozen teams that are in the RPI top 30: Oklahoma, at Kansas, Iowa State, at Texas, Baylor and at Iowa State. After one game of relative respite against TCU, a road game with the Sooners and the home finale against Kansas await.

There may be nothing noteworthy about the Mountaineers' season to date, but there will be plenty of opportunities to change that.

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.


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