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Softer early schedule makes sense for Huggins

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Bob Huggins didn't somehow wake up one morning during the offseason and find that he'd turned into Jim Boeheim.

Nor did he have any sort of epiphany regarding the Syracuse coach and the way he famously sets up the schedule for his Orange basketball team.

At least in part, though, Huggins lived the Boeheim life early this season.

"I kind of like this,'' Huggins said the other day. "I don't know why I'm playing Purdue and Gonzaga and some other people.''

Indeed, while Gonzaga and Purdue await next month - and while Huggins today finds himself in Cancun, Mexico with the likes of Old Dominion, Saint Louis and No. 12 Wisconsin (combined record, 15-1) - what his West Virginia basketball team has faced to date certainly cannot be termed as challenging.

There was Mount St. Mary's and Duquesne, a couple of teams that occasionally might rise to a highly competitive level but are anything but that this season. There was Georgia Southern and then Presbyterian in a three-day span. They are, and Huggins will admit it, walkovers.

Shoot, West Virginia sort of even followed the Boeheim philosophy of almost never leaving the state of New York in the first two months, even for road games. The only West Virginia trip so far was to Virginia Tech, so until getting on a plane bound out of the country on Sunday the Mountaineers hadn't left the Virginias.

All of this is fairly significant, of course, because through the first five games of the season West Virginia is 4-1. At least part of the reason is that Syracuse-like schedule.

A year ago today, Nov. 26, the Mountaineers were 1-3. They had opened the season at Gonzaga. They played three games at a tournament in Orlando, Fla. They had yet to suit up for a game in the Coliseum.

Why the dramatic difference in scheduling? Well, a couple of reasons. In some ways it just worked out that way. The Mountaineers are playing an early-season tournament just like last year, but it's a week later and under a different format - two tune-ups at home (Georgia Southern and Presbyterian) and then the trip to Mexico. So there was room early for a couple of other home games.

More specifically, though, the scheduling is a bit by design. Huggins saw what a brutal opening stretch could do a year ago to a team with some experience, and the last thing he wanted to do was put a much younger team through the same grind.

In some ways, the difference in the schedule is a bit nuanced. Think about it. Last year there were pre-Big 12 games against Gonzaga and Michigan, a tournament with a mixed field that included Oklahoma, games with Virginia Tech, Marshall and Duquesne and four non-returned home games (VMI, Oakland, Radford and Eastern Kentucky). This year there are games against Gonzaga and Purdue, a tournament with a mixed field that includes Wisconsin, games with Virginia Tech, Marshall and Duquesne and three non-return games with Mount St. Mary's, Loyola and William & Mary (in Charleston). The other game is actually a step up, a trip to Missouri next week.

But while the games with Gonzaga and Michigan were on the road (or neutral) last year, Gonzaga and Purdue are at home this year. And instead of playing their first home game five games into the season (there were but two home games in the first nine last year), four of the first five this season were at home.

"I kind of like this. Really, it's kind of a little more relaxing,'' Huggins said. "I've got Eron Harris out there drawing up plays and I was starting to think I wasn't needed much.''

There can, of course, be long-term drawbacks to this kind of scheduling, which is why Huggins has generally tried to shy away from, well, dumbing things down early. Nothing the Mountaineers have done to date has helped in reaching the ultimate goal, which is making the NCAA tournament. And losing at Virginia Tech hurt. The selection committee likes to see teams challenge themselves, and to date WVU hasn't done that.

But if enjoying a bit of early success might help the confidence of a young team and help down the road, then that won't matter. That's always apparently been the Boeheim philosophy. Syracuse almost annually goes into January unbeaten or with maybe one loss. No one is saying that West Virginia is at that level, but if winning breeds confidence then why not schedule a few wins?

Also, remember we're just talking about the schedule so far, four home dates in the first five against inferior competition. It begins to ramp up now with the Cancun games, then Missouri, Gonzaga, Purdue, etc.

But at least as a start, this seems preferable to what WVU did a year ago in perhaps overscheduling. It has given Huggins time to try and build something instead of dealing with early damage control.

"I told them coming in that this game was about us working on us, about us getting better,'' Huggins said, referring to the Georgia Southern and Presbyterian games. "That was kind of the focus, doing some things to make us better. We got to work on some things.''

Things that a year ago there was no time to work on.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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