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WVU's early schedule not without its benefits

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - To say that West Virginia accomplished nothing during its 13 non-conference basketball games would be just wrong.

The Mountaineers did, after all, win eight games.

OK, so they were pretty much the eight they were supposed to win. But along the way they did manage some other things.

They appear to have found some of the scoring punch that was so lacking a year ago when they finished 13-19 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2004. A team that did not have a single player average in double figures in 2012-13 now has four at or close to that mark, including sophomore guard Eron Harris (18.3 points per game), who is second in the Big 12 in scoring.

They have, to a degree, been able to work four new players into the nine-man rotation and get them comfortable. Freshmen Devin Williams and Brandon Watkins are developing a low-post presence, and freshman Nathan Adrian and junior college transfer Remi Dibo have shown flashes of the ability to stretch defenses with their outside shooting.

West Virginia has also developed a pretty good perimeter attack. The Mountaineers are second in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting percentage, even while hoisting more of those shots than anyone else in the league save for Iowa State. As a result, a scoring average that was just 66.1 points per game last year is 81.1 points so far this season.

Still, to consider the 13 preseason games that are now in the books a success would not be true. The Mountaineers did not manage to beat a single team that figures to help its chances of getting back into the postseason. Six of its eight wins came against teams outside the Top 250 in the RPI and the other two were against teams outside the Top 200. WVU had chances against teams currently ranked Nos. 3, 15, 18, 98 and 150, and lost them all.

Well, over the next two months, the Mountaineers will get plenty more of those chances. They begin play this weekend in a Big 12 Conference that is a collective No. 1 in the RPI and boasts three teams in the RPI Top 10 and six in the Top 50.

Even the lowest-rated teams in the league - coincidentally the two that are first up for the Mountaineers - are ranked higher than anyone the Mountaineers have beaten to date. TCU, Saturday's 4 p.m. opponent in Fort Worth, Texas, is No. 180. Monday night's 7 p.m. game in Lubbock is against No. 158 Texas Tech.

And then come home games with RPI No. 13 Oklahoma State and No. 35 Texas. The rest of the season brings two games each against the likes of No. 1 Kansas, No. 6 Iowa State, No. 9 Baylor, No. 50 Oklahoma and No. 85 Kansas State.

For a West Virginia team that is still on the verge of the Top 100 - WVU is No. 105 - despite being without a quality win, it's the opportunity to make some hay.

The fact that the Big 12 schedule starts at the bottom - with TCU and Texas Tech - instead of at the top certainly is a bit of a bonus. Then again, when that notion was presented to coach Bob Huggins Thursday he chose to look at it in the bigger picture.

"I think we've got to win them all,'' Huggins said when asked if there was pressure to perform right out of the gate knowing that if TCU and Texas Tech can't be conquered then what chance is there against Kansas and Oklahoma State and the like. "If we're going to realize what these guys want to realize, then we've got to win a lot of games.''

Indeed, a repeat of last season's pattern won't cut it. A year ago the Mountaineers finished seventh in the 10-team league, winning all six regular-season games against the teams below them in the standings - Texas, TCU and Texas Tech - and losing all 12 against the teams ranked higher. The season then came to a crashing end when WVU couldn't again master Texas Tech, losing on a last-second shot in the play-in round of the Big 12 tournament.

And so whether the opponent is TCU or Texas Tech on one end of the standings or Kansas and the like on the other, the Mountaineers can't pick and choose against which teams it will compete. To an extent, that's already happened this season with the almost-regular routs of the poorer teams it has played and the winless stretch against the better ones.

"I haven't really paid much attention to who is good [in the Big 12] and who isn't,'' point guard Juwan Staten said. "We know we're in Big 12 play and we have to play at a higher level. And it doesn't matter who it's against.''

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

 


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