MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There is a difference between a winning record and a winning team and that difference is all too often found not in the roster but in the schedule.
See, for the most part, you can schedule a winning record, but you have to build a winning team.
And that is the approach Bob Huggins has taken as he has put together, virtually from scratch, his 2022- 23 West Virginia basketball team.
With the addition of Auburn as this year’s opponent in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, Huggins’ schedule was completed this past week.
It is challenging, as challenging as any his team has faced since he returned to WVU 14 years ago. And that’s how he wanted it.
“My challenge to our guys is if you want to be the best, then you’ve got to beat the best,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer during a trip to where he spent what were the golden days of what now is a Hall of Fame career. “So, let’s go beat the best, and then we’ll worry about all that other stuff later.”
“All that other stuff …”
What did he mean by that?
He meant returning only guard Kedrian Johnson from last season’s starting lineup, although there are actually two players returning who were West Virginia starters.
Don’t forget, Emmitt Matthews Jr. was a starter for three years under Huggins before transferring back home to the Washington Huskies last season.
Make no mistake, but Matthews comes back not only to slash to the rim and drop threes from the corner, but as perhaps a the centerpiece of the team Huggins is putting together.
“All that other stuff”, too, was a losing record constructed from two seven-game losing streaks in Big 12 play, which meant a last-place conference record and no NCAA bid.
He could have tried to fix that in the scheduling, but Huggins instead constructed a schedule that would earn his team not victories but respect should he win 20 or more games.
WVU has fallen short of 20 victories in three of the past four years and six of the last 11 seasons. In this era of transitory players, it is difficult to project teams from one year to the next, but a look at this year’s schedule suggests that it offers up a daunting challenge.
As Justin Jackson noted in a recent article in the Morgantown Dominion Post, this year’s schedule could include as many as 14 ranked teams this season.
That would be three more than they have ever played in a single campaign before … but even a number of the unranked teams will be challenging.
To begin with, WVU could wind up playing two Final Four teams from last year — Duke and Kansas — as well as the team that occupied the No. 1 ranking throughout most of the season, that being Gonzaga. In fact, WVU has itself included in the field of the Phil Knight Legacy showcase in Oregon that could put it up against boththe Blue Devils and Bulldogs.
It’s true the field for that tournament includes what might have been the worst Power 5 team in the nation last year, a 3-28 team from Oregon State, but it’s loaded otherwise, also including such powers as Purdue, Florida and Xavier.
Xavier is also on WVU’s regular schedule, on the road, coming out of the tournament, setting up a scenario that probably won’t work out but where WVU theoretically plays the Musketeers in consecutive games.
And, on a personal note, there are few teams Huggins would rather beat than Xavier from the days when they played in the Crosstown Shootout — the Cincinnati version of the Backyard Brawl.
In fact, of 31 scheduled games — not counting the Big 12 post-season tournament — WVU will play 19 games against teams that won 20 or more games last season.
What’s more, they play Kansas, the national champion twice; Baylor, which had the same conference record as Big 12 regular-season champion Jayhawks, twice; possibly the ACC champion, Duke, in the Phil Knight Legacy; the SEC regular-season champion, Auburn, once and the possibly Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference regular-season champion.
Here is the slate of teams WVU could play this year (including all six potential opponents in Oregon), along with last year’s won-loss record:
Texas Tech (27-10)
Iowa State (22-13)
Stony Brook (18-13)
Oklahoma State (15-15)
Kansas State (14-17)
Mount St. Mary’s (14-16)
Portland State (14-17)
Oregon State (3-28)
It’s a stiff challenge to make a run through that to the NCAA Tournament with a team that has only one returning starter, but think how memorable of a year it will be if Huggins and West Virginia can pull it off.