Bob Huggins sounds like a confident man. When asked how his West Virginia team will adjust to life in the Big 12 starting in 2012-13, he has a standard reply: "A better question might be, how are they going to adjust to us?"
I admire Huggins' attitude. After all, if I were a coach and my leading returning scorer were Deniz Kilicli, I might not sound quite so optimistic. Last season Kevin Jones and Darryl Bryant each logged more than 90 percent of the available minutes at their respective positions for the Mountaineers, but both players have graduated. West Virginia will be a young team in their Big 12 debut.
Make that young and very well-traveled. You might think the current conference realignment frenzy regularly produces odd geographic pairings. Perhaps so, but even by the wacky standards of 2012, West Virginia playing in a league otherwise comprised of teams from Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas is an outlier.
Think of it this way. Three major-conference teams are located, on average, more than 1,000 miles away from their league opponents:
1. West Virginia, Big 12 (1,155 miles)
2. USF, Big East (1,113 miles)
3. Colorado, Pac-12 (1,098 miles)
When you're even more distant from the rest of your league than South Florida is from the Big East, that's saying something. Consider that the "nearest" Big East opponent to USF in Tampa is Louisville, 875 miles away. Logging even more miles than the Bulls do is rather remarkable, but that's the situation West Virginia has created for itself by joining the Big 12.
To be sure, there should be some benefits to Big 12 membership for West Virginia. In the 16-team Big East, the Mountaineers' schedule was quite obviously at the mercy of the league. Huggins has complained, jokingly but perhaps tellingly, of having to play road games at "Syracuse 12 years in a row" with no corresponding home games against the Orange.
In the round-robin Big 12, on the other hand, West Virginia is guaranteed a home game every year against Kansas, to name one blue-chip example. Keep in mind Morgantown was a pretty tough place for Big East teams to play, and those opponents didn't have to travel as far to get there as Big 12 teams will. West Virginia therefore figures to have a fairly robust home-court advantage in their new league.
The flip side of that advantage, however, is that the Mountaineers will have to cover a minimum of 1,740 round-trip miles on every single conference road trip they make -- and those miles accumulate. Every coach complains about their schedule, of course, but Huggins is about to be placed at the mercy of his league in an entirely new way. The conference can make things much harder or much easier for his team depending on how West Virginia's nine road conference games are sequenced.
If the league groups the team's road games together, for instance by having the Mountaineers play Texas Tech and Texas back to back, that will cut down on the miles Huggins' players have to travel. The Big 12 may want to take lessons on geographically-sensitive scheduling from the Pac-12, which has long had its members hit the road to play neighboring opponents (USC and UCLA, for instance, or Oregon and Oregon State) consecutively.
Huggins has never been shy about making his feelings known, certainly, but at the end of the day all of the above is outside his control. All he can do is prepare his young team for its new league. Last year West Virginia was an amazingly good rebounding team, particularly at the offensive end. However, the Mountaineers' work on the glass (plus a healthy advantage in free throws) was pretty much all they had going for them. Their defense was merely average.
To improve on that performance, Huggins will look not only to Kilicli but also to two transfers from the Atlantic 10: point guard Juwan Staten (Dayton) and big man Aaric Murray (LaSalle). Huggins loves offensive rebounds, and if Murray (and/or Kevin Noreen or Dominique Rutledge) can haul down his teammates' misses it will be a huge lift for the Mountaineers. Speaking of huge, if sophomores-to-be Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne can hit an occasional shot from beyond the arc, so much the better.
Whether your metric of choice is conference wins, per-possession performance, or NCAA tournament seed, the Mountaineers have seen their fortunes decline in each of the past two seasons. Now Bob Huggins' team has lost its two leading scorers to graduation, and the program's joining a new conference, one where all of the opponents are anywhere from 871 (Iowa State) to 1,472 (Texas Tech) miles away from Morgantown, West Virginia. For the foreseeable future the Mountaineers will lead the Big 12 annually in frequent-flyer miles.
Geography isn't nearly as important as how good you are at basketball, of course, but we know that it does play a role. Can the Mountaineers make their sixth consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2013? It's going to be close. I expect West Virginia to finish around .500 in the Big 12, a record that would land them squarely on the bubble. This much is certain: By the time the NCAA tournament pairings are announced next March, the young Mountaineers will be veteran travelers.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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