Between the non-conference and conference schedules, the travel, and the adjustment to playing in a new league, Mike Carey says this might be the most daunting challenge his Mountaineer women’s basketball program has ever faced.
The travel has been well documented – West Virginia making two trips to Texas already this year with two more trips to the Lone Star State coming up in the next two weeks.
But what has not been so well documented is the strength of this year’s schedule, likely the toughest any WVU women's team has ever faced.
West Virginia (16-10, 8-7) has already played 16 games against teams in the RPI top 50
with another one coming this weekend against top-ranked Baylor. And there will be even more opportunities coming up at the Big 12 Championships in Dallas, March 8-11. The Mountaineers have eight wins against top 100 teams and four victories against top 50 teams, while all 10 of their losses have come against teams ranked in the top 50.
Now that’s the definition of difficult.
“It’s the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve had, and really, it’s the toughest conference schedule we’ve had because of the RPI,” Carey noted. “Everybody is good.”
Add to that West Virginia losing its best player, 6-foot-4 center Asya Bussie
, to a knee injury on the second day of practice and it’s been a demonstration in perseverance for the Mountaineers this season.
“We changed our offense (after Bussie went down); we were always a three-out, two-in, high-low, and the second day of practice Asya goes down and now we’ve got to change everything we do,” said Carey. “I’m proud of our players because they adjusted and bought in to what we’ve asked them to do.”
Now that Carey has seen all of the Big 12 teams in person, it has only reaffirmed to him what he thought coming in – the Big 12 is the deepest and most talented women’s basketball conference in the country.
Everyone knows about top-ranked Baylor and its superstar player Brittney Griner, but not much has been made about how many good teams there are after Baylor. The Big 12 currently has seven teams with RPIs ranging from 25 (Iowa State) to 71 (Kansas State) with seven of the 10 - including No. 41 West Virginia - being ranked in the top 50.
Compare that to where West Virginia used to be in the Big East - a league that has had really good teams at the top and some bad teams at the bottom. That is the case once again this year with UConn and Notre Dame ranking two and four in this week’s RPI while the bottom four Big East teams are ranked between 169 and 235.
The Big 12 has just one team (No. 171 TCU) ranked lower than 150.
“That’s why you see why the Big 12 is the No. 1 RPI league in the country on the women’s side – and it has been for the last five or six years,” Carey noted. “I think part of that is teams are very good, plus, you play everybody twice, so that shoots your RPI up.”
Carey admits it’s been a learning process for his team getting adjusted to new players, new coaches, new playing styles and new environments.
“For me it’s been like two years in one this year between playing all of the new teams in the Big 12 and the travel, but we’ll get used to it,” Carey said. “The longer you’re in the Big 12 the more you will get used to the travel, the different styles and different teams. We knew coming in that this was going to be a learning year and I’m just happy with our girls because we still seem like we have good legs. We’re still playing hard at this time of the year and that’s what you always worry about.”
Because Carey was so concerned about getting worn down in late February and early March, he made a conscious effort to play more players earlier this year - probably to the detriment of his team’s overall record.
“I thought it hurt us early in the year with some of the losses we had because we used our bench a lot,” he said. “I just felt that we had players who could contribute, even though they didn’t know what they were doing at the time defensively or offensively, but we had to develop those players because of the long haul.”
Presently, West Virginia is in good shape for postseason play with two regular season home games remaining against Kansas State tonight and Baylor on Saturday, and then a road game at Texas next Tuesday night, as long as the Mountaineers take care of business.
“We don’t need anybody to beat anybody; we don’t need anything to happen,” said Carey. “We just need to take care of business and we’ve got to be ready to play.”
That begins with tonight’s game against K-State at the WVU Coliseum – yet another difficult challenge in what has been one of the most challenging seasons in school history.