LSU lands West Virginia for SEC/Big 12 Challlenge

LSU landed West Virginia as its draw for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

But you knew that already, and it’s not the first time in recent memory they’ve locked horns.

The programs last met over a decade ago during a home-and-home series. West Virginia won 84-69 in Baton Rouge in the first meeting during the 2004 season, and LSU avenged the loss a year later with a 71-68 victory in Morgantown.

Let’s take a quick look at the rest of the pairings for the three-day event, which features 10 games between what the nation’s best power conference last  and the much maligned SEC.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014    

  • Auburn at Texas Tech

Thursday, December 4, 2014   

  • Arkansas at Iowa State
  • Baylor at Vanderbilt
  • TCU at Ole Miss

Friday, December 5, 2014

  • Florida at Kansas
  • Texas at Kentucky
  • Missouri at Oklahoma

Saturday, December 6, 2014

  • Oklahoma State at South Carolina
  • Kansas State at Tennessee

Now, Wednesday’s unveiling leaves the Tigers’ trying to fill five spots on their schedule. LSU already has the back end of home-and-home deals looming with UMass and Texas Tech coming to Baton Rouge and a visit planned to UAB. There’s also the three games guaranteed by playing in the Paradise Jam, which takes place in late November in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s also easy to sort out the rough breakdown of the Tigers’ draw in the SEC.

On paper, the Mountaineers are relatively solid draw. They were knocked out by Georgetown in the first round of the NIT, but eighth-year coach Bob Huggins. A middling 17-16 record may not sizzle, but West Virginia returns its top five scorers — three of whom were underclassmen — to go with Juwan Staten. Staten, a 6-1, 190-pound rising senior, passed on entering the NBA draft.

The bigger question is whether Huggins’ can get back toward the trend line that’s defined a very successful career. Over the past three seasons, WVU has a .500 record, while it missed the NCAA tournament for a second-consecutive season. I’ll wait for our pregame blog next season to delve into this issue, but put simply: The Mountaineers didn’t defend. At all. They finished No. 126 in adjusted efficiency and ninth in a 10-team Big 12, per kenpom.com. Offensive punch won’t be an issue for this group. Stopping people remains to be seen.

Still, in a climate where the NCAA selection committee wants to see teams hit the road for tough games, LSU has a chance to get a quality, top-100 RPI win away from Baton Rouge. Until the rest of the schedule is done, this might stand as their toughest game on the nonconference schedule.

So, how does the entire docket look in early May?

Below is a rough outline of the 2014-2015 LSU schedule so far. I’ve also put the NCAA’s official RPI of each team in parentheses.

Nonconference home

  • Texas Tech (130)
  • UMass (26)

Nonconference road

  • UAB (153)
  • West Virginia (92)

Neutral floor:

  • Three games at the Paradise Jam

SEC Home

  • Alabama (128)
  • Auburn (160)
  • Florida (1)
  • Georgia (72)
  • Kentucky (7)
  • Ole Miss (88)
  • South Carolina (139)
  • Tennessee (37)
  • Texas A&M (147)

SEC Road

  • Arkansas (67)
  • Auburn (160)
  • Florida (1)
  • Ole Miss (88)
  • Mississippi State (239)
  • Missouri (50)
  • Tennessee (37)
  • Texas A&M (147)
  • Vanderbilt (121)

Traditionally, LSU locks in up between three to five in-state schools — just take a look at last season — to round out the slate. As of March, though, the Tigers had resumed talks with Texas and several ACC programs — possibly Georgia Tech and N.C.State — about potential home-and-home series. The trick is whether the Tigers can get a power conference program to open any such deal by visiting Baton Rouge this season.  The Longhorns, for glitz and added juice to SOS, would be a big get, even if it does leave LSU playing three Big 12 schools. N.C. State will be rebuilding after squeaking into the NCAA tournament, while Georgia Tech is coming off a disappointing 16-17 season.

By now, you know the mandate handed down by the SEC last season: All nonconference schedules need to have an average rating better than No. 150, and the conference’s schools will submit their dockets for review by the home office. Operating off that standard, the Tigers will need to upgrade. The consensus of various formulas was LSU’s nonconference menu landed between No. 170 and No. 186 in the nation last season.

Whether it gets better — at least in the eyes of algorithms and regression formulas — is harder to gauge.

The Paradise Jam may not be a booster shot. Outside of Clemson and LSU, both of whom had top-100 RPIs, none of the remaining six teams in the field had a RPI better than No. 133, while their average slot in the index was No. 160.

It will be interesting to see what the program does to fill in remaining holes. The Tigers won’t abandon keeping money Louisiana and scheduling in-state opponents. But it’s important to note that last year the five schools LSU played had an average RPI of roughly No. 250.  If a couple of games materialize against power conference opponents, the Tigers may be able to pare back facing Southland Conference schools, minimizing the drag on their SOS.

If the goal is a return to the NCAA tournament, a place LSU hasn’t been in five seasons, then bolstering its schedule is a must. We’ll see what the program comes up with over the next couple months.

As for the SEC schedule, it’s a push. LSU has five games against teams I expect to vie for top-four finishes in Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas and Georgia. The boon, though, is three of those games — UK, UF and UGA — are at the PMAC. Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M are in various stages of rebuilding, and there are sneaky toss-ups with rival Ole Miss and a potential surprise squad in South Carolina. The road schedule seems manageable. Florida, Arkansas and Ole Miss are tough trips, but getting a torn-down Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee and a struggling State balance it out.