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Playing Devil's Advocate: Why Bob Huggins Is Wrong & The Marshall Series Should Continue

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Marshall basketball coach Dan D’Antoni took a shot across the bow at West Virginia’s program in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s Capital Classic. But in the process, he gave his counterpart, WVU’s Bob Huggins, ammunition for an argument he has long wanted to make.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

In case there was any lingering doubt how Huggins feels about the Mountaineers’ annual matchup with Marshall, that was put to rest during his weekly radio show on Monday night.

Huggins opened the program with a lengthy rant about the Capital Classic, a response to D’Antoni’s comments that the series should be played twice per year (once in Charleston and with a second game alternating between Morgantown and Huntington). D’Antoni went further, though, telling reporters that if WVU were to back out of the series now, it would be a sign that the Mountaineer program was "afraid" of the Marshall program.

First, let’s dispense with the nonsense here: other than the most ardent Thundering Herd supporters, no one seriously believes the series should be played twice per year. And while a home-and-home series would be compelling, West Virginia has plenty of legitimate reasons for not scheduling a road game in Huntington.

But Huggins went further than simply dismissing those notions in his radio show response.

Radio host Tony Caridi: "So would it bother you if the game went away?"

Huggins: "No."

Caridi: "It would not?"

Huggins: "No. Not at all. Not at all."

And that’s the rub. D’Antoni’s comments served only to stoke an argument Huggins has long looked for a reason to make. He wants out of this series.

If you don’t believe me, or if you believe Huggins’ words from the radio show were mere bluster, just listen to a reporter who truly has his finger on the pulse of WVU athletics, Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail.

While Huggins was greeted with applause on his radio show when he indicated his feelings for the hypothetical end of the Capital Classic, I’m of the mind that ending this series would be a mistake.

To me, the matchup is fun. The environment is (or at least was, before the series was moved to a random Sunday afternoon ten days before Christmas) fun. And while we live in an era where many fans act like wannabe athletic directors, comparing television revenue checks and attendance figures instead of final scores, we should remember that the games are ultimately about fun and entertainment.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m also invariably of the mind that the state’s only two Division I programs should play one another unless there is an extraordinarily compelling reason otherwise. Of course, that’s purely a philosophical argument, and one you can obviously disagree with.

Huggins, in crafting his own argument, articulated many of the same factors WVU fans often cite for their disdain for the series. Generally, his point was that playing Marshall is of no real benefit to the Mountaineer program. And again, it’s difficult to dispute him here. The Herd’s RPI is perennially weak. Playing Marshall doesn’t help WVU get attention in important recruiting areas.

But there is some hypocrisy in Huggins’ comments, meriting a deeper dive into the argument to flesh out what the head coach got right, and what was merely a convenient dig at an opponent Huggins would like to rid himself of as soon as possible.

Huggins: "I probably coached a thousand games. And now I’m scared. Scared to play Marshall. Scared to death. It’s terrible. Must have been when I turned 61 that the fear set in because I’ve never felt that way before. Now I’m just scared to death of Marshall. But that’s what the word is."

Analysis: Generally, he’s right. The notion that he is scared to face Marshall is largely laughable, given the man hasn’t flinched in matchups against many of the giants of college basketball (Pitino, Boeheim, Krzyzewski, Calipari ... the list goes on and on).

I would argue, however, that he is afraid to face Marshall in one respect: a loss to the Herd, given its weak RPI ratings, would be damning in seasons where WVU is on the NCAA Tournament bubble. That’s a legitimate fear. But it is one that comes with any game against an opponent outside the RPI top 100-150.

Huggins: "How can it be a rivalry when they don’t even care to write about it in the paper? I mean, those are the guys asking me the questions. ‘Is this a rivalry?’ Well, obviously not. You don’t write about it. I mean, rivalries they put on the front page. They can’t wait, you know what I mean? They get really excited. We obviously don’t get very excited."

Analysis: Here, Huggins was using the Morgantown Dominion Post for ammunition. He cited the fact a girls basketball game between Morgantown High and University High, as well as a WVU women’s game against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, got above-the-fold treatment (ask your parents what that means if you’re under the age of 25) while the Capital Classic did not.

First, if that actually happened, that’s some interesting decision-making among the editorial staff at the Dominion Post. But largely, he is correct. The game draws little buzz in Morgantown, and while I’m not as familiar with the Northern and Eastern Panhandle regions, it’s not a stretch to imagine the same holds true there.

But Huggins must remember he is head coach at West Virginia University, not the University of Morgantown or the University of Northern West Virginia. The game certainly brings quite a bit of buzz in the southern part of the state, where the WVU and Marshall fanbases overlap.

There’s a reason the game has drawn 10,000-plus fans every year since 1999 -- even in recent seasons when WVU’s program has swooned. Sure, the novelty of a game in Charleston plays into it a bit. But anyone who has actually been at the Charleston Civic Center for a close game between WVU and Marshall knows the building crackles with energy in big moments.

I’ve experienced it on plenty of occasions, between attending games as a kid and covering them as a reporter. Heck, even the annual cheerleader battle (which didn’t happen this year, as best I could tell from Twitter), corny though it might seem, is genuinely one of the most exciting moments of the season. The Marshall matchup sure feels like a rivalry then.

And Huggins should hardly be against any game that builds any buzz around his program. Attendance at West Virginia home games fell by almost 31 percent from 2010 to 2013 (from 12,377 fans per game to 8,575).

Quality of the Mountaineers’ play is certainly a reason for that, but Huggins has long bemoaned fan apathy. While the Marshall game may not get fans in Morgantown riled up, it certainly does for a significant portion of the WVU fanbase elsewhere in the state.

Huggins: "Let’s be honest. I have all the RPIs of all the people we’ve played this year. Going into the game Marshall was 270 in the RPI. After playing us they jumped all the way up to 237. Now, you know what that would do for us if we happen not to win? We were 36 I think it was coming into the game.

"You try not to play anybody below 200, you know that. And now they want to play twice in a year? Are you kidding me? It’s like I said: Why don’t we do what’s best for West Virginia University and the state of West Virginia. I don’t think it’s my job to support them. I don’t think that’s part of my contract."

Analysis: First, let’s put aside the notion of playing twice in a year. No one, other than some wearing kelly green-tinted glasses, seriously believes that should happen.

Generally, when Huggins schedules teams from outside the power conferences, he does try to get games against those picked near the top of their respective leagues. It’s a scheduling philosophy that avoids bad losses and can lead to an extra RPI Top 100 win or two, which is one reason the head coach (until recently) had such an incredible record of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

But let’s not pretend WVU has scheduled a murderer’s row either. West Virginia’s best win to date in terms of RPI came against Lafayette (No. 79). Yes, that includes UConn, as the Huskies have fallen all the way to No. 90 with losses to Texas and Yale.

The Mountaineers’ resumé otherwise includes wins over VMI (No. 270), George Mason (No. 226), College of Charleston (No. 206), Monmouth (No. 185), and Northern Kentucky (No. 166). In the interests of full disclosure, Marshall is currently the worst of the bunch at No. 293.

But if West Virginia is willing to schedule a snoozer against VMI, why can’t it face another lowly opponent in Marshall? If it’s willing play a true road game at Northern Kentucky, there is no reason it can’t find room on its schedule for a neutral-site game with Marshall.

I’m aware that Huggins has ties to the NKU staff. But if doing a favor for a buddy is a good enough reason for Huggins to schedule a game, the state’s interest in its two Division I programs playing should also be good enough.

Some have argued the NKU game was "in a key recruiting area." While I understand the point being made, I respectfully reject the notion that playing at Northern Kentucky is somehow going to entice Cincinnati-area kids to play at West Virginia.

Huggins: "It’s not equitable. [D’Antoni] wants to sit here and act like it’s equitable, it’s not equitable. We play in the No. 1 RPI league in America. The No. 1 RPI league in America. And has been for quite awhile. Conference USA’s RPI, as of today, they’re the 15th ranked conference. How is that equitable? It’s not equitable. It’s laughable."

Analysis: There is no disputing the facts here. There is a great disparity between the leagues these programs are in. And even in recent years, when WVU was playing its worst basketball since the final days of the Gale Catlett era, the Mountaineers have still beaten Marshall.

But why does the series need to be "equitable?"

A guy named Kevin Fuller, who follows me on Twitter, asked a question that got me intrigued:

So I looked. And maybe Huggins should call up Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and Danny Manning and tell them they have no clue how to approach scheduling.

Duke, North Carolina, and Wake Forest all scheduled games against in-state opponents with RPI ratings of 225 or worse. In the coming days, Duke will face Elon (No. 225). Wake Forest played UNC-Asheville (No. 267). The Tar Heels play two such games this year: they already knocked off East Carolina (No. 258) and they face UNC-Greensboro (No. 291) tonight.

Those games aren’t equitable at all. A loss to any would be damning for those programs. The ACC’s RPI far eclipses that of those opponents. Yet the games are played (again, in the interest of full disclosure, not on a neutral site).

My overarching point is this: not every game is going to have a direct, tangible benefit to WVU’s program. And if you’re willing to schedule opponents like Monmouth and VMI, which excite literally no one in the WVU fanbase, you should certainly be willing to schedule the only other Division I program in the state.

As a parting note, I leave you with these comments from former Mountaineer forward John Flowers, which pretty much sum it all up:

Fun game. Great atmosphere. Always fun whoopin they ass. Couldn't have said it better myself, John.