West Virginia tips off in the newest chapter in its biggest rivalry when it hosts the Pitt Panthers on Friday night. The game is set to begin at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.
The Backyard Brawl resumed in its current form after a four-year hiatus in 2017, with a one-year pause in 2020 due to COVID-19. It’s one of the oldest matchups for the Mountaineers, as the two programs squared off for the first time in 1904.
WVU is aiming for its 100th victory over the Panthers in their 188th meeting, and the team’s fifth in a row.
There’s no doubt that the Backyard Brawl has lost a bit of a spark in recent decades as the programs have drifted apart. WVU and Pitt met annually from 1918 to 2012, both as league and non-league opponents. Although he’s excited to see a full Coliseum as the rivalry comes back to Morgantown, WVU coach Bob Huggins admits that the Brawl isn’t quite as fierce as it was when he was on the court.
“At the peak, WVU-Pitt was more intense than any other rivalry I knew. Everyone was fighting. Fans were fighting,” said Huggins. “Players don’t ask or really get into it. It’s been dead for so long. It’s been dead a while. It really wasn’t — in the Big East days, it wasn’t near like when I played. Still pretty good, but you didn’t have all the craziness, it was a basketball game. The craziness wasn’t involved.”
West Virginia enters the Brawl with a win over Oakland at home on Tuesday. Of course, a win is still a win for Bob Huggins, even 901 victories into his career — but staying on brand, the head coach found much to be improved in his team as they prepare for the Panthers.
For one, the Mountaineers were uncharacteristically out-rebounded by 15 in the season opener. Huggins, who typically stresses strong inside play with talented big men, said his team’s performance on the glass was “mind-blowing.”
“A lot of it was effort. It’s effort, technique,” Huggins said. “74 percent of missed shots go opposite, they go over the rim, and the ones that don’t go over the rim bounce backwards towards the shooter, and that’s really where everybody is…so it’s not that hard to rebound it opposite….And we missed enough shots to maybe set a record.”
Offensively, Taz Sherman led the Mountaineers with 19 points, tag-teaming with fellow guard Sean McNeil, who added 11. While Sherman got going early in the contest, McNeil is working to build confidence — and it showed, as the normally high-volume shooter tended to pass up some open long-range jump shots.
McNeil and Sherman are actually the only Mountaineers with an appearance in the Backyard Brawl, but the importance of the rivalry is not lost on the team. Mix in the prospect of a sold-out Coliseum, and even WVU’s newest players are excited to take on the Panthers.
“My first day [at WVU] was about this game,” said transfer big man Dimon Carrigan. “The first day I got here, they brought up the rivalry between Pitt and West Virginia. I don’t know the history, I don’t know how long it goes back and stuff, but I do know it’s very important so I’m trying to get us a W tomorrow.”
Pitt takes the court with a painful loss in its season opener to The Citadel on its record. Jeff Capel’s team is already depleted to start the season, having lost guard Nike Sibande to a preseason ACL injury and Ithiel Horton to an indefinite suspension.
The Panthers struggled to defend the three-ball, allowing the Bulldogs to sink six of their first nine shots from deep, and 36 percent for the game. They did, however, get strong showings from forward John Hugley and guard Femi Odukale, who combined for 47 points on the night.
Still, Huggins sees the Panthers as a tough test for their first Power Five matchup of the season.
“They’ve got great size. They’ve got a 6-10 who can step out and make shots for them, which spreads your bigs out,” Huggins said. “I think Jeff’s done a great job putting that team together.”
Tip-off in the 188th edition of the men’s basketball Backyard Brawl is slated for 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.