MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – On Friday, the Mountaineers and Panthers will meet for the 188th time on the hardwood – or tartan surface or dirt, clay, gravel, cement, blacktop or whatever they played on in the last century-plus in a series that officially stretches back to 1906, and even extends a couple of years prior in games the Panthers claim were informal. Whatever the meeting type, though, it’s usually been heated.
WVU leads the rivalry 99-88 and has won four straight over Pitt in a series that was an annual fixture from 1918 until 2012. At that point, there was a pause as the Big East split apart with West Virginia moving to the Big 12 and Pittsburgh eventually joining the ACC. The rivalry lay dormant for five years until they began meeting on non-conference terms early in the 2017-18 campaign, though last year’s scheduled matchup was canceled because of COVID. WVU has won all three Backyard BasketBrawls since the rivalry was renewed. The Mountaineers’ current four-game win streak over Pitt, which began in the 2012 Big East Tournament, equals their longest in the past 55 years.
Each squad enters Friday night’s sellout showdown at the WVU Coliseum (8:30 p.m., broadcast on ESPNU) surrounded by questions.
The Mountaineers, who are replacing three starters from last year’s 19-10 squad, opened the 2021-22 season with a 60-53 home victory over Oakland on Tuesday. Not all was rosy for West Virginia, though, as it was outrebounded by the Golden Grizzlies, 48-33. The home squad also had 14 turnovers, though it did force OU into 25 giveaways.
“We didn’t pass the ball well, though they do a great job of playing the passing lanes,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of the Oakland zone. “We didn’t do much to move them, so we didn’t get the ball where we needed to get the ball.
“The rebounding deal, that was just mind-blowing to me,” he said in Thursday’s press conference. “We’re trying to fix it. I think we got a pretty good lick at it yesterday.
“A lot of our (rebounding) problem was effort, though it was also technique. Seventy-four percent of missed shots go opposite, over the rim,” he explained. “The rest usually hit the rim and bounce back toward the shooter, and that’s where most everyone is, since everyone runs to the ball. But they should be opposite. It’s not that’s hard to get opposite and get inside whoever is there, but we didn’t do any of that … and we missed enough shots (23 of 58) to set a record (for offensive rebounding).”
Huggins currently holds an all-time mark of 901-382 in his 40 seasons as a college head coach. He’s in sixth place on the NCAA Division I men’s basketball all-time coaching wins list, one victory away from Bob Knight (902-371) and two from Roy Williams (903-264). Both those coaches are retired, while No. 1 (Mike Krzyzewski, 1,170-361, No. 2 (Jim Boeheim, 982-409) and No. 3 (Jim Calhoun, 918-397) are still active.
As for the Panthers, they were stunned in their season opener Tuesday, losing to The Citadel, 78-63, at the Petersen Events Center.
Like WVU, Pitt’s fourth-year head coach Jeff Capel (40-49) is having to remake his roster. The stat leader from last year’s 10-12 Panther squad, Justin Champagnie (18.0 points and 11.1 rebounds per game), is now in the NBA, making the Toronto Raptors’ roster as an undrafted free agent. Two other 14-point per game scorers, Au’Diese Toney and Xavier Johnson, transferred in the offseason to Arkansas and Indiana respectively.
To make matters worse for Pitt, its next two returning scorers, Ithiel Horton (8.9 ppg) and Nike Sibande (6.9 ppg), are also currently unavailable. Sidande, a 6-foot-4 senior, tore his ACL on Nov. 1 and will be sidelined for the entire 2021-22 season. Then last week Horton, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, was suspended indefinitely after allegedly getting into an altercation with a Pittsburgh police officer over a parking violation. Horton was held out of The Citadel loss and is not expected to play against WVU either.
Against The Citadel, Pitt got almost all its offense from a pair of sophomores – 6-foot-9, 280-pound John Hugley and 6-foot-5, 205-pound Femi Odukale – who scored 27 points and 20 points respectively in the Panthers’ opener. The problem for Pitt was it had no one else score more than five points, and The Citadel bombed in 13 3-pointers compared to Pittsburgh, which was just two of 17 from beyond the arc.
“They are intriguing,” said Huggins of the Panthers. “They’ve got great size. Their guards are big. Hugley is a guy I know well; he’s an Ohio kid (from Cleveland).
“I think Jeff has done a great job of putting that team together.”
Pitt is certainly a program Huggins knows well. He was 6-2 against the Panthers as the Mountaineers’ point guard (1975-77), which included a 4-0 mark at the WVU Coliseum. He is also 7-7 against Pitt in his stint as West Virginia’s head coach, including a 3-3 record in the Coliseum. West Virginia is 26-10 all-time against Pitt at the Coliseum, which opened in 1970.
The WVU Ticket Office announced that Friday’s Backyard BasketBrawl is sold out. Reportedly the Nov. 12 contest is the earliest sellout in the history of the WVU Coliseum.