Huggins Expects Plenty Of Intensity In Saturday’s Backyard Brawl Renewal
The Backyard Brawl has lain dormant for nearly six years.
Well, maybe dormant isn’t the best description, because certainly the two fan bases haven’t been idle. But in terms of the playing field, the rivals haven’t met in football or basketball since the 2011-12 athletic year when both were still members of the Big East Conference. WVU headed to the Big 12 the next season, and Pitt was off to the ACC the following year.
And because of scheduling conflicts, personality conflicts or whatever, the Backyard Brawl went away … until now. The women’s basketball squads actually get things started, facing off at the WVU Coliseum Thursday night at 7 o’clock. The men’s hoop teams will follow their female counterparts into battle, meeting at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh on Saturday at 8 p.m. The men’s game will be televised on ESPN2.
Football fans will have wait a few more years before the Backyard Brawl returns to the gridiron, though that too is coming, as the schools have a four-year home-and-home series ready to begin in 2022.
As for Saturday’s men’s clash at The Pete, it will be the first time West Virginia has played in the building since Feb. 16, 2012 when the Mountaineers left with a 66-48 victory. That was one of just two wins in nine trips to the Petersen Event Center for WVU, whose only other victory at that particular arena came in 2005, 70-66. Eight of those nine Panther squads were ranked when West Virginia visited – all but the last one, which lost to WVU by 18 – so the Mountaineers’ fortunes were understandable. Even West Virginia’s Final Four squad of 2010, which went to Pitt ranked No. 5, lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker to the No. 25 Panthers, 98-95, at The Pete.
Of course, Pitt has had great home court success against basically everyone since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002, as it has a 237-42 record in that 12,508-seat on-campus facility.
And West Virginia, which holds a 96-88 all-time record in the long-time series with its oldest rival that dates back to 1906, has a losing record against the Panthers in Pittsburgh. Pitt is 56-35 against the Mountaineers in men’s basketball games played in the Steel City.
But this Pitt team doesn’t much resemble Jamie Dixon’s Big East powerhouses. It doesn’t even resemble the 16-17 Panthers of last year, as their top five scores all either graduated or transferred.
In fact, Pitt returns just two scholarship players from their 2016-17 squad – 6-foot-9 senior forward Ryan Luther and 6-foot-2 senior guard Jonathan Milligan – both of whom are starters this year. But the other 11 Panthers on scholarship are all newcomers, coming via a variety of routes. Seven are freshmen, three are junior college transfers and one is a graduate transfer from a four-year college.
That mix had made things tough for Pitt’s second-year head coach Kevin Stallings, whose squad will bring a 5-4 record into this year’s renewal of the Backyard BasketBrawl. After 17 years as the head coach at Vanderbilt (332-220 from 2000-16) and six at Illinois State (123-63 from 1994-99), Stallings is very much in the rebuilding process with the Panthers. His club dropped its first two games of the season – 71-62 at Navy and 83-78 in overtime at home to Montana. Pitt has won five of seven since, but its only Power 5 opponents – Penn State and Oklahoma State – each defeated the Panthers rather handily at a tournament in Brooklyn.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins still has a lot of admiration for Stallings, but knows the Pitt coach simply doesn’t have much experience to work with at the moment.
“I think they are getting better all the time,” said Huggins, who holds a 4-9 coaching record all-time against Pitt, including a 4-7 mark while at WVU. “Kevin does a great job. He runs good stuff. They’re young. They are playing much better lately. What have the won, four in a row now?
“When you have as many new guys as Kevin has, it is going to take a while for them to come together,” added Huggins. “Kevin is an excellent coach. He runs good stuff. He does a great job relieving pressure. It’s just a matter of all those young players getting comfortable together.”
None of the current players at Pitt or West Virginia have ever participated in a Backyard Brawl. Their understanding of the heated rivalry may be lacking, but Huggs is confident his Mountaineers will figure it out quickly.
“We’re going to try to tell them how intense it is for the fans,” said WVU’s head coach, whose club is currently 8-1 and ranked No. 18 in the country in the A.P. poll. “It’s been a great rivalry over the years. There have been some great games; in my memory most of the great games were on their side, not ours. If they don’t understand that intensity now, they will by the time they walk into the arena.”
Huggins himself faced Pitt eight times in his three years as a Mountaineer player, which also featured a couple conference tournament games against the Panthers. He averaged 10.8 points a game in those eight contests against Pitt, and finished with a 6-2 record as a player in the Backyard BasketBrawl.
In his second-ever game in a WVU uniform, Huggins scored 13 points and the Mountaineers pulled out 82-78 overtime victory at the Coliseum. Huggs wasn’t around for the end of the game, though, as he fouled out. West Virginia center Warren Baker had to take over, scoring 31 points and grabbing 22 rebounds to key the win.
It was the only time Huggins ever fouled out against the Panthers, though the hard-nosed guard did foul out eight times in his Mountaineer career.
For West Virginia’s player turned coach, the Backyard Brawl has always held a significant place in his memory bank. Its intensity during his playing days was off the chart, even though rarely was either team rank. And that intensity certainly didn’t change when both became national powerhouses in later years.
“I don’t ever remember fouling out,” Huggins chuckled when asked about his first Brawl. “There must have been some horrible calls.”
Huggs said some of the intensity of the rivalry centered on the then Voice of the Mountaineers, Jack Fleming, who actually worked on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
“When I first got here, Jack was doing the Steelers and doing news up there a little bit (as the sports director at WTAE-TV) and then he was here. That was an issue with the Pitt people,” recalled Huggins. “Everything was kind of crazy. I think in the southern part of the state, the Virginia Tech thing was big. But I always remember Pitt being West Virginia’s big rival, just as big as Duke-North Carolina or one of those. Pitt-West Virginia was one of those classic rivalries.”
As for the current Mountaineers, senior guards Jevon Carter (19.4 ppg) and Daxter Miles (14.6 ppg), as well as sophomore forward Lamont West (11.8 ppg) have led WVU on its current eight-game winning streak.
Depth is a concern for West Virginia, though, especially in comparison to recent seasons when WVU went 10 or 11 deep. But Huggins says his bench is still giving him production, even though Beetle Bolden was the only reserve to score in the past Tuesday’s 68-61 victory over No. 15 Virginia. The sophomore guard had six points in 11 minutes. WVU used three others off the bench (Teddy Allen, Chase Harler and Maciej Bender) but none scored nor played more than eight minutes, as West Virginia’s five starters each played at least 32 minutes in the win over the Cavaliers.
“That’s the first time our bench hasn’t scored,” noted Huggins of the UVA game. “Chase has made threes this year. Beetle has come off the bench and played well. And when Sags (Konate) got into foul trouble against Missouri, I thought Magic came in and played really well. I think we’re getting good minutes from our reserves. I don’t think there is a problem with our bench.”
Huggins may need that bench Saturday night. In the renewal of the Backyard BasketBrawl, that figures to contain plenty of intensity with the fouls and fatigue that often go with that, it will be all hands on deck.
And even though Pitt hasn’t played well or drawn well this season, averaging 2,767 in attendance per game, Huggins expects a different story when the Mountaineers travel to the Petersen Events Center this Saturday.
“From what I understand, I think they increased the price of the tickets for this game,” WVU coach said. “I don’t think you increase the price of tickets unless you think you’re going to get a heck of a crowd.”