By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Earlier this season, in as ugly a scene as basketball has had since “The Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that had Ron Artest going up into the stands after a fan, the Cincinnati and Xavier rivalry erupted into a free-for-all.
We mention this because at 7:30 this evening in the capital city of Charleston, West Virginia University and Marshall will begin their own version of an instate rivalry, one that is charged with as much electricity as you can get out of the basketball version of the Backyard Brawl.
As someone who has been involved in both, and with this year’s meeting at the Civic Center Coliseum before a full house expected to be something of a physical war between two teams that seem to be evenly matched, Bob Huggins was asked if there really could be parallels drawn between WVU-Marshall and Cincinnati-Xavier.
“It isn’t anything like (Cincinnati vs. Xavier),” Huggins said. “It’s just as well that it isn’t.”
See, there are rivalries and then there are wars. The best way to put it? West Virginia and Marshall is a rivalry; West Virginia and Pitt is a war.
Huggins tried to explain.
“At Cincinnati you could play Louisville on Saturday night and on Sunday morning everyone is talking about the Xavier game coming up on Wednesday. It just consumes the whole city. You have luncheons; you have Skyline parties,” Huggins said, Skyline being a local brand of chili that is to Cincinnati what Budweiser is to St. Louis or pepperoni rolls to Fairmont.
“A lot of that is proximity. You’re five miles away. Here, we’re three hours away.”
Think about that for a moment ... WVU being located where it is and Marshall located up the road about where Walmart is located at I-68. Students living in the same community, drinking at the same bar — assuming, of course, they were of legal age.
It’s a wonder the brawl that broke out didn’t happen before, perhaps when Huggins was at Cincinnati, considering the reputation he carried then and some of the physical teams he put together.
“You can’t understand Cincinnati-Xavier until you’re there. It’s unlike anything else. Once the national broadcasters got involved and it became a national game, they all say that,” Huggins said.
That’s not to say this game doesn’t have its own flavor.
“Nobody in our league talks trash like that. That’s cool. We’re not going to talk. We’re just going to come and play,” WVU senior guard Truck Bryant said.
Because of the nature of the game, even if it doesn’t possess the intensity of a Cincinnati-Xavier game, Huggins has called for its date to be moved, to play it in December rather than in January after the conference schedule has begun both in the Big East and Conference USA.
“I don’t have any problems playing the game, but with the notion you can’t play in December. If, in fact, everyone is concerned about football everyone is going to come watch West Virginia-Marshall play. That might even kick start all of us into having better attendance,” Huggins said.
“We’ve never really had a problem. Football and basketball do well. We share fan bases. They come together,” Huggins continued. “It comes down to they have to look at what’s best for them and we have to look at what’s best for us. It’s what’s best for the university. We make decisions all the time that are in the best interest of our universities.”
At Cincinnati, Huggins saw what happens when a rivalry game is moved out of the conference season.
“I think a great decision was made to get (Cincinnati-Xavier) out of the conferences,” he said. “Talking to Pete Gillen and Skip Prosser over the years, they agree. It’s hard when you lose an emotional game like that and have to come back and be ready to go back in conference the next game.”
It was a lesson Marshall’s coach Tom Herrion learned last year. After upsetting the Mountaineers, 75-71, they got bounced in their next two games by East Carolina and UAB, two tough, tough losses.
WVU, meanwhile, rallied off their tough loss in the rivalry game, beating South Florida and finding a way, after a few really tough defeats, to close the regular season with three straight victories.
That is not to say the loss to Marshall was forgotten about.
“We definitely have that bad taste in our mouth, and we want to come out with a lot of energy in this game,” said senior Kevin Jones.
“That’s never forgotten about,” added Bryant. “You get a chance to play against a team that beat you again, of course you want to win.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.