By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia and Pitt, two teams heading in opposite directions off the court but in the same direction on it, meet in Pittsburgh at 9 p.m. today in what could be the final game of the basketball version of the Backyard Brawl.
ESPN will carry the game to the nation.
The game is critical to both teams, WVU probably more than Pitt. The Mountaineers, at one point seemingly a cinch for NCAA Tournament play, have dropped five of their last six, the last four by six points or fewer.
Coach Bob Huggins sees that as a sign that his team is better than maybe his record of 16-10, 6-7 indicates.
“We’re very, very close to being a good basketball team,” Huggins said during a Tuesday conference call with the media. “Obviously, we’d like to get some back, but you don’t get any mulligans in this game.”
Pitt, the defending regular-season Big East champion, saw its season go into the dumper when point guard Tray Woodall went down with an abdominal injury for 11 games. Pitt went into a long tailspin without him, recovered briefly, but now has lost its last two and seems destined for the NIT save for a late-season run through the Big East Tournament.
So the two teams are heading down on the basketball court while off it WVU leaves next season for the Big 12 and Pitt is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, probably the following year.
That puts the Backyard Brawl’s basketball future in doubt, although Huggins believes it will survive.
The series probably will go on.
“I’d be kind of shocked if it didn’t,” Huggins said. “We’ve been playing since 1904. Besides, we’re all looking for good non-conference games.”
But there are no guarantees, even if the two schools separated by just 80 miles or so have played every season since the post-World War I years of 1917-18, at least twice a season in Big East play.
All-time WVU leads, 95-88, while in recent years it has been Pitt winning 19 of 29 games as members of the Big East.
As WVU heads to the Big 12 next season and Pitt leaves the Big East for the ACC, probably during the following year, an end comes to their fourth conference association — the Eastern Intercollegiate Conference (1932-39), Eastern Collegiate Basketball League (1976-77) and Eastern Eight (1977-82) before the Big East.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon isn’t sure what the future holds as far these two rivals go.
“We’ll see what happens,” Dixon told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday. “Things are changing. A lot of things are going on. When things settle, we’ll go from there. No decision will be made (right away).
“I think it’s been a great experience for us. I’m not the one who makes all the decisions. There’s a history way before I got here. There are a lot more people who have been through a lot more games than myself. It means more to some. We’ll see how everything plays out. We have to see how everything falls.”
Asked if he takes the history into account, Dixon hedged.
“Sometimes there are things you can control and sometimes there are things you can’t,” he said. “I don’t know where this one will fall. I haven’t sat down and looked at what we need to do. No decision will be made (right now) for good reasons. We won’t make any decisions at this point. Let’s get all of the information, see where we stand. The biggest issue for us is a football game. That’s what we have to be focused on as a university.”
Huggins admitted he wasn’t one to worry about tradition or emotion, even if fans do pay attention to such things.
“I don’t think about those things. I honestly don’t,” he said.
What he thinks about, instead, is the problem at hand, that being coming into this game with a desperate Pitt team.
WVU has dropped four straight to the Panthers, the last by six points at home on Jan. 30.
Woodall made the difference in that game as he scored 24 with three assists.
“He played about as well as any point guard has played against us,” Huggins said. “He’s a great distributor. If you get open, he knows how to get the ball. And when you know your point guard will do that you have a tendency to work harder to get the ball.”
Pitt will bring its best against the Mountaineers at home and on national television.
“We’ll be ready to go for West Virginia,” Dixon said. “That’s what we have to do. We did not play up to par versus South Florida. I thought we came out and played hard and played well for periods of times (against Seton Hall).
“I wish we could say we’re playing at our highest level and we know exactly who we are right now, but we’re still fitting in Travon (Woodall) and trying to get him going. We’re trying to get our rotation going.
“But that’s the position we’re in and the cards we were dealt. We have to deal with that and get better with that. We have to look at our rotation and do a better job. We did some good things to be in the position we were (in Pitt’s last game). We were up six. We just have to make the plays.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.