Everyone has focused on West Virginia University’s rivalry with Pittsburgh as a potential victim of the move to the Big 12 by the Mountaineers, but there is another rivalry that almost certainly will be coming to an end, and while the feelings are not as bitter, the games often are as hard-fought and tense.
On Saturday, Rick Pitino brings his Louisville Cardinals to the Coliseum at noon to face Bob Huggins’ WVU team, and when he speaks about it, you realize that this is a game he is going to miss.
“Usually I don’t look beyond this game,” he said when asked about a week ago on the Big East coaches conference call. “This will probably be last time we come to Morgantown. It’s the third straight year we come to West Virginia.”
Certainly, that shows an awareness of the trip that lingers with Pitino.
“I always request to go there,” he continued, perhaps a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “(Big East commissioner) John Marinatto is a close friend of mine. I want to visit one more time.”
Right! Everyone wants to come to Morgantown and play Huggins on him home court in front of the Mountaineer Maniacs and the near full house that figures to be on hand for a crucial game in the Mountaineers’ quest for an NCAA bid.
This is especially true considering the way Pitino has been treated the last two years, dropping a pair of heartbreakers in a series that provides both teams with nothing but heartbreakers.
The Mountaineers won last year, 72-70, and in 2010 they won, 77-74.
The win in Morgantown last year came when WVU wiped out a five-point deficit in the final 18 seconds as Casey Mitchell, who had not hit a 3-point shot during the game, hit two with 18 and 8 seconds left, and then Truck Bryant scored two free throws when he was fouled by Peyton Silva with one second left.
The situation was little different in last year’s game in Louisville, won by the Cardinals, 55-54, on Silva’s layup with 4.5 seconds remaining.
Not that playing close games is anything new to a West Virginia team that features close games.
“We’ve had five overtime games, one a double-overtime,” Huggins noted on this week’s Big East call. “We have been in a lot of close games. That’s the nature of our team. We have a hard time getting away from anyone.”
In addition to five overtimes, of which they have won four, WVU has three narrows losses that could have changed their season, falling, 63-61, at No. 3/4 Syracuse, 72-66 to Pitt and 55-51 on Wednesday to Notre Dame.
The root of the rivalry goes all the way back to the 2005 NCAA Elite Eight when coach John Beilein’s Mountaineer team built a 20-point first-half lead only to have Louisville come back in the second half, forcing overtime, and WVU was worn out in the overtime period as Louisville won going away.
The situation this year makes this another crucial game down the stretch for a WVU team that needs quality victories, while Louisville will be looking for its 20th victory of the season.
In many ways WVU is catching Louisville at the wrong time, just as it did the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame re-invented itself in mid-year and made WVU its fifth consecutive victim.
Louisville has also won its last five and stands at 7-4 in the Big East to WVU’s 6-6 record.
“Our team is playing pretty good basketball right now,” center Gorgui Dieng said to the Louisville Courier-Journal this week. “We play as a team. We pass the ball well; we get out on fast break.”
Pitino labeled their passing “phenomenal” after they tied a season high with 22 assists in Monday’s 80-59 romp over Connecticut.
Why they didn’t play well in the middle of the season is a matter of conjecture, but the Cardinals seem to think they relaxed when they landed a Top 10 ranking.
“We felt like we’re just going to show up; we’re not going to have to work hard; we’re going to blow everybody out and it’s over,” leading scorer Kyle Kuric said. “We kind of fell back and had to accept and understand that we can’t just win by showing up. Everybody started working even harder playing together.”
West Virginia comes into the game with four losses in the last five games and with shooting guard Truck Bryant trying to shake any aftereffects of a scoreless game against Notre Dame.