MORGANTOWN — In the end, collegiate sports is all about rivalries and all of a sudden, over a few days, West Virginia has wrapped itself in rivalry news on the basketball front.
The latest came at mid-morning on Thursday when it was announced that WVU and Pitt had reached an agreement to extend their Backyard Brawl rivalry, which would have played its final installment on Nov. 13 this season in Morgantown.
That four-game contract was signed in 2016.
Now games have been scheduled for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.
The 2021 meeting is scheduled to play in the Coliseum, meaning the game will be played consecutive seasons in Morgantown before returning to Pittsburgh in 2022.
Working this deal out was important to Mountaineer Athletic Director Shane Lyons.
“I’ve said numerous times that one of my first goals as athletic director was to renew the football and basketball series with Pitt because it’s good for both schools,” Lyons said. “The fans are the real winners because this series is great for college basketball.”
Indeed it is.
College sports — football and basketball — thrive on rivalries, be it Ohio State vs. Michigan, Alabama vs. Auburn, North Carolina vs. Duke, Cincinnati vs. Xavier, Oklahoma vs. Texas, Kentucky vs. Louisville, Army vs. Navy, Michigan vs. Michigan State.
West Virginia and Pitt has always been in that class and the announcement of the renewal is welcome news in an era where realignment of conferences has taken away some of our greatest rivalries, including at WVU.
Gone, for example, is yearly football meetings with Virginia Tech and Pitt for the Mountaineers, although Lyons has worked hard to create non-conference opportunities.
WVU and Pitt will meet in football in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025, the odd year games in Morgantown, and the Mountaineers play Virginia Tech at home in football in 2021 and in Blacksburg in 2022.
Also gone are football and basketball series against Marshall, which created a number of exciting, spirited games that captured the attention of the whole state, but which in a way lacked the same intensity of WVU vs. Pitt because the Mountaineers were always in an everything to lose and little to win situation playing a non-Power 5 opponent.
The news of the extension of the Pitt basketball series comes just a couple of days after it was announced that, in a way, the WVU-Marshall basketball series will be played again, this time as part of alumni teams in the $1 million dollar, winner-take-all 24-team TBT [The Basketball Tournament] first round.
The teams, Best Virginia and Herd That, will play in the first round of the single elimination tournament that will be held July 4 through July 14,
The Best Virginia team will feature Final Four players Da’Sean Butler and Kevin Jones along with Juwan Staten, Nathan Adrian, Jaysean Paige, Jonathan Holton, Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers, Daxter Miles Jr. and Logan Routt and will be coached by WVU NCAA hero Jarrod West.
That sets up a sidebar in that he will be matched against his son, which creates an interesting situation for West. But he denies that his loyalties will be tested going against his son.
“Heck no,” he said. “I know Jon and CJ (Burks) and a lot of those guys who played with my son over the past two years, but right now that’s just the first game of five we are going out to win. I don’t care if it’s my mom and dad playing, we are going out to punish somebody.”
That, of course, is what makes rivalry games special throughout the land and what allows ESPN to use them nationally whenever they occur, often helping set up scheduling so the network can create a “Rivalry Week” that draws big time interest.
And the river that is the WVU-Pitt basketball rivalry runs deep with intrigue and hard feelings, built not only out of the intensity that is there in both buildings when they meet on the basketball court, but also from the history of a football rivalry that has produced both gore and glory.
WVU has won the last four renewals of the Backyard Brawl in basketball, but it always is one of those rivalries that brings out the best in both teams and often the worst in the fans of both teams.
The intensity cranked up in recent years. For example, in 2008-09 Pitt swept the regular season by 11 and 12 points and was ranked second in the nation going into the Big East Tournament, only to have the Mountaineers upset them in the quarterfinals, 74-60, with Devin Ebanks scoring 20 points, Alex Ruoff 18 and Da’Sean Butler 17.
That helped propel WVU into a Final Four team the next season, playing a pair of games that sizzled with tension against Pitt.
The first game, on Feb. 13 in Morgantown, had No. 6 WVU beating No. 22 Pitt, 70-51, but the crowd was so rowdy that Bob Huggins actually grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. School president Jim Clements would also issue an apology to Pitt after the game.
The rematch at Pitt nine days later was less contentious among the fans but far more contentious on the court, No. 4 WVU lost to the No. 25 Panthers, 98-95, in the only triple overtime game in the series history.
The Mountaineers lost despite a spectacular show put on by Da’Sean Butler, who scored 32 points with 11 rebounds with three assists and no turnovers and despite leading by seven points with 45 seconds left in regulation.
“The Pitt game has been our biggest rival,” Huggins said. “We are thrilled to add another two games to the series. During the last three months or so, I’ve seen numerous WVU-Pitt games being replayed on ESPN. In addition to both fan bases, there is always a national interest in the Backyard Brawl.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel