No. 18 West Virginia, Pitt resume rivalry

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — None of the players for No. 18 West Virginia has ever faced Pittsburgh. In fact, none had yet been recruited by the Mountaineers at the time of the last Backyard Brawl, which occurred five years, nine months and 23 days ago.

And yet, all the West Virginia players comprehend the commotion around Saturday’s renewal of the rivalry. The vulgar T-shirts in the student section still advise Pitt what to eat, and chants to the same effect still arise regardless who the Mountaineers are playing.

Conference realignment stopped the games but it hasn’t diminished the lingering distaste between campuses that sit 76 miles apart. So, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins needn’t give a history lesson.

“I don’t think I have to because they’re going to hear it all week,” he said. “When the word ‘Pitt’ comes out of anywhere, you know what happens. They’re not immune to hearing that.”

The Brawl reconvenes with its adversaries in disparate conditions. West Virginia (8-1) looks every bit like a contender for the Big 12 title, while inexperienced Pitt (5-4) is living down to expectations of a team picked to finish last in the ACC.

The Panthers opened the season with losses to Navy and Montana and were crushed by Penn State 85-54. Average attendance for five games at the Petersen Events Center is only 2,767, about one-fifth of capacity.

A four-game winning streak hasn’t reinvigorated the fan base, considering the victories came at the expense of Lehigh, High Point, Duquesne and Mount St. Mary’s — teams with a combined 10-19 record in Division I games.

Second-year coach Kevin Stallings faces pressure to rebuild Pitt to the status it enjoyed under predecessors Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon. That’s a massive task with only two scholarship players returning, and the dysfunction showed Tuesday night when the Panthers blew a 13-point lead before surviving Mount St. Mary’s 82-78 in overtime.

“I thought we did do well defensively in stretches, but I thought the second half was abysmal,” Stallings said. “We just weren’t locked in defensively in the second half, and I take responsibility for that.”

While Stallings grapples with “a young team that’s trying to figure it out,” Huggins can lean on two veteran guards to stabilize the Mountaineers.

All-American candidate Jevon Carter (19.4 points, 5.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 4.7 steals) is filling box scores and frustrating opponents with relentless play on both ends of the court, and fellow senior Daxter Miles (14.6 points, 3.1 assists) seems to be realizing his potential.

They combined with sophomore Lamont West to score 57 points in Tuesday’s 68-61 win over No. 15 Virginia. That made eight consecutive wins since a poor season-opening effort against Texas A&M, which Huggins called West Virginia’s only mulligan entering the Big 12 round-robin.

“I have told the players all along after the Texas A&M game that we can’t afford to lose another one — not going into the league we’re going into. You think about the 18 games we’ve got to play in that league and Kentucky” in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Pitt’s roster features seven freshmen, two of whom start — guard Marcus Carr (12. 0 points, 3.8 assists) and small forward Shamiel Stevenson (10.7 points, 5.2 rebounds)

Forward Ryan Luther, a 6-foot-9 senior, has evolved into a key component for the Panthers after making only two starts over his first three seasons. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 9.9 rebounds while combining with junior college transfer Jared Wilson-Frame (12.9 points) to stretch the floor from 3-point range.