Backyard Brawl On The Hardcourt

The Backyard Brawl changed the Pitt football program dramatically after the Panthers stuffed West Virginia 13-9 Dec. 1, 2007, and the 174th installment of the basketball version tonight at 7 at the Petersen Events Center should affect it as well, albeit not as drastically.

No. 21 Pittsburgh is 17-5 overall, 5-4 in the Big East, and in a bit of a tailspin lately with just two wins in five games. West Virginia is 16-6, also 5-4 in the Conference, and had consecutive home losses to Georgetown and Cincinnati before a win at Providence. So, both are in need of a victory to break a logjam in the standings.

"I think we had more energy preparing for this game, but we still look at it as we do every other game,'' Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin said. "We like to have rivalries with everybody, but West Virginia certainly is our biggest one.

"And being that the football team got a big win this year, we've got to keep it up. So, we have to play hard and get a win in this rivalry game.''

WVU coach Bob Huggins is in his first season at the helm of his alma mater after a lengthy tenure at Cincinnati and aborted stint at Kansas State, but he's well aware of the Backyard Brawl's status. He experienced the rivalry as a player with the Mountaineers from 1974-77, when his teams won most of the games between the schools.

Pitt has dominated the series lately, winning nine of the past 12, as well as the last three by double-figure scores. The Panthers swept the home-and-home series last season, but for the most part the games in recent years have been competitive. West Virginia's three victories since 2005 have been by five points or fewer, and Pitt won by four in 2006.

"We've had some good games with them over the years, but we've gotten the better of them in the past few,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "But we don't worry about that, because every season is different.''

Like previous West Virginia teams, the Mountaineers live and die by the 3-point shot. Among Big East Conference teams, only Louisville has taken more 3-pointers this season. WVU averages 21.6 treys per game and is fourth in the Big East in 3-point shooting at 36.7 percent, although that number is lower in conference games at 32.4 percent.

"They're definitely a more physical team not that Bob Huggins is coaching down there,'' Benjamin said. "I really don't know how much the offense has changed. They do a lot of back-cutting when you overplay, and they have a high basketball IQ. They're still great shooters, and they like to shoot the three.

"So, I don't know if Huggins changed them that much, but they are more physical. I don't know what type of players he'll bring in for the future, but he's definitely adjusting to his guys and they're adjusting to him. So, they're playing very well right now and should give us a good game.''

Forward Joe Alexander leads WVU in scoring with 14.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, while guard Alex Roof is next at 14.5 points and 3.5 boards. Forward Da'Sean Butler scores 12.7 points per game and 5.7 rebounds, while guard Darris Nichols averages 12 points per game and 3.9 rebounds.

"We all became somewhat friends in that summer league over the summer, playing with each other, and it was great competition,'' Benjamin said. "I learned a couple things about other players that I didn't know, and maybe I know now what some players will do when their system breaks down.''

Dixon considers Huggins to be a friend as well, but this is just their second coaching matchup. The first time was nearly 10 years ago in Boise, Idaho. Dixon was in his fourth season as an assistant coach under Ben Howland at Northern Arizona, a No. 15 seed, and his Lumberjacks nearly upset Huggins' powerful second-seeded Cincinnati squad in an NCAA Tournament game in March, 1998.

"He's a great coach, just like all the coaches they've had (at WVU),'' Dixon said. "He's won a lot a games, and he's been at a lot of different places. He's a good friend and someone that I've known for a long time. But that's similar to all the coaches that we face in our league.''

Pitt's next game is against Providence Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Petersen Events Center.

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