morgantown — Oscar Tshiebwe grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and wasn’t worried about The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pitt.
Jermaine Haley grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and he didn’t know Jamie Dixon from President Nixon.
Emmitt Matthews Jr. grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and when he watched SportsCenter it was to get the Washington-Washington State score, not worrying about when West Virginia beat Pitt or Pitt, West Virginia.
Over the past two years, as the two teams renewed what always has been one of college sports most heated and fun rivalries, they got a taste of what it was like, but really they were games that lacked the fury of the old days.
They will try to ignite that spark again at 7 p.m. on Friday night at the Petersen Event Center in Pittsburgh when WVU and Pitt meet for the 187th time.
Expect a loud crowd, a big crowd, a crowd that will be hostile toward the Mountaineers as West Virginia looks for its fourth straight victory in the series and it’s second straight in what is still a season in its infancy.
The Panthers are 2-1 after a 70-75 loss to Nicholls after winning its opener against Florida State, 63-61.
So where do you go to find out what this rivalry was like when the schools were playing every year, usually two times, sometimes three times.
You go to Bob Huggins, the Mountaineer coach who has faced Pitt 8 times as a player 14 times as coach, landing on the winning side 12 of those 22 games.
“The whole thing is different now,” Huggins said, the rivalry being interrupted when Pitt joined the ACC and WVU headed to the Big 12. “When we were players here you really did know those guys. It was very much a rivalry.
“You ended up playing sometimes in the summer leagues against each other, too, and when we got out we wound up playing in those money tournaments against them. There was a much closer relationship than there is now.”
Somehow, in recent years, the 80 miles between the two schools has come to seem more like 800 as recruiting has gone national.
It’s not good for sports, the decline in rivalries, but it’s not something the coaches can do much about.
“Playing them every year is above me. That’s Shane’s deal,” Huggins said, referring to his athletic director Shane Lyon. “It’s not just a basketball game. You’re talking about an athletic department. What are you going to do with football? What are you going to do with women’s basketball, with soccer, with the whole gamut of sports?”
The intensity is not what it was.
Huggins notes that when he played, they were at the old Fitzgerald Field House.
“It seemed like their fans were playing, too,” Huggins said.
Could the crowd there on Friday rattle Huggins’ young team?
“We got some guys like Chase Harler and Logan Routt who have played in Allen Field House in Kansas,” Huggins said, referring to perhaps the best home court advantage in college basketball. “They’ve played in the conference tournament and played before big crowds, bigger crowds than what they hold at Pitt. We’ll count on those guys.”
They could wrench up the intensity by playing every year but don’t count on it.
“It’s just that it’s gotten harder and harder,” Huggins said. “We play more league games now. We don’t really play 18, we play with the SEC Challenge and the Big East Challenge. So, you are trying to fit those games in, unless you want to put some games on top of each other — and that’s fine with us.
“I just don’t know if it’s good for our fan base. When we sit down and make a schedule we try to look how hard is it going to be for our fans to get to the game, be it from a time basis or distance.
“We can’t control everything but we try. I don’t like coming in here when there’s not anybody in the Coliseum. I like it when there’s a big crowd and people are enjoying themselves. I think it helps our play.”
Kedrian Johnson, a 6-3, 180-pound guard from Dallas, Texas, has signed a national letter of intent and become Huggins second signing for the 2020-21 academic year.
Johnson comes out of Temple College, where he led the nation in steals last year with 3.7 per game and was fifth in the country in scoring at 25.6 points per game. Temple led the nation in scoring with 107.1 points per game.
“Kedrian comes from a great, up-tempo program that plays the full court style of Press Virginia,” Huggins said. “Temple College has led all junior college in scoring for the past six or seven years. He’s an outstanding long-range shooter who is extremely athletic when attacking the basket. Kedrian is a high percentage shooter from deep and from the free throw line.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel