Two weeks ago, the matchup between West Virginia and Pittsburgh was shaping up to be one of the most highly anticipated meetings in this storied rivalry. A sudden string of losses by the Panthers dashed that prospect, but it likely won’t diminish the atmosphere in Morgantown.
In the first installment of the Backyard Brawl this season, the sixth-ranked Mountaineers hope the debut of freshman Deniz Kilicli will help them win their fifth game in a row and add to the troubles of No. 22 Pittsburgh, which tries to avoid losing for the fourth time in five games.
This will be the fourth time in the 179-game history of this series that both teams are ranked, and the first since then-No. 16 West Virginia upset the then-No. 8 Panthers with a 67-62 home win on Feb. 27, 2006.
The Mountaineers (17-3, 6-2 Big East) have lost six of the last eight meetings with Pittsburgh (16-5, 6-3), but things appear to be turning in West Virginia’s favor.
The Mountaineers defeated the then-No. 2 Panthers 74-60 in the quarterfinals of last season’s Big East tournament after being swept in the regular season. West Virginia was unranked in all of those meetings, while Pitt was ranked no worse than fourth.
This is just the fourth time in 25 meetings since the 1996-97 season that West Virginia has entered with a better ranking. While both programs are in the Top 25, a few weeks ago it appeared both might be in the top 10 for this game - something that has never happened in this series.
Pittsburgh has dropped three of four games after starting 5-0 in the Big East and working its way to No. 9. Two of the losses in that span came against teams the Panthers usually beat - Seton Hall and South Florida.
In Sunday’s 70-61 loss to the Bulls, Gilbert Brown scored a career-high 25 for Pittsburgh, which dropped five spots in the rankings.
The Panthers played without defensive stopper Jermaine Dixon, who injured his right foot in last Thursday’s 63-53 win over St. John’s. Without Dixon, who is listed as day-to-day, Pitt had difficulty containing South Florida guard Dominique Jones, who scored 37 points.
The Panthers likely won’t receive much sympathy from the West Virginia student section, which has been warned by the university to tone down its inappropriate language. The student section has agreed to do so after this game.
The Mountaineers are coming off Saturday’s 77-74 win over Louisville, their fourth straight victory. Da’Sean Butler scored a season-high 27 points, including the go-ahead basket with 16 seconds remaining.
Butler is averaging 19.5 points during the winning streak, and the Mountaineers are excited about getting him some help in the frontcourt.
The 6-foot-9 Kilicli was supposed to be in the mix for West Virginia right away but learned two weeks before the start of the regular season he was suspended for the first 20 games for an NCAA rules violation. He played on a Turkish team that included a professional player during the 2007-08 season, which isn’t allowed under NCAA rules.
Kilicli was able to participate in two exhibition games, averaging 13 points, five rebounds and three assists against overmatched opponents.
“We’re looking forward to having him,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who has several 6-foot-7 starters but has lacked wide bodies in his lineup. “He gives us the size that we haven’t had, and certainly the girth that we haven’t had, and I think an ability to score the ball close.”
Kilicli also seems to be eligible at the right time, as the Mountaineers have two games remaining against both Pitt and No. 2 Villanova, and one against No. 7 Georgetown.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Kilicli said. “I think I’m going to be nervous for sure. There’s going to be a crazy crowd in here.”