Pitt and Robert Morris met on the hardwood for the first time in eight years on Tuesday night, and the result was a matchup that got off to a competitive start and stood in contrast to most of Pitt’s early-season blowouts. It was a game Pitt head coach Jeff Capel sounded reluctant to take part in, and it was presented to the public as a one-off event intended to draw attention to the opening of Robert Morris’ new state-of-the-art UPMC Events Center. But extending the series could be beneficial for Pitt in a number of different ways.
For starters, the game drew a resounding response from the public, as it sold out and saw ticket prices on the secondary market soar. It was attended by Robert Morris and Pitt fans alike and felt more meaningful than the sparsely attended matchups with directional schools that normally fill Pitt’s early non-conference slate. That much was made apparent by the excitement in the air in Moon Township on Tuesday night, and all that begs an obvious question. With Pitt populating its non-conference schedule with NEC-level teams, why not play Robert Morris every year and play Duquesne in the City Game?
It isn’t hard to tell why such a proposition makes sense. In simplest terms, this is a matchup Robert Morris seems to want on a regular basis. It’s also a matchup Pitt has never lost in 31 games dating back to 1978, and fans in the Pittsburgh area want to see the game despite the fact that Pitt has been dominant. There is almost no downside for Pitt at all — unless Robert Morris pulls off an upset.
A loss to an NEC team would hurt an ACC team striving for an NCAA tournament berth in a tough conference, and because of that, a series with Robert Morris could be a risky proposition for Pitt. But with that said, Pitt just lost to Nicholls State and had a similarly catastrophic stumble against Niagara last year. The team also just beat Robert Morris in reliable fashion. So historically speaking, the devil Pitt knows has been better than the devil it doesn’t.
And in addition to holding a 31-0 record against Robert Morris, the thinnest margin of victory Pitt has allowed in the game's history is eight points. That relatively competitive 71-63 game was played on Dec. 30, 1980, and it marked the only time the Panthers let the Colonials finish within 10 points of their final tally. Given that, Pitt should have nothing to fear in committing to play this game on a regular basis. Robert Morris is an NEC school with NEC resources, and if Pitt is unable to compete against such a team, then there wouldn't be much utility in bringing a perfect non-conference record into ACC play anyway.
Beyond that, Pittsburgh has not historically been known as a basketball town, and that is, in part, because games that are meaningful to large swaths of the city are few and far between. One such game is the City Game, and there’s no doubt that it needs to be restored and played regularly moving forward. But Tuesday served as a reminder that there are plenty of people who are interested in seeing Pitt play Robert Morris as well. So why not steer into that enthusiasm?
As the most successful basketball program in western Pennsylvania, Pitt is in a position of power with regard to its series with Robert Morris and Duquesne, and it has an opportunity to foster passion for the sport in the area. At the least, it could commit to consistently playing the games, thereby confirming that there would be two well-attended matchups in its early slate. That could ease the transition into ACC games for young players, as non-conference games have traditionally done little to prepare them for raucous crowds. With some coordination, the three schools could even establish a three-way rivalry similar in nature to Philadelphia’s Big 5, creating an enjoyable tradition for fans and players to take part in every year.
Of course, if a series with Robert Morris is something Pitt wants, Pitt will have to take action and make it happen. Given Capel's recent comments on the game, a long-term series extension seems unlikely. But given the enthusiasm the game was met with this year, it is certainly something worth considering.