The Pitt and West Virginia men’s basketball programs reached an agreement on Thursday to extend the Backyard Brawl for two more years. The rivalry game was renewed in 2017 after a five-year hiatus and has been played every year since then. It was set to be played for the final time on Nov. 13, but the new deal will see the game played at some point during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons as well.
“The Pitt-West Virginia rivalry is one of the best in the country,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said in a statement. “Backyard Brawl says all you need to know about the intensity and energy around these games. Coach [Bob] Huggins is an outstanding coach and has built a terrific program in Morgantown. We look forward to continuing the rivalry and building on the great tradition of the Backyard Brawl.”
Pitt’s decision to elongate its rivalry on the hardwood with West Virginia comes one month after its controversial decision to back out of the City Game with crosstown rival Duquesne for the second year in a row. The move by Capel and Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke was met with skepticism, as it came just after Keith Dambrot led the Dukes to their first 20-win season in more than a decade.
However, the move is consistent with Pitt’s efforts to rekindle its rivalry with West Virginia in its two most high-profile sports. Those efforts began back in 2015, when the two schools announced plans to meet on the gridiron in a four-year home-and-home series running from 2022 through 2025. And they continued with the announcement that the basketball series would resume in 2017.
While fans on both sides of the rivalry will be excited to see the series extended, the game has been taxing for the Panthers in recent years. In fact, since resuming the Backyard Brawl in 2017, Pitt has yet to defeat West Virginia once and has given up more ground to the Mountaineers in terms of margin of victory every year. The closest matchup was a 69-60 loss at the Petersen Events Center in 2017. Since then, Pitt has lost by 10 and 15 points.
Overall, Pitt and West Virginia have met on the hardwood 187 times, and the Mountaineers hold a 99-88 advantage over the Panthers in the series. Pitt was highly successful in the early years of the rivalry, but from the mid-1950s until the early 2000s, West Virginia was the stronger team. That changed from 2002 to 2012, when Ben Howland and Jamie Dixon went 16-7 against the Mountaineers.
To resume that form, Pitt will have to take some big steps forward in the coming years, and it may well be able to as Capel has assembled a talented group of players over the past few months. The team will be led into WVU Coliseum this year by Xavier Johnson, the team’s star point guard. Johnson has faced West Virginia twice in his career, but this time, he will be joined by blue chips John Hugley and William Jeffress, emerging star wing Justin Champagnie, and a promising shooting guard in Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton.
The lineup should be Pitt’s most talented in years, but it will still have to contend with a West Virginia team that has won 20-plus games in five of the last six seasons. In addition, the Mountaineers will return some significant size and skill in Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver. All things considered, if Pitt and West Virginia can both retain their talent for a few more seasons, the decision to extend the series could pay off with some of the most competitive games since the Dixon era.