WVU's move to Big 12 leaves Pitt rivalry in doubt

WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer Published:

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pittsburgh and West Virginia have met at least once a year in basketball since 1915, a rivalry that's endured a couple dozen coaching changes, various conference alignments and a half-dozen venues.

Yet there's a sense the 184th meeting between the schools on Thursday night might be the final page in a book whose first chapter was written more than a century ago. West Virginia's move to the Big 12 next season and Pitt's impending switch to the ACC by 2014 leaves the future of one of the country's longest running series very much in doubt.

Though West Virginia coach Bob Huggins would be "shocked" if the schools decide to avoid each other in nonconference play down the road, Pitt's Jamie Dixon isn't sure it's possible.

"I'm not the guy that makes all the decisions," Dixon said. "There's a lot of history way before I got here, so I don't know. A lot more people have been through a lot more games than myself. It means more to some and that's what we'll see."

Any renewal, however, may have to wait until 2013 at the earliest.

Pitt's nonconference schedule next year already includes the NIT Tip-Off, and besides, the Panthers have rarely loaded up on nonleague games against opponents from BCS conferences under Dixon. Only two of Pitt's 13 non-Big East games this season were against BCS schools, with the Panthers sweeping Tennessee and Oklahoma State.

Keeping the series alive would almost certainly require rotating venues, meaning both schools would have to trade a winnable -- and revenue-producing -- home game every other year for the right to play each other.

Huggins said he "would think" West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck and Pitt counterpart Steve Pederson will explore extending the rivalry, though considering Pitt is off West Virginia's football schedule next season, there's no reason to believe the basketball series would avoid the chopping block.

Pitt senior forward Nasir Robinson, who will play against the Mountaineers for the eighth time on Thursday, says it won't seem right if the Panthers don't make the annual 75-mile trip south to Morgantown to play in one of the Big East's toughest venues.

"We know the crowd's going to be fired up, talking that trash (when we go down there)," Robinson said. "We're going to miss it."

There's no time to get nostalgic, however, for two teams whose immediate future is hazy at best. The Mountaineers (16-10, 6-7 Big East) have lost five of six, while the Panthers (15-11, 4-9) have dropped two straight, ending a run of 10 straight years in which Pitt has won at least 10 Big East games.

The Panthers likely need to win out and have a healthy run at the Big East tournament next month to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. Pitt appeared to be headed in the right direction after beating the Mountaineers 72-66 on the road on Jan. 30, but disheartening losses to South Florida and Seton Hall over the past week has blunted its momentum.

Dixon isn't quite ready to do the math, but he knows the Panthers can't afford another misstep.

"We've got to win some games, no doubt about it," Dixon said. "How many? Nobody knows. But we've got to play, we've got to play well."

Something the Panthers did with aplomb in the schools' first meeting of the season. Point guard Tray Woodall scored 24 points, Ashton Gibbs added 15 and Dixon became the first coach in Pitt history to win five games at the WVU Coliseum.

A sweep would give Pitt's postseason prospects a boost, a loss would almost certainly mean a trip to the NIT at best. It's those kind of implications that drive the Panthers, not the prospect of seeing their most familiar rival for perhaps the last time.

"I don't know if we can get any more layers at this point as far as what we need to do," Dixon said. "Being in the Big East people sometimes ask about extra motivation for a game, I've never been able to come up with extra motivation for a game in our league."

He doesn't think the Panthers need it, a sentiment echoed by Huggins.

The Mountaineers have spent the last three weeks playing in tight game after tight game. Their last five contests have been decided by six points or less. The problem is West Virginia simply isn't delivering in the clutch.

"We're very, very close to being a good basketball team," Huggins said. "And obviously there's been some things happen that we'd sure like to get back. You don't get any mulligans. We've got to finish games."

Getting the last word in against the Panthers would simply be a bonus.

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AP Sports Writer John Raby contributed to this report.