Retooled Mountaineers head into town for men’s basketball edition of Backyard Brawl


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Guard Jamarius Burton (11) dribbles the ball during the Pitt vs. Minnesota men’s basketball game at the Petersen Events Center on Nov. 30, 2021.

By Jack Markowski, Staff Writer

Pitt men’s basketball (1-0, 0-0 ACC) is looking to exorcise their Backyard Brawl demons against the rival West Virginia Mountaineers (1-0, 0-0 Big 12) on Friday night. 

On the heels of a blowout defeat last season, head coach Jeff Capel and his squad have their eyes set on snapping the program’s five-game losing streak against WVU. However, the Panthers and Mountaineers look much different than years past. 

In many ways, West Virginia is in a transition period. After reaching the NCAA Tournament in the 2020-21 season and five times since 2015, the Mountaineers went 16-17 last season and failed to make The Big Dance. During the offseason they lost two of their premier scorers, graduate student guard Sean McNeil and junior forward Jalen Bridges, to the transfer portal. 

Meanwhile, top performing guards Taz Sherman and Malik Curry went to the pros. As a result, the Mountaineers had to retool their roster and reshuffle expectations for the time being. 

Head coach Bob Huggins and his staff lured in senior forward Tre Mitchell, the former Texas Longhorn and All-Atlantic 10 recipient, as well as a host of other experienced transfers. Fifth-year forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. returned to Morgantown after a brief pit stop at Washington for one season, adding some familiarity and scoring ability to a roster that desperately needed it. Fifth-year guard Erik Stevenson and senior guard Joe Toussaint came over from South Carolina and Iowa, respectively, and added veteran prowess to the backcourt. 

Due to having so many new faces and little to go off of so early into the campaign, there are questions about how everything will come together for the Mountaineers. They struggled to shoot from behind the arc last season with a .328 shooting percentage and lost their top options in from deep with Sherman and McNeil departing. The offense probably won’t improve from last year when they averaged 68.5 points a game, and it’s unclear how they will make up for all of their lost production.

West Virginia’s defense can cause headaches for opposing offenses due to their propensity for pressing, leading to a surplus of turnovers. They averaged 4.5 blocks per game last year, and their added size will help sustain that part of their game. Regardless, it will take time for everything to click and for the team to find their footing. Pitt may catch the Mountaineers at the perfect time. 

Perhaps the most fruitful development for Pitt coming into this year’s Backyard Brawl is the improvement of the backcourt. The Panthers turned the ball over 32 times against West Virginia last year after injuries to graduate student guard Jamarius Burton and redshirt senior guard Nike Sibande left them shorthanded. 

This year, both Burton and Sibande are healthy. Graduate student Nelly Cummings also joins those two, giving the Panthers multiple primary ball handlers and playmakers at the position. 

Much like West Virginia, Pitt’s rotation largely consists of newcomers, and with that comes a potential change in philosophy and game plan. In the season opener against UT Martin, the Panthers shot 41 three-pointers, a far cry from their average of 17.1 attempts per game last season. This was a result of players such as Cummings, junior forward Blake Hinson and graduate student guard Greg Elliott joining the roster, all of whom heavily rely on their shooting ability from deep. 

Pitt is without star junior forward John Hugley for this game due to a knee injury. Sophomore center Fede Federiko stepped up and had an all-around solid performance in Hugley’s absence on Monday, which was a promising sign. Behind him are the first-year Diaz Graham twins, Jorge and Guillermo, both of whom play forward and will play more pivotal roles than initially anticipated.

With both sides in this rivalry still attempting to settle in, this season’s Backyard Brawl is crucial as they try and find their identity early in the season. 

The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and air on ACC Network Extra.