Panthers must live up to rivalry

Pittsburgh has the responsibility to maintain its rivalry with Connecticut.

If the Panthers continue their free fall, not just this season, but beyond, then the new rivalry between the two schools will be over almost before it began.

That's it. Goodbye.

Connecticut's rivalry date book is pretty full. The Huskies might have room for one more, but it's up to Pitt to keep that date.

UConn's primary rival is Syracuse. Connecticut could start getting one going with UMass, according to coach Jim Calhoun, after the way the Minutemen beat the Huskies in Amherst last month. And don't be surprised if Louisville doesn't become the new rivalry for the Huskies when the Cardinals join the Big East next season.

Calhoun said when he used to jog past Rick Pitino when the two were coaching in Boston they wouldn't say a word.

"We wouldn't acknowledge each other, that's how heated the rivalry was back then," Calhoun said.

That rivalry was Northeastern and Boston University when Calhoun and Pitino were the dominant personalities at the two Boston schools in the early '80s.

Today, Calhoun says the two are professionally friends. But the rivalry was intense.

When the Huskies got started in the Big East, the rivals for them were Seton Hall and Boston College. Calhoun said they were all trying to climb out of the bottom. None were ready to challenge Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova at the time.

Connecticut became the power and eventually surpassed everyone, except Syracuse, which genuinely is regarded as an equal. The two schools have won the last two national championships. But the past three seasons, Connecticut has had to get past Pittsburgh. The two teams have met in the last three Big East tournament title games.

Connecticut won in 2002 and 2004. Pittsburgh won in 2003. The overall series the past three seasons is split at 3-3.

A year ago, Pittsburgh was 18-0 when Connecticut beat the Panthers in Hartford. They play Saturday at Gampel Pavilion on Connecticut's campus, the first time the two teams have met there since 1995.

Calhoun says the rivalry dates back to Dec. 12, 1998, when Ralph Willard was coaching the Panthers and the Huskies won at Pittsburgh. He said it began when Khalid El-Amin stood up on a scorer's table after the Huskies came back to win and stuff was thrown at him and the Huskies. El-Amin was the recipient of verbal bashing from the fans, too.

Connecticut went on to win the national title that season.

Competitively in 2001-02, the two teams were the regular-season champs in their respective divisions. They didn't meet in the regular season and then met in the Big East tournament final, a double-overtime win for Huskies.

"We've had incredibly competitive games," Calhoun said of the series that has taken on a new level with Ben Howland and then Jamie Dixon as head coaches.

"They've had a lot of New York City kids and more than any other game, this series has typified the old Big East with everyone knowing each other because our guys know their guys so well," Calhoun said.

"It's become much more of a neighborhood game," he added. "Now you add in that the game has had even more meaning. Even the two school's web sites (message boards) go at it all the time."

Calhoun said he would draw a parallel to the Duke-Maryland rivalry in the ACC, a newer rivalry that has taken on more meaning in the past five or six years. But, he said, Duke's main rival is still North Carolina just like Syracuse is still the No. 1 target for Connecticut.

Dixon agrees that the styles of play, which he says are similar, make this rivalry even more intense.

Pittsburgh's primary rival is West Virginia. But that one really is much more of a football thing. The Panthers' fans know that to be true. Beating Connecticut means much more in this sport.

It certainly helps that every game last season was nationally televised. This year's game marks the debut of College GameDay, a basketball version of the football show. If Pittsburgh-Connecticut hadn't been a recent rivalry, it wouldn't have made sense to start the show in Storrs with this matchup.

So how does Pittsburgh sustain it?

"Stay competitive," Dixon said.

And make sure the game has meaning.

This one certainly does. Pittsburgh begins the Big East at 2-2 for the first time since 2001-02 and is coming off a loss at St. John's. Connecticut is 3-1, already losing to Boston College without a return game to the Heights. Both teams still get two cracks at Syracuse, but Pittsburgh can't afford to be three games behind the Orange.

"The rivalry really started going last year because there wasn't enough history to consider it one until last year," Dixon said.

It's up to Pittsburgh whether or not it continues to be one for Connecticut beyond this season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.