ESPN's Pat Ford wrote an article back in July about the "Red Hot Rivalries" for the upcoming season (Ed wrote about that article a while back). Of course, Villanova and Pitt were listed among the hottest rivals, but is that the game that the fans are most looking forward to?
The Wildcats could be said to have a de facto rivalry with pretty much any Big East team. We play them consistently, and usually celebrate a win over conference opponents. Is that the definition of a rivalry, however?
A rivalry is a game that the fans and team want to win for the sake of beating that particular opponent. The game has meaning in itself, even if nothing else but the final score is on the line. The Army/Navy game in Football is a good example of this: recruiting, national titles, bowl games... none of this has been on the line for these two teams in a very long time, but the students show up, the TV cameras are on, and the stadium is filled every year.
So while Villanova and Pitt have had some played well lately, and had some major battles on the court, is that really the game that gets Villanova fans all hot and bothered year in and year out?
Villanova has longstanding rivalries with the Philadelphia Big5 schools, the strongest of which being St. Joseph's. The schools are close enough that there is always a contingent of away fans present at any game, and campus pranks are not uncommon.
In the Big East there is a lengthy history of acrimony between Villanova and Georgetown. Schools with similar missions and similar basketball ambitions, Villanova and Georgetown have always had hard fought battles during the season as well as one of Villanova's most memorable post-season moments.
There is Syracuse, a school in the middle of nowhere with a sizable fan base in eastern Pennsylvania (thanks to Gerry McNamara). Talented and well-coached teams will always give Villanova a tough game, and their fans travel well to the Wachovia Center, though Villanova fans rarely do as well making their presence known in the Carrier Dome.
A Villanova UConn matchup is often a hot ticket in Philadelphia, and during the 2005-2006 season, with both teams constantly in the top-5 it seemed like Connecticut was the only concern on campus. Both teams have had their ups and downs, but have largely remained among the better programs in the conference. It hasn't been a pleasant experience for Wildcat fans who have travelled to Storrs or Hartford (and frankly the student section in Philadelphia isn't any kinder to the Huskies).
Then there is Pitt. One of the best programs in the Big East of late. Based in Pennsylvania, the Panthers are coached by a young up and coming coach, just like the Wildcats. They have competed for prospects and had a number of memorable games. Fans don't travel as well as they do in the other rivalries, however, and the intrigue between the two teams is relatively recent. Nonetheless, Pitt should prove to be one of the tougher games for Villanova going forward.
For fans though, would beating Pitt during a losing season be enough to warrant celebration? How about Georgetown? 'Cuse? UConn? If both teams were in the midst of a mediocre season, would you get excited for those match-ups?
In my case, I don't think I would get very excited for a mediocre Villanova vs. a mediocre Pitt, or 'Cuse, or UConn. Georgetown and St. Joes, however, have a special atmosphere about them that I could get excited about no matter how insignificant the game was in the course of a season.