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WVU football: Summer basketball benefited Pitt recruit

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When Pitt receiver Mike Shanahan was growing up and starring equally in basketball and football, he spent his summers playing AAU basketball in a pretty interesting situation.

Shanahan was AAU teammates with Pitt receiver Jon Baldwin, North Carolina H-back Christian Wilson and Akron's Ryan Walsh.

For a time, they made up the younger team in a program whose top team was made up of some pretty good sports role models: DeJuan Blair, who played at Pitt and is now with the San Antonio Spurs; Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor; St. John's guard D.J. Kennedy; Seton Hall forward Herb Pope and Marshall guard DeAndre Kane.

"It exposed us to a bunch of colleges who were always coming to our games and it basically showed you what you had to do to be successful," said the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Shanahan, whose Panthers (6-4, 4-1 Big East) play host to WVU (7-3, 3-2) at noon Friday at Heinz Field.

"It kind of showed you what you had to do to be successful."

The game will be televised on ABC.

"Those guys, as you see now - top players on their teams, NBA guys - they really just brought out the competitiveness in you. It really just taught you how to be competitive every day. I loved playing against those guys, and it only made me better and tougher."

Shanahan averaged 15 points, nine rebounds and six assists per game as a senior and 17.5 points, nine rebounds and eight assists as a junior at Norwin High in North Huntingdon, Pa., where he was a teammate of WVU tight end Tyler Urban. Shanahan earned a number of basketball scholarship offers and ultimately narrowed it down to Duquesne and Akron.

Football was his pick, though, and he said he was offered by former WVU Coach Rich Rodriguez and also considered Stanford.

"You get to play guys from all over the country and compare yourself against them and what they're doing," Shanahan said. "You can really use it as a measuring stick. It's just a constant challenge to get better every single day. You can go out and shoot a basketball 100 times and have the same form and feel like, 'OK, maybe I'm doing this just right.' I feel in football there's always something I can do better."

Shanahan has 35 catches for 481 yards and a touchdown, and is the sure-handed possession receiver to compliment Baldwin's deep threat. Baldwin has 42 receptions for 677 yards and five touchdowns.

WVU Coach Bill Stewart, who called Shanahan "one of my favorites in the league," is concerned about Shanahan's productivity in the middle of the field.

"The vertical seams, the shallow and deep digs give us fits," Stewart said. "Mike Shanahan, No. 87, I hope he's not on the receiving end of many of them."

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WVU KICKER Tyler Bitancurt has never kicked at Heinz Field, but the sophomore is prepared for "one of the worst" kicking conditions he's encountered.

"I know what to expect," he said. "The field is not going to be on my side."

The turf at Heinz Field has prompted complaints by the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders, the two most recent teams to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh released kicker Jeff Reed last week after a series of missed kicks and he attributed poor footing to the loose field. Other opponents complained about divots and patches of mud and sand.

"When you play on a loose field, or wet turf or whatever, what you have to do is what you do with a wet floor or wet tiles at home: Keep your feet under you," Stewart said. "It's all about your plant foot. You can't overstride."

The weather could complicate matters if rain or snow arrives, as the forecast suggests, and further softens the turf. WVU and Pitt, combined for seven field goals in last year's Backyard Brawl.

"The thing that strikes me about the complaints is they're not playing football," said Bitancurt, who kicked the game-winning field goal in last season's 19-16 win at home against Pitt.

"Both teams are playing on the same field. I'm going to be playing on the same field as the other kicker. The other team is going to be making the same passes and running plays as the other team is. It's all going on the same field. It's not like they're changing fields when we change possession."

Bitancurt and his coaches will evaluate the field and the weather conditions before the game and discuss whatever changes should be made to existing strategy. Bitancurt said he'd also spend his time in practice this week tinkering with his mechanics.

"You can probably change your approach toward the ball and take shorter steps just to prepare yourself," he said. "If you take shorter steps you have less of a chance of slipping if it's muddy. I'll experiment with a couple different things this week, which is what I've done in the past."

*  *  *

WVU AND Pitt will wear their Nike Pro Combat uniforms for the game. They were two of 10 teams outfitted by Nike to wear special uniforms one time this season. The schools are permitted to wear the uniforms as often as they want in subsequent seasons.

"I'm glad there's a purpose to wearing those uniforms," WVU receiver Jock Sanders said of the game that'll go a long way toward determining a Big East champion. "A couple weeks ago, people were saying there'd be no purpose. The way things were going, having lost back-to-back games, people said there wasn't a purpose and people had their heads down, but there's a purpose to it now. You can feel that extra energy, that extra boost."

WVU's uniforms are a tribute to the coal mining industry and the 29 miners who died in an accident at Upper Big Branch in April.

The jerseys are white with black and grey shoulders that are made to look as though they've been dirtied by coal dust.

The helmets have the coal dust effect as well as a canary yellow stripe down the middle of the helmet symbolizing the canaries miners used to take into mines to test the air quality. The pants are white with a stripe featuring the black, grey and yellow.

"I don't want to downplay the excitement, but the meaning behind it is what has me excited," Stewart said. "It's about who we are. It's symbolic of all the things the university represents. If you're a West Virginian and that uniform Friday doesn't crank you up, there's something wrong with you."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.

 


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