Pretty in Pitt? Not exactly.

March, 20, 2009
DAYTON, Ohio -- DeJuan Blair was asked Thursday if he would consider it a successful season if Pittsburgh finally got over the hump and advanced to the Final Four.

"No, we've got to be a national championship team," Blair said. "I'm not worried about the Final Four. We're going to get there."

In their first game of the NCAA tournament, though, the Panthers hardly played like the best team in the field. Heck, they barely played like one of the top 32 teams in the bracket.

While fellow No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Connecticut rolled to first-round victories by a combined 99 points against their 16th-seeded opponents, the Panthers huffed and puffed past East Tennessee State, finally pulling away at the end for a 10-point win.

"We're not going to get any pretty points around the country," point guard Levance Fields said. "We know a lot of people are saying we might not be ready because of how we played today. But the important thing is we advanced."

Moving forward is all that matters in the tournament, but Friday's performance raised several red flags about Pittsburgh's ability to continue in the right direction.

The Panthers committed 18 turnovers, six more than their season average. Usually one of the best rebounding teams in the country, they let East Tennessee State grab 20 offensive boards, which led to 25 second-chance points. While the Buccaneers shot only 30.7 percent, most of that was their own poor marksmanship; they had plenty of open looks.

"That's definitely unusual for us," forward Sam Young said of Pitt's defensive and rebounding lapses. "The next game, we've got to come out and bring a little more effort so it doesn't happen again."

Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon repeatedly praised East Tennessee State in his news conference and said "the game went exactly as I thought it would go." And certainly the Buccaneers looked better than most No. 16 seeds and played their guts out. They had the ball with a chance to tie it up in the final four minutes and were still within one possession inside the three-minute mark.

"We had 'em," ETSU swingman Kevin Tiggs said.

"It hurts, because if we would have hit our shots, we would have won," Bucs guard Courtney Pigram said.

Fields tried to find an optimistic tone, saying that most national champions have to escape at least one early tough game. Still, most title teams don't struggle against No. 16 seeds for 37 minutes.

"We're not like any other team," Blair said. "We're not going to beat you by 40 or 50. We're the type of team that likes to slow the game down and let the game come to us."

Pitt might be gone already if Blair hadn't overpowered East Tennessee State for 27 points and 16 rebounds. Future opponents, starting Sunday against Oklahoma State, might have stronger answers for him inside, or he might get in foul trouble. The Panthers are going to need more contributions from their guards (Fields and Jermaine Dixon combined for six points on 3-of-13 shooting), better effort on the defensive glass from Young and smarter decision-making against the press.

If they do all that, this game won't be remembered for anything else except the victory. Actually, victory is too strong a word.

"We survived," Blair said.

Brian Bennett | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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