Saturday, January 3, 2009
Updated: January 4, 5:38 PM ET
Not too big, not too small -- Blair just the right fit for Pitt
By Dana O'Neil
WASHINGTON -- He's too big to be too quick; too short to be too dominant. DeJuan Blair has heard the cuts and knocks on his game for as long as he can remember, and long ago adopted the uniform of an oversized underdog.
So when this college basketball season dawned and everyone started slobbering over the length of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet, salivating over the promise of Georgetown's Greg Monroe and barely mentioning Blair, the big boy just shrugged his broad shoulders.
"I'd say that, too," Blair laughed. "Hasheem Thabeet is big and tall; Greg Monroe is the number one player coming into the league. DeJuan Blair? He's just going to be DeJuan Blair. I wouldn't say anything about DeJuan Blair, either."
That's officially changed. The zipper-mouthed have turned slack-jawed, the unimpressed now gaga agog. The Pittsburgh players termed their game against Georgetown a statement game, a chance to disprove those who believed the Panthers' No. 3 ranking was built on nothing more concrete than a cloud of underachieving opponents.
The Hoyas were the perfect foil. Just five days earlier, they went into Connecticut and stomped the second-ranked Huskies. Now they were gunning for No. 3 in a building where they hadn't lost since January 2007, a stretch of 29 consecutive games.
The Panthers got their statement, a 70-54 victory that now stands as John Thompson III's worst home loss since the first game of his Georgetown career.
Blair provided the exclamation point. The sophomore almost single-handedly outrebounded the Hoyas, pulling down 17 boards to Georgetown's 21, and chipped in 20 points to cement the double-double.
"Of course that inspires me," Blair said of the lovefest that encompasses Thabeet and Monroe but never him. "I always have to show people more. It's been that way my whole life, so I don't really care about what people say about them. I'd rather just prove what I'm all about."
Blair is about deception. His feet are much more agile than the 265 pounds on his wide body would indicate and his relentlessness makes up for whatever he sacrifices with his 6-foot-7 frame. The Panthers are second in the league in rebounding margin, besting opponents by 9.8 boards a game, and Blair accounts for most of the equation. He ranks behind only Luke Harangody in rebounding in the Big East and is third in the country (12.7 per game).
|DeJuan Blair was too much for the Hoyas down low in Pitt's win.|
So why isn't everyone fawning over Blair? For the same reason critics always seem reluctant to fall in love with Pitt. In the past seven years, the Panthers are 189-51 (good for a 78.8 win percentage), have won three Big East regular-season titles and two conference tournament titles, have played in back-to-back Big East championship games and have become an NCAA tournament lock.
Yet people always find reason to question the Panthers. Point guard Levance Fields is
well, he's round. Their star forward, Sam Young, is like Sean Penn -- much appreciated but tragically underrated. They aren't the greatest outside shooters. They rarely win pretty.
As for Blair, he was dripping in the love a year ago, tabbed as a consensus freshman All-American and the Big East's co-rookie of the year. But then along came the ballyhooed Monroe and there stood Thabeet, casting his 7-foot-3 shadow.
Monroe has the agility and speed of a gazelle. Thabeet is like a giraffe, albeit one who can block a ball 15 rows into the stands.
Blair? He's more of a bull.
"He uses his strength to his advantage," said Monroe, who finished with a respectable 15 points and eight rebounds but was helpless to contain Blair. "That's his whole game plan, using his strength and wide body under the basket to get points."
|Behind Blair's 20 points and 17 rebounds, Pitt improved to 14-0.|
Really, that's the Panthers' game plan, too: to use their strengths and expose everyone else's weaknesses. Against Georgetown it was the glass. The young Hoyas are a one-and-done offense, 13th out of 16 Big East teams in rebounding margin. If you can stop their dribble penetration and prevent wide-open looks at 3-pointers, you can command the boards and consequently, the game.
That's exactly what Pitt did. After DaJuan Summers made things a little too interesting in the first half, knocking down three 3-pointers to keep the Hoyas within three at the break, the Panthers clogged the lane, turning a 40-40 tie into a 17-4 run. In that span, Georgetown missed all four of the 3-pointers it tried.
In the meantime, the Panthers didn't exactly light anyone up -- they shot 3-of-19 from beyond the arc -- but they turned the misses into makes. Pittsburgh scored 24 of its points on second-chance shots, racking up 18 offensive boards to Georgetown's four.
"We believe if we play great defense and rebound, we can beat anybody in the country," said Young, who added 14 points and eight rebounds. "Anybody who had doubts in their head about that should maybe get rid of them."
Behind DeJuan Blair's 20 points and 17 rebounds, No. 3 Pitt beat beat Georgetown, 70-54, improving to 14-0.
Young isn't one for rah-rahing his teammates. The senior speaks his mind postgame but leaves the pregame fireworks to Blair. He's the big kid, the life of the party, the one who runs around smacking his teammates' rear ends before tipoff and yelling in the huddle. Blair turned into a more literal version of a cheerleader against Rutgers on New Year's Eve. Saddled with four early fouls, he played only eight minutes, opening the door wide for jokes about him being well-rested for Georgetown.
But while he milled around his hotel room for three days -- the Panthers traveled from New Jersey to D.C. on Wednesday -- Blair saw more than just the chance to avenge a good joke.
He and his teammates talked about what everyone else was talking about. They knew people questioned the legitimacy of their undefeated start, wondering if a schedule that included only a handful of name teams and no Top 25 opponents actually merited such a high ranking.
"We know people were saying, 'Yeah but who did Pitt play?'" Blair said.
When the Panthers gathered in the huddle, they actually said "statement game."
"Yeah I heard that," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "We didn't bring a banner or anything along to practice but I heard them say that. We're getting better. To me, that's our statement."
Maybe to the coach, but to everyone else there was a whole lot more being said.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Sam Young coupled Blair's effort against Georgetown with 14 points and eight rebounds.|