Size Matters

The Pitt men's basketball team was guard-oriented going into this season and still relies heavily on their play for success, but when the Panthers get into trouble on offense they lean on some powerful post play.

And when that happens, 6-foot-7, 265-pound freshman center DeJuan Blair has been reliable more often than not. But on more than a handful of occasions this season, the affable Blair has gotten into foul trouble. And the Pittsburgh (16-3, 4-2) offense has faltered.

"You can't tell somebody as aggressive as he is to not be aggressive, because that's what makes him so good,'' Pitt senior guard Keith Benjamin said. "But I think he's learned a lot up to now, because it was his third time now (in foul trouble at Cincinnati), and it's a learning process.

"He's still very young, and ... he has a big body. So, sometimes, when people fly off of him, it's not really a foul. But he knows how to handle it now. And I think he'll do a lot better the rest of this season. I hope so, because he's a very important part of this team, and we need him.''

Foul trouble is about the only thing that's been able to slow down the powerful Blair so far this season. He averages about 12 points and nine rebounds per game and has fouled out just once, against Duke Dec. 20 at Madison Square Garden. When he picked up two fouls in the opening nine minutes at Cincinnati last Saturday, it was the sixth time he got into foul trouble this season.

"It's something that he has to learn to avoid,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "But big guys and foul trouble, that's nothing new to college basketball. I actually think he's done pretty well for a freshman in our league.''

When Blair gets into foul trouble -- and must sit for extended periods of time -- the Panthers go from a conference contender to an inconsistent team that's 4-2 when the big guy has had foul problems. He just didn't play well in the Pitt's only other loss.

"It's hard to do well without him,'' Pitt junior forward Sam Young said. "It's real tough to play without the big fella down there, knowing he's going clean up and get a lot of rebounds. So, it's real important that he stays out of foul trouble. We're already short-handed, and we're certainly thin in the post.''

Along with his problems at Cincinnati, Blair was whistled for two first-half fouls against North Carolina A&T, South Florida, Lafayette, Duquesne and Dayton. Not coincidentally, none of his seven double-doubles this season came in any of those games. Since Dixon generally sits a player when he picks up two first-half fouls, Blair watched the final 11:18 before halftime against Cincinnati.

Blair also sat more than 16 minutes against North Carolina A&T and 13 minutes at South Florida. Blair also spent more time on the bench than on the floor in the first half against Duquesne and Dayton. And he went through his worst game of the season at Cincinnati.

Blair had four points, three rebounds and two turnovers. He also missed a pair of free throws during a 13-0 Cincinnati run in the second half. He finished with as many fouls as rebounds (three) and as many turnovers as field goals (two). Blair is extremely limited when he's in foul trouble, due to his normally physical and aggressive play, and the opposition usually takes it to him.

Without Blair, the Panthers have little to no depth in the post. Dixon subs 6-8 junior Tyrell Biggs there and then moves him to forward, but he's more of a perimeter player than inside banger. A more true center is 6-10 frosh Gary McGhee, but Dixon doesn't play him often enough to make a difference.

"We're trying to work Gary in there, but it's tough to take minutes away from other guys,'' Dixon said. "Where are we supposed to get the extra minutes.''

Cassin Diggs, a junior-college transfer, was ineffective in limited action this season and now he is out indefinitely with a hip injury and might need surgery.

So, for Pitt to be a force in the second half this season, Blair needs to stay off the bench and in the heat of things in the middle for the Panthers.

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