Blair A Strong Inside Presence

Pitt freshman center DeJuan Blair certainly is among the most affable players in the Big East, but the gentle giant with the wide smile has developed into one of tougher inside scorers and rebounders in the Conference as well.

DeJuan Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound freshman, averages 12.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game with 13 double-doubles this season. So, he ranks among the top rookies in the league and has a chance to secure that honor Tuesday night at the Big East Tournament awards banquet.

Pittsburgh junior forward Sam Young is expected to win the most-improved player award, but Blair has put himself in position to achieve a high honor as well. He was an honorable-mention all-conference choice and a unanimous pick for the Big East's all-freshman team.

"I just have to keep staying humble and keep staying grounded,'' Blair said. "I believe in dreams and wishes, and I dreamed about that this year. I wanted to be on the all-rookie team and be the freshman of the year, so we'll see what happens with that. It's really overwhelming right now, but I'm excited.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't surprise myself a little bit. Just coming from Schenley, starting right out of high school and having a major impact, and just battling in the Big East has been great. ... So, I just want to keep doing what I've been doing, and things will continue to get better for me and this team.''

Some believed that Blair hit a wall as Big East play wore on, something that can happen to a freshman, as he learns to deal with the rigors of playing in a physical conference night in and night out. But as the "Big Fella'' came up with six double-doubles in Pitt's final 11 games, that doesn't appear to be the case.

"I tried to prepare DeJuan for all the different things that would happen, so I talked to him about being a local kid with a lot of talk about him,'' Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "There was lots of talk about him even before he did anything (at Pitt). His personality was a big part of that, too. So, I told him that there's highs and lows with exaggerations both ways, and he understands that.

"And I told him he'd be asked about hitting the freshman wall. ... But he keeps doing it. He doesn't look like he's bored out there or hitting a wall. It's called getting in foul trouble and sitting on the bench. That's when he didn't get it done. So, I think he's going strong, and he's smiling just as much today as he did when he got here. So, he's very excited to get to the Garden.''

Dixon isn't the only Big East head coach to heap accolades on Blair. Louisville's Rick Pitino, who could face Blair and the Panthers in the second round if Pitt beats Cincinnati Wednesday night, was effusive in his praise.

"Blair is as good a young person as I've seen since Tyler Hansbrough, in terms of the way he plays,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Every shot that's taken on the court, he considers it to be his rebound on a miss. So, he's one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball, like Tyler Hansbrough, and he's an exciting young player for our league.''

For all his honors and success, Blair appears to remain on an even keel. He doesn't get too high or too low, but always appears to be positive. Sure, he's shown some anger on the court, primarily with officials with quick whistles who admonish his aggressive play by calling fouls. However, for the most part, Blair just seems happy to be part of this Pitt team with a chance to make some noise in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

"The Big East Tournament, I've been watching those games, skipping school just to watch those games,'' Blair said. "And now I'm playing in it. It's going to be great to go back to our second home, the Garden, and I think I play pretty well at the Garden. It doesn't matter what seed you are or who we play, everybody will play hard, and we're going to come hard every game.

"And, hopefully, we'll be able to bring (a championship) home. I think it's a big accomplishment to be able to call the Garden our second home, and I definitely feel that way. The other guys, they're at my home here in Pittsburgh, and I call New York my second home, at the Garden. I can't wait to see the crowd. I love that crowd, and I just can't wait for that first game.''

No. 7 seed Pitt (22-9, 10-8) faces No. 10 Cincinnati (13-17, 8-10) Wednesday night at 7. The winner plays Louisville (24-7, 14-4) Thursday night at 7.

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