Blair Hones His Skills

Some have called him Baby Shaq for his post presence as much as his free-throw shooting woes, but Pitt men's basketball coach Jamie Dixon has begun calling sophomore center DeJuan Blair Wes Unseld instead.

Older basketball fans might recall Unseld, the former Louisville and 1977-78 NBA-champion Washington Bullets star known for tenacious rebounding and crisp outlet passes, but DeJuan Blair clearly is not a hoop historian.

Blair was unaware about Unseld, so Dixon showed him video to help the 6-foot-7, 260-pound powerhouse work on his outlet passes. They will be on display when No. 4 Pittsburgh (17-1, 5-1) takes on West Virginia (14-4, 3-2) in a Big East matchup Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va.

"It's kind of been a little bit of a joke with us, but we're trying to make that a teaching tool by telling him about Wes Unseld,'' Coach Dixon said. "But he didn't know who that was. We explained that to him, and it was ironic that when we played in D.C. his number was up there. And I didn't even think about it, but it was up there at Louisville as well. So, DeJuan got to see that.

"When I was growing up, he was always considered to be the best outlet passer. I also know him from when I was trying out for the (Washington) Bullets. He played for them, but he was an assistant coach then. So, we're trying to get DeJuan to be a little more careful with his outlets. As a freshman, he didn't think about that too much, so we've been working on that.''

Not only did Dixon reference Unseld, but Blair noted that the coach also talked about former UCLA star and Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Kevin Love. Both are exceptional outlet passers, and Blair wanted to improve in that area.

"So, I watched some tapes and have been working on my passing game,'' Blair said. "I also told the guys to leak out, and I'll get them the ball. That's a big difference from last year. When we do that, we can run more. ... You can never get too good, so I just want to keep working on my game as much as possible.

"I think I'm strong enough to make a chest-pass the length of the court, so there's no reason not to get it out quick. That's why I'm working on polishing up my game. That's something I needed to work on. I'm sure there's going to be something next year for me to work on, but this year it was outlet passes.

"Last year, I would throw it underhand, flip it out to our guys,'' Blair added. "It wasn't crisp or sharp, and it took too long to get it out that way. With a better outlet pass from me, that makes us a better running team. And we were able to do that quite a bit against Syracuse in the second half.''

It wasn't difficult changing Blair's mindset, Coach Dixon said, because he has all the physical tools -- overall strength and size, powerful hands -- and "he gets a lot of rebounds. That's the best place to start,'' Dixon added.

"Then, he's got the touch and passing ability, but he just had to put it all together. ... We want him to get it out quick, so we've been working on that. And DeJuan has been doing a good job in that area.''

Blair leads the Big East and ranks third nationally with 12.8 rebounds per game, but he leads he nation with 6.1 offensive rebounds per contest. So, he is equally strong at both ends of the court.

"We're awfully comfortable shooting the ball, because we know we've got DeJuan in there,'' Pitt two-guard Jermaine Dixon said. "And when Sam Young is going hard inside and with Tyrell Biggs, we usually get the rebounds.

"So, we're not afraid to put it up there with those guys underneath. DeJuan leads the country on the offensive glass, so there's more than a good chance that he'll get anything that we put up.''

The same thing can said about the opposition, but now there's a chance for more fast-break baskets afterward.

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