PITTSBURGH (AP) -There's nothing small about Pitt's massive DeJuan Blair, whose hard-to-move body and uncanny ability to track down offensive rebounds make him one of the nation's toughest players to defend.
Blair is undersized for a major college center at 6-foot-7, but makes up for his lack of height with exceptional instincts, the wingspan of a corporate jet and 250-plus pounds of muscular bulk. He is easily the nation's best offensive rebounder.
``He's a nightmare for every single coach in the country,'' UConn's Jim Calhoun said.
Count Blair's own coach, Jamie Dixon, among those who worry about him the most.
Blair requires so much attention from opposing teams - occupying the middle of the floor and keeping possession after possession going with his rebounding - Pitt (28-4) isn't the same team when he's not playing. That's become a more regular occurrence since Calhoun complained last month after the first of two losses to Pitt that Blair and the Panthers are overly physical, creating space to rebound with pushes and well-placed elbows.
r losses this season, including last week's Big East quarterfinal defeat to rival West Virginia, Blair was in foul trouble. When Blair and his 15.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game aren't on the floor, Pitt isn't the same team.
His teammates know it, too, which is why co-captain Sam Young sat down with Blair after the Big East tournament and all but pleaded with him to stay out of foul trouble. The Panthers open NCAA play against 16th-seeded East Tennessee State (23-10) in Dayton on Friday afternoon.
``I think the main thing I talked to DeJuan about is making sure he stays on the floor,'' said Young, Pitt's leading scorer with an 18.7-points per game average. ``When he gets in foul trouble, that pretty much takes a lot away from us as a team. A lot of guys are put in a position where they've got to figure out how to make up what we lack as a team when he is out.''
It's evident what Blair means to the Panthers. Their 78.0 scoring average is easily the best of the eight Pitt teams that have gone to every NCAA tournament since 2002, yet that average dropped to 63.0 in their four losses.
Young didn't suggest that Blair dog it on the defensive end to keep from getting in foul trouble, but he emphasized to Blair that any points allowed defensively can be redeemed on the other end of the floor.
can just come right back down and score on them. If you don't score, you're going to get the rebound. So we need you in the game, point blank.''
Blair has been on the bench more than usual in three of Pitt's last five games, and he showed his exasperation with his foul predicament after the 74-60 loss to West Virginia, which Pitt beat twice by double-digit margins during the season.
``The refs, they have it out for me, I guess,'' said Blair, the Big East co-player of the year with UConn center Hasheem Thabeet. ``They want to get DeJuan Blair out of game.'' Blair has since backed off such talk, no doubt aware it can't help in the win-or-else stage of the season.
``I don't want to talk about the officiating,'' said Blair, who provides much of Pitt's renowned toughness. ``I don't know the refs, but hopefully they're good and they're cool. So I should be cool.''
Pitt is top-seeded in its region for the first time in school history, and there is considerable pressure on a team that was twice ranked No. 1 this season to end its string of NCAA disappointments.
Despite putting together seasons of 29, 28, 31, 20, 25, 29 and 27 victories since 2002, the Panthers have not advanced beyond the NCAA round of 16. Their one and only Final Four appearance came in 1941, when the NCAA tournament was a blip on the sporting map.
t important factor in determining whether this is the Pitt team that finally threatens to win a national title.
Earlier this season, Dixon said a Panthers breakthrough is important because a national championship ``puts you on a different level. That separates you. We need to win one to put ourselves on the same level with those schools that have.''
Nobody needs to tell Dixon that the Panthers probably can't do it if Blair is sitting beside him on the bench.
``He definitely agreed with me and said he's going to make sure he stays in the game,'' Young said.

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