Big Man in Big Games: DeJuan Blair of Pitt Is Among Nation's Best

Josh TaylorContributor IFebruary 17, 2009

DeJuan Blair does not care if you weren't paying attention to him earlier this season. However, he did care that he was left off all three of the Big East's preseason all-conference teams. And he cared even more that Pittsburgh's matchup against Connecticut Monday night and their 7'3", practically all-world big man, Hasheem Thabeet, was considered his biggest challenge.

But Blair answered the call, scoring 22 points with 23 rebounds in Pitt's 71-63 triumph, a performance telling us all that he now has our undivided attention, whether we like it or not.

When national Player of the Year candidates have been discussed this year, it has been the usual grouping: Thabeet, Davidson's Stephen Curry, Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, and the consensus preseason pick, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough.

But now another legitimate candidate in Blair has bumped, bum-rushed, and bullied his way into the national radar, using ESPN's "Big Monday" broadcast as his springboard.

"It's not that I heard too much about [Thabeet] going into the game," Blair said afterward. "It's just that I didn't hear enough about me."

But such has been the case for Blair for quite some time now. Coming out of Pittsburgh's Schenley High School, within walking distance of the university campus, Blair wasn't ranked higher than 18th in any prep scouting, despite leading the Spartans to a 103-16 overall record in four seasons, including 57 City League wins and no losses, and being named the AP Pennsylvania State Player of the Year two years in a row.

But it didn't take much time for him to make his introduction. He started in his collegiate debut, the first Panther to do so since teammate Levance Fields in 2005, and his 20 points and 14 rebounds both rank second-best in school history for first-game performances.

He won the Big East Rookie of the Week award on consecutive weeks in December 2007 after a 20-point, 10-rebound, five-blocked shot game against Oklahoma State, then a 15-point, 20-rebound game in a big upset win over Duke.

He has taken on some of the biggest and best players in the country in the past year and a half, and has done well against them all. So far against Thabeet: 35 points and 36 rebounds in two meetings.

Georgetown's Roy Hibbert? He nearly posted a double-double in both showdowns: 15 points and nine rebounds on Jan. 14, then 10 points and 10 boards in the Big East Conference Championship. Against Luke Harangody at Notre Dame: 23 points and 22 rebounds, a combination of numbers that is becoming quite familiar these days.

Not bad for a guy that's small by comparison at 6'7", 265 pounds. But when you weigh in a 7'2" wingspan, that's a pretty solid equalizer.

Assuming Pitt has now earned a No. 1 seed, how about we paint the picture for some titanic showdowns in the NCAA tournament? Could you imagine a Blair-Hansbrough clash? How about Blair vs. Griffin?

Then again, we won't have to wait that long to see another good one: Blair-Thabeet Part III is going down on March 7 at the Petersen Events Center.

Forget UFC pay-per-view, folks. These are the heavyweight matchups you want to see.

What's even better is that Blair expects to be underestimated.

"I really felt like I was the underdog coming in," Blair said about facing Thabeet. "You know how I am with the underdog thing. I hate it. No, wait, actually, I love it. Look what happened tonight."

Trust me, people noticed. Ask Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun.

"Blair is a great, great player, a terrific player, a warrior," he said. "He's a man."

This about a young man who has yet to turn 20 years old, one who challenged Thabeet inside the paint, and when he didn't succeed the first time, went right back at him again. At one point in the game, Thabeet blocked Blair's jump shot attempt, but then Blair got his own rebound and went right back into the lane—this time a lot stronger—for a score.

"I felt like an animal at that point," Blair said. "I wanted to kill, so I killed."

Pitt will be counting on Blair and his killer instinct as the Panthers look to make a national championship run, assuming he can stay out of foul trouble. Hopefully for Blair his focus can stay there, considering some NBA teams have started sniffing around. In the meantime, we at least have some great heavyweight bouts to think about.

What I wouldn't give to have a courtside seat to see the next one in a few weeks.