Pittsburgh won the Big East tournament last season, but its stay in the NCAA tournament was brief thanks to some ugly shooting and poor rebounding.
DeJuan Blair seems intent on making sure neither is a problem for the Panthers again.
Coming off a 27-point, 18-rebound effort in which he was nearly perfect from the floor, Blair and fourth-ranked Pitt will look to remain unbeaten Tuesday when they host Belmont.
Pittsburgh (4-0) had an up-and-down season in 2007-08, Blair’s freshman year, but ran through the Big East tournament with four wins in four days. The Panthers’ hot finish elevated them to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs, but they didn’t last long. Pitt shot 32.7 percent and was outrebounded 37-26 in a second-round loss to Michigan State.
The Big East’s co-rookie of the year struggled down the stretch, averaging 8.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in his final six games while often battling foul trouble. Blair, though, has looked rejuvenated at the start of his sophomore season, averaging 17.5 points and 13.3 rebounds in 25 minutes per game.
He had his most efficient game yet Saturday against Indiana, Pa. Blair went 13-of-14 from the field, with his career-high 27 points and 18 rebounds coming in 21 minutes of Pitt’s 86-60 win.
“DeJuan’s been doing it every game since he got here, so nothing he does surprises me anymore,” coach Jamie Dixon said. “The biggest thing for me has been his leadership. … (He was) diving for a loose ball when we’re already up 30 points. That’s the kind of attitude and teamwork that’s going to take a team very far.”
Blair, Sam Young (16.0 points per game) and Levance Fields (12.8) account for 54.4 percent of Pitt’s points, but the Panthers are also relying on a pair of freshmen to make significant contributions. Jermaine Dixon and Ashton Gibbs have each chipped in a double-digit scoring game this season, with Gibbs recording 10 points and four assists Saturday.
“That’s a huge opportunity when they can play big minutes together,” Blair said. “There are definitely going to be games throughout the course of the season where we need them to step up.”
Pitt has won each of its first four games by at least 19 points.
The Panthers will now face a Belmont team that won the Atlantic Sun conference last season and lost by one point to second-seeded Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
After an 18-point win over Samford in their opener, the Bruins (1-1) suffered a last-second loss similar to their NCAA ouster by the Blue Devils.
Against Austin Peay on Nov. 17, Belmont’s Henry Harris was whistled for a foul with 0.2 seconds left and the score tied. The Governors’ Drake Reed made the two free throws to seal a 14-point second-half comeback and an 86-84 win.
“It hurts quite a bit to be in control of the game in the second half, and then so quickly have it go the other way,” coach Rick Byrd said. “We did a lot of good things in the first half, we just need to remember what those were and go back to them.”
Guard Alex Renfroe and forward Jon House each had 18 points for the Bruins.
Pitt, which has never faced Belmont, is 60-1 against non-conference opponents at the Petersen Events Center.