PITTSBURGH (AP)—No opposing center pushed and shoved, tossed and intimidated UConn’s 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet like Pittsburgh’s massive DeJuan Blair did last month.
Blair’s ability to physically manhandle one of college basketball’s premier big men altered that Feb. 16 game, led to Pitt’s first victory in 14 tries against a No. 1 team, sharpened Blair’s image and briefly pushed the Panthers into the top ranking themselves.
Less than three weeks later, whether Blair can again be the dominating force that he was in that 76-68 win may decide which team wins Saturday’s rematch in Pittsburgh—and which team goes into next week’s Big East tournament ranked No. 1. It could also determine whether one or both teams get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
This, too: It has the potential to swing the Big East player of the year voting.
It’s a big load to carry for the 6-foot-7 Blair, who is eight inches shorter than Thabeet but, at about 250 pounds, may be stronger and more difficult to dislodge inside than the UConn star. Blair so badly outplayed Thabeet the first time—he had 22 points and 23 rebounds to Thabeet’s five points and four rebounds—that it gained Blair considerably more respect and attention nationally.
Now, all he has to do is do it again. If he does, No. 3 Pittsburgh (27-3, 14-3) might become only the seventh school to beat a No. 1 team twice in a season.
“We want UConn. It’s going to be just like it was the last time—it’s going to be a celebrity death match,” Blair said, laughing, invoking some pro wrestling terminology.
One of the signature plays this season occurred in the earlier game, when the two became tangled while going for a rebound and Blair wound up tossing Thabeet over his shoulder. After that, Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon said, “I think it made him (Thabeet) take a step back.”
The game seemed to change from that point, though Pitt had to rally from five points down late mostly behind the outside shooting of Levance Fields, who hit two key 3-pointers after missing his first eight shots.
“I think Thabeet will try to come out hard and be physical, but DeJuan’s always up for the challenge,” Dixon said. “We’ll be ready for him. And you know DeJuan. He’s physical when he’s sleeping, so he’s going to be ready.”
Whether Fields will be ready is uncertain.
The point guard bruised his lower back during Pitt’s 90-75 win over No. 13 Marquette on Wednesday but, while listed as questionable, is expected to play if possible in one of college basketball’s biggest games this season.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun was unhappy the officials allowed Pitt to be so physical in the first meeting, even though the top-ranked Huskies (27-2, 15-2) enjoy the reputation of being one of the sport’s toughest teams.
“They played a style of basketball that we hadn’t seen all season,” Calhoun said. “It was a style that was effective against us.”
Calhoun has since shifted focus, praising Blair rather than complaining about his roughhouse style and putting the burden on Thabeet to play a better game in the rematch, which doubles as Pitt’s final home game.
Leading scorer Sam Young, forward Tyrell Biggs, Fields and, possibly, Blair will play their last game at the Petersen Events Center. Blair, a sophomore, may turn pro following a season in which he is averaging 15.9 points and 12.6 rebounds.
“Blair, no matter who he was playing, just dominated Connecticut and we can’t, hopefully, allow that to happen,” Calhoun said.
Still, Pitt’s players are convinced Calhoun will work the officials to make sure this game isn’t as physical.
“After what Calhoun said, there might be some (tight) calls, but in the end I think they’ll let us play,” Biggs said.
Both teams have clinched double byes for the Big East tournament. UConn could win its 11th regular season title if it beats Pitt and No. 6 Louisville loses at West Virginia on Saturday night. Pitt will gain a three-way share if it wins and Louisville loses. Louisville wins outright if the Cardinals and Pitt win.
The last team to beat a No. 1 team twice in a season was North Carolina, which defeated top-ranked Duke in February and March 1998.