BOSTON (AP)—Pittsburgh and Villanova endured a bruising Big East schedule to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They arrived that much better prepared to advance to the Final Four.
But first, one of them has to get past the other.
The cross-state rivals will meet in the East regional final at the TD Banknorth Garden on Saturday in a game that puts the Big East in the national spotlight. Though it sometimes gets competition for bragging rights from the likes of the Atlantic Coast Conference, there is no questioning the toughness of a league that once experimented with allowing a sixth foul so its bruisers could stay in the game.
“The Big East is going to be tough, no matter what,” said Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound big man who was the conference’s co-player of the year. “The ACC—you really can’t compare them. They’re like rocks and cotton. We’re just toughness, we’re not finesse players.”
But if Pittsburgh (31-4) is going to get any further this year, Blair might want to be a little more cotton and a little less rock.
Born and bred in the Steel City, Blair embodies Pittsburgh’s playing style and carries its chances of winning the school’s first NCAA title. He averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds during the season and had a pair of 20-point, 20-rebound games, but he also fouled out in three of the Panthers’ four losses, including a Jan. 28 loss to Villanova in the schools’ only regular-season meeting.
“I refer to him as a beast in a very complimentary way,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I could see that being a Pittsburgh basketball player. Blue collar, like the Steelers, that’s how he plays, to me.”
Blair said he is more disciplined now than the player who picked up his third and fourth fouls in quick succession midway through the second half of a surprising loss at Providence. He has had three fouls in each of Pitt’s first three NCAA games.
“I’ve been good for the whole tournament. Hopefully, they’ll keep letting me play the way I am,” he said. “I can’t get in foul trouble for my team to win. I’ve just got to be out on court. Everybody on my team and my family and my coaches and everybody just say to stay out of foul trouble. I’ve just got to keep playing. I’ve got to play disciplined. I’ve got to go in acting like I’ve got two fouls, as my coach told me. I just can’t get fouls and we’ll be hot.”
Dixon insists that Blair isn’t the problem, or at least the only one, noting that other players were also in foul trouble in the games Pitt lost. And it’s not like those losses were to pushovers: three of the four were to NCAA tournament teams, including not just Villanova but No. 1 overall seed Louisville.
But the coach also noted that sometimes the fouls were not from solid, tough play but from carelessness or just a bad call.
“We’ve talked to him about you can’t have what we call silly fouls,” Dixon said. “And those often aren’t from aggressiveness, (they’re) from fatigue, frustration oftentimes or not being prepared, not anticipating. And that’s where you get your fouls.”
Villanova (29-7) doesn’t have a dominating inside presence that can match up with Blair—but who does?—and makes up for it by sending all five players after rebounds.
“We like to play ugly as well,” Wildcats forward Dwayne Anderson said. “We want guys banging for loose balls.”
Anderson said Wright helps prepare his players by turning them loose in practice. Hard fouls are customary; bodies bang underneath, and sometimes even among teammates it can go too far.
“Sometimes coach has to step in and say, ‘Hold on. This is not boxing, this is not a fight,”’ Anderson said. “We try to have our practices more difficult than the games.”
In the Big East, that’s difficult.
It’s just the 10th time that two teams from the same conference have played for a spot in the Final Four—the second time for the Big East. But that’s just the tip of the conference’s dominance this year: Five of the last 12 NCAA teams remaining were from the Big East, and heading into Friday night’s games there was a chance at an all-Big East Final Four.
Only once has a conference placed as many as three teams in the Final Four: The Big East, in 1985, when Villanova won its only national championship.
“As coaches and promoters of our leagues sometimes we tend to overexaggerate and inflate some things that never really seem to come to fruition,” Dixon said. “But if anything has lived up to it, it would be this conference and what’s happened this year. As the year went on, now as we go in the postseason play, to be in this position is quite remarkable. Usually you beat each other up, but somehow we’ve had some teams survive it. And to be in this position, however it ends up, I think it did what is very hard to do, live up to coaches’ lofty proclamations.”
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