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December 20, 2007

Blair already making name for himself

DeJuan Blair is just 10 games into his college career and already the legend is approaching Bunyan-esque proportions.

St. Louis coach Rick Majerus likened Blair to a young Karl Malone after he had 16 points and eight rebounds in a 68-59 victory over the Billikens. Blair already has won the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week award three times, which is twice more than any of his classmates so far.

But there's more:

He dunked so thunderously in the season-opening blowout of Houston Baptist that he shattered the backboard at the other end of the court.

His arms are so long that he grabbed a defensive rebound against North Carolina A&T and simultaneously grabbed a bag of popcorn from an usher in the third row.

Pittsburgh built its arena, the Petersen Events Center, in one of Blair's footprints.

DeJuan Blair and Pittsburgh face their first top-25 opponent Thursday evening.
Claim to fame: The Pittsburgh freshman center is the only player in the top 50 nationally in rebounds (9.1) and steals (2.4).
Favorite player growing up: Shaquille O'Neal.
Favorite food: Hot sausage.
What he's listening to: "A local artist, Joe Beast. He's a rapper."
Favorite video game: NCAA 2K8. "Because I can play as myself."
If I could be Coach Dixon for a day I would: "Empty my bank account."
See how these things get out of control when a freakishly large, freakishly athletic kid with a grin that would make the Cheshire Cat tuck tail chooses to go to school barely a full-court pass from where he grew up?

"It means a lot to be doing it here in front of my family and friends," Blair told Rivals.com. "They always come to the games. I have my mom and dad there, and my grandmother. It's good to see everybody up there. I try my hardest to get them all in, but if I can't get everybody tickets, they can watch on TV."

Plenty of plasma screens in Pittsburgh will be tuned in tonight when the Panthers (10-0) take on Duke (10-0) in the Aeropostale All-America Classic at Madison Square Garden. The game is on ESPN at 7 p.m. EST.

Duke is a step up in competition for Pittsburgh, which has yet to play a top-25 opponent.

"It's going to be excellent. I can't wait," Blair said. "It's going to be fun. The atmosphere should be outrageous. We've watched some film of them, and I'm sure we'll be watching more. They're really good."

The Blue Devils are good, but they have no one to match up against Blair. He's 6 feet 7 and 273 pounds (as of post-practice Tuesday, he said), with a 7-3 wingspan, the quickness of a guard and the strength of a big blue ox.

He has been an absolute marvel so far this season. Blair is the only player in the country who ranks in the top 50 nationally in rebounds and steals. You read that correctly. The rebounding numbers, 9.1 per game (47th nationally), while hardly pedestrian, aren't wholly unexpected.

The steals numbers are another matter. Even at his size, he has such good hands, feet and anticipation that he's averaging 2.4 steals per game, second in the Big East and No. 43 nationally.

"I didn't know that. That's excellent," Blair said. "Really? That's crazy. I guess I'd have to say it's my quickness and going around the big men, just getting around them, moving my feet. I've had excellent coaches teaching me how to do that."

Those would include Fred Skrocki, the coach for whom he helped win a state title at Schenley High School. It was the first Pittsburgh City League team to win a state title since 1978.

"DeJuan is just a winner," said Skrocki, who sat in with Blair while coaches such as Bob Huggins and Bruce Pearl tried to talk him into leaving Pennsylvania. Skrocki figured it was never going to happen.

"The kid had to stay home," Skrocki said. "He's got his parents here, and his grandmother. There's no way he could have made it if he didn't. He comes down to see his brother who's a senior who plays here. DeJuan keeps the image of Schenley in the limelight, and he's such a positive for us."

Skrocki marveled at Blair from the minute he got him at Schenley.

"He loves the game," Skrocki said. "He's just so big. You could get a piece of wood and hit him across the back and he'd just look at you and finish the play.

"He comes and sees me every week. I ask how he's doing in class. I'm so overjoyed at how he's doing."

Rivals.com national basketball recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer re-evaluates Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair:
"It took us a while to warm up to Blair, but based on how he is playing right now, it doesn't look like we warmed up to him enough. The summer before his senior season, Blair was overweight, wore clunky knee braces and just didn't have much athleticism. When I watched him play at two different events during the high school season, he looked like a much different player. The knee braces were gone, and he had dropped some weight and looked much more athletic. He put up big scoring and rebounding numbers on the way to a state title, and we bumped him up into our top 60 as a four-star prospect.

"When I saw Blair for the first time with Pittsburgh, I was amazed at the further transformation of his body and increased athleticism. No more baby fat on this bruiser, and he is getting off the floor awfully quickly. He looks more like a five star at this point."
Blair's take on four stars vs. five:
"You all did what you did. You know me I ain't worried about it. It would have been good for me. But I'm not holding it against anybody."
Rivals.com listed Blair as a four-star prospect. He admits to having some weight issues during his high-school career, and Rivals analysts said he looked out of shape during the summer circuit before his senior year.

He also has torn each of his ACLs, one before his freshman season at Schenley and one at the end of his sophomore season during the playoffs. You'd never know it now from the way he gets off the floor.

Even he is surprised by his transformation with the Panthers. He said he weighed 305 pounds as recently as August.

"I'd been trying to lose weight all summer," Blair said. "I was running, working out, doing all of that. Next thing you know, I came back in September and was like 275.

"I was surprised. I wasn't checking the scales. I was eating light, drinking more water. I was at 305. I don't even think that was the highest. That's crazy, right?"

It's no crazier than to think he'd be starting for the Panthers and leading them in rebounding.

Now all Blair needs is a better nickname. He has been called "Big Fella," but really, what guy over 6-4 and 250 pounds hasn't? It simply isn't good enough.

"Did you see the sign on Saturday?" Blair asked in reference to his 20-point, 10-rebound, five-block domination of Oklahoma State in an 85-68 victory. "Somebody in the Zoo (the Oakland Zoo, the nickname for the Pittsburgh student section) had a sign that said, 'The Grizzly Blair.' I'm going to have to promote that now."

Paul Bunyan and the Grizzly Blair. Now that's more like it.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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