LIKE A lot of players, Pitt's DeJuan Blair spent the off-season adding a new wrinkle to his game—in his case, a little 10- to 12-foot jump shot to extend his range away from the basket. But the sophomore power forward also devoted considerable energy to subtracting something. This winter the 6'7" Blair, whose ample frame has often been compared with that of Charles Barkley, and who last March was described by one overwrought ESPN announcer as "bootylicious," will be carrying slightly less junk in his trunk. After several months in the weight room (and away from the training table), he's down to 265 pounds, about 10 below his playing weight last season. "It's to help me run up and down the court," he says. "I wanted to be a little more lean."
A streamlined model of the Blair who bashed his way through the Big East last season should strike fear into the heart of even the sturdiest low-post player. A native of Pittsburgh's Hill District who grew up less than a half mile from the Petersen Events Center, Blair's physical game and 7'2" wingspan made him a terror in the paint at both ends of the floor as the Panthers surprised the league by winning the Big East tournament in March. He led the conference in offensive rebounds (3.9 per game) and frequently finished with a go-to move amusingly described by point guard Levance Fields as "bangin' and a jump hook."
Blair's powerful style is a perfect complement to the athleticism of his frontcourtmate, high-flying 6'6" senior Sam Young. A dazzling dunker, Young is coming off a breakout year in which he set the school single-season record for points. Key to his development was the addition of a pull-up jumper, as well as improved accuracy from long range—he shot a career-best 38.3% from behind the three-point line.
Young's stroke will relieve pressure on a talented but shallow backcourt of Fields, a senior, and sophomore swingman Gilbert Brown. Joining them are a pair of promising freshmen, Ashton Gibbs and Travon Woodall. Both will see plenty of time early on as Fields recovers from a fractured fifth metatarsal in his left foot, which caused him to miss a third of last season before he returned last February.
The development of their young guards will be a big factor in how far the Panthers go in this year's postseason. Fortunately, they're not being asked to carry the team. "Shooting threes is going to be tougher for everybody this year," says Dixon, noting the more distant three-point line. "At the end of the day, you've still got to be able to rebound and defend."
With Blair, Pitt has both areas well covered.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
*HIGH SCHOOL STATS