NEW YORK -- DeJuan Blair's arm-bar takedown of Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet last month linked the competing centers in Big East folklore as a national television audience watched Blair flex his muscles in that epic game. Last night's announcement that the dueling duo shared the Big East player of the year award guaranteed they will be forever conjoined in the Big East record books.
Not that Blair believes it should be that way.
When asked if he was OK sharing the award, Blair said: "What do y'all think?"
His smile said the rest.
Blair, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound sophomore center in a power forward's body, certainly got the better of Thabeet in Pitt's two clashes with Connecticut this season. Blair scored 30 points, pulled down 31 rebounds and had four blocks while Thabeet had 19 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks. Pitt won both games against the Huskies, who were ranked No. 1 at the time of each loss.
The season statistics point to Blair as well. Blair finished the regular season averaging a double-double with 15.6 points and a league-leading 12.4 rebounds per game. Thabeet, who also earned Big East defensive player of the year for his shot-blocking prowess, completed the regular season averaging 13.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game.
Blair has been a dominant force throughout the season. He became the first player in school history to post 20 points and 20 rebounds twice in the same season. Had it not been for a gracious show of mercy in a blowout victory against DePaul, Blair would have done it in consecutive games.
Blair certainly had the overall resume in order to claim the trophy, but his magnificent 22-point, 23-rebound performance in Pitt's 76-68 victory in Hartford -- when Blair threw Thabeet to the XL Center hardwood like a rag doll after Thabeet made the poor decision of reaching in to grab the ball from Blair's arms -- was his coming-out-party to the world of college basketball.
"That was special," Blair said. "To get 20 and 20 against a hell of a defender. ... Come on now, what else can you ask for? That's the game of my life right now."
Blair's takedown of Thabeet set the tone for the growing disdain between the two. Blair approached Thabeet after he lay on the floor for a few minutes and asked if he was OK, but Blair did not receive a response from the 7-foot-3 giant.
"I went over to check on him, to say are you all right? Are we cool?" Blair said. "And he just walked past me. If that's the way you want to be, then that's fine. I'd do it again. Don't stick your arm in there."
In the rematch Saturday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center, Thabeet fouled Blair, and it was Blair who went to the ground. A small skirmish ensued and words were exchanged between them.
"As soon as I fouled him, he tried to trip me," Thabeet said. "I'm not going to take that."
Winning the award was sweet for Blair, who used his preseason snub by the league's coaches for motivation. He was named co-Big East rookie of the year after last season, but those same coaches failed to even designate Blair for honorable mention when the Big East preseason honors were announced in October.
"The good thing about me is last year they didn't think I could get the rookie of the year," Blair said. "I got it. This year, they said I couldn't get player of the year. I got it. It's cool."
Blair is the third player in Pitt history to win Big East player of the year honors. Charles Smith won the award outright in 1988. Brandin Knight shared it with Caron Butler of Connecticut in 2002.
Smith was at the Connecticut game Saturday, and Knight is an assistant coach with the Panthers.
Blair said he is cognizant of his place in Pitt lore, and that's exactly why he is torn between staying for his junior season and declaring for the NBA draft.
Much of his decision will depend upon how well the Panthers do in the upcoming NCAA tournament and where he is projected to go in the draft, but Blair said the idea of staying at Pitt is very appealing.
"I always think about it," Blair said of his place in the school's annals. "I want to stay at Pitt, just so everyone can say, 'We loved him.' I want to see my jersey get retired after Brandin. That's an inspiration to look up there every day and see your jersey. Just to stay and be loved in Pittsburgh. I'm always going to come back and be here. Just to help the team out. It's a lot about the team. My team got me this [award]."
The decision on his future will come in the weeks after the NCAA tournament is over. For now, Blair is well aware that Round III against Thabeet and the Huskies is looming if both teams take care of business Thursday night.
"That's what I want," Blair said. "That's exactly what I want."
NOTES -- Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said it was the closest vote in years for the player of the year. Five players received first-place votes. ... Villanova coach Jay Wright was named Big East coach of the year, Georgetown freshman Greg Monroe was named rookie of the year and West Virginia guard Alex Ruoff was named scholar athlete of the year.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230.