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Big East toughness an Elite 8 headliner

With blue-collar play inside, Blair leads Pitt. Villanova also takes pride in physical play.

BOSTON — 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 today 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 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.”

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 tourney. 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 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 got to keep playing. I’ve got to play disciplined. I’ve got to go in acting like I’ve got two fouls.”

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 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.

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