Pokes prepared for Pitt, Blair

March, 21, 2009
DAYTON, Ohio -- The first round in Dayton featured a double-overtime thriller (Siena-Ohio State), a buzzer-beater (Oklahoma State-Tennessee), a No. 1 seed in danger for 37 minutes (Pittsburgh-East Tennessee State) and another No. 1 seed doing battle for a half (Louisville-Morehead State).

What does the second round have in store on Sunday? Here's a quick rundown:

No. 1 Pittsburgh (29-4) vs. No. 8 Oklahoma State (23-11)
Oklahoma State had the distinct pleasure of facing Blake Griffin three times this season. Oklahoma's beast of a big man and likely national player of the year averaged 25 points and 17 rebounds in those games.

Now comes another treat, as the Cowboys must find a way to deal with Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair, whom Oklahoma State forward Marshall Moses described as "the Loch Ness Monster."

"They're both one-of-a-kind players," Moses said. "Blake Griffin's athleticism is as good as anybody in the world, NBA players included. DeJuan Blair uses his body more to create shots for himself. He's also a great, great rebounder, and he's huge."

Blair nearly single-handedly saved his team from disaster in the first round against East Tennessee State, going off for 27 points and 16 rebounds. Just reading Oklahoma State's roster or watching them in layup lines, you wouldn't think they'd have a prayer of stopping such an inside force. They play a four-guard lineup with two sub-6-footers, and Moses is their lone post presence at a mere 6-foot-6.

Coach Travis Ford thought his team was using its lack of size as an excuse earlier in the season, especially during a 25-point drubbing at Texas on Feb. 10. So after that, Ford spent the next week running the players through defense and rebounding drills while hiding all basketballs for the first 45 minutes of practice. Though the players hated it at the time, they credit it for toughening them up and salvaging their season. Oklahoma State won six straight after that loss and is 9-2 since.

"I'm pretty glad we went through that one week of -- how can I put it -- torture," point guard Byron Eaton said. "Because now we're seeing all the positives that came out of it."

The Cowboys beat Griffin and Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament. Can they hang with Blair and top-seeded Pitt? Against much taller Tennessee on Friday, the four-guard lineup drew post defenders away from the basket, which Eaton and Moses exploited with pick-and-rolls. The Volunteers also complied by taking 33 3-pointers instead of working it inside, a mistake the Panthers are unlikely to repeat.

"We've never shot that many 3s in a game," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "We definitely don't want to shoot that many against their zone."

They would rather pound it in to the "Loch Ness Monster." Blair laughed when told of his new nickname and gave it his stamp of approval. He knows the Cowboys will try to sink him by getting him out of his comfort zone.

"It ain't nothing I haven't seen already," he said. "I'm just going to keep playing. I'm not going to change up for anybody."

No. 1 Louisville (29-5) vs. No. 9 Siena (27-7)
Siena's mascot is a friendly looking Saint Bernard. Louisville's secret to success lies in its feisty pit bulls.

A few weeks ago, Louisville assistant coach Walter McCarty -- who's known for his pregame motivational tactic of barking like a dog -- christened the Cardinals' most tenacious defenders as members of a pit bull club. Andre McGee is "Killer One," Preston Knowles is "Killer Two," Jerry Smith is "Cujo," Terrence Williams is "King" and Edgar Sosa is, oddly enough, "Burrito."

"When Walt first started calling me and Andre that, we laughed," Knowles said. "But then it really started sticking with us. Now we've got people out in the community coming by and calling us by our pit bull names. You know you're doing a good job when people around the community and around the nation are talking about defense instead of, 'Oh, he's a great offensive player.'"

The pit bulls at the front of Louisville's press have made life miserable for opponents all season. Their next target is Siena, which might have some ways to bite back.

The Saints have an experienced backcourt in senior Kenny Hasbrouck and junior point guard/first-round hero Ronald Moore, whom Rick Pitino called one of the fastest and best decision-making guards the Cardinals have seen.

"I feel very confident in our guards," Hasbrouck said. "[Louisville] is very aggressive. But at the same time, you can get beat when you're that aggressive. I'd rather have somebody up into me so that I can pass them rather than somebody slacking off trying to play me where I can't get the ball off."

Siena likes to press, too, applying a three-quarter court trap that it couldn't use much against Ohio State because of poor shooting. All that pressure on both sides could wear down a team that went to double-overtime on Friday night, and coach Fran McCaffery said he'll have to go to his bench more than he did in the first round. He knows all hands must be on deck against the pit bulls.

"If you rely on one person to break that pressure, I think you'd be sadly mistaken," McCaffery said. "It's got to be a collective effort, especially when they swarm you. It's hellacious pressure on the ball, anticipation on the next pass, up toward the ball, long-armed athletes."

The Saints plan to attack the pressure and push the ball as much as possible, but they'll have to find a way to counter Louisville's depth and size. This game should be played at a much more frenetic tempo than the Ohio State matchup. The pit bulls are already salivating.

"It's going to be a fast-paced game," McGee said. "Get ready to put you necks on a swivel."

Brian Bennett | email

ESPN Staff Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?