Former Pitt C DeJuan Blair
The Pitt men's basketball team has excited its followers well into March Madness the past eight seasons, including a deep run into the Elite Eight this past spring, but the Panthers have not been relevant this late into the offseason for quite some time.
Sure, there has been extreme optimism heading into a new season in recent years for Pittsburgh. In fact, the buzz emitted by last year's team probably was higher than ever, and rightly so. More specifically, talk about the Panthers at this time deals with former players and their prospects for the NBA Draft.
The annual event is tonight at 7 at Madison Square Garden in New York City and broadcast live by ESPN, and in all likelihood two former Pitt players -- center DeJuan Blair and forward Sam Young -- will be chosen in the NBA Draft's first round. With all that Pitt has accomplished since Jamie Dixon joined the program, including the past six seasons as the head coach, this feat would be spectacular.
While having multiple first-round NBA Draft picks practically is a summer rite for some programs, let's put this in perspective for Pitt. The only other time two Panthers were selected in the first round was 1988 with Charles Smith and Jerome Lane. Smith was the third overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, while Lane was taken 23rd overall by Denver Nuggets.
And only players with Pitt ties were first-round picks since then. Eric Mobley went to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1994 with the 18th overall pick, while Vonteego Cummings was taken 26th overall by the Indiana Pacers in 1999. And then they traded his draft rights to the Golden State Warriors. The Panthers had no NBA Draft picks last year, so this is big for the program.
"No, we haven't had a lot of success in many of the previous drafts, so I think it definitely will mean a lot to the program,'' Young said. "And it just adds to what Jamie has accomplished at Pitt.''
Young really hasn't been too nervous about the draft. He said he's basically been patient, quietly waiting for the event to get here. And like the shy, introspective person that he is, Young expected to spend draft night by himself, watching and waiting.
Blair is a polar opposite. Loud and loquacious, Blair will be with family and friends, and his extended family is quite large. When Blair declared for the NBA Draft, half the interview room at the Petersen Events Center appeared to be filled with Blair relatives and friends.
"I'm getting a little nervous, anxious, I guess, is what you could call it,'' Blair said. "I'm just anxiously waiting to see who picks me, that's all.''
Blair's weight loss, some 30 pounds in the past two months, has been well-documented. His strength and quickness, despite being about 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, has impressed NBA scouts. And his rebounding, especially on the offensive side, has been unparalleled the past two seasons at Pitt.
Blair, 20, is expected to be taken in the first round anywhere from a middle to later pick. The 6-6, 220-pound Young, 24, more likely will be taken with a late first-round selection, even though he is viewed by some as a player who could make an immediate impact on a team. Blair, however, has been described as having a bigger up-side, according to some scouting reports.
With two first-round picks, Pitt would become just the fourth Big East school in the past 13 years to accomplish that feat. Connecticut (2004 and 2006), Villanova (2006) and Seton Hall (2001) also did it.
And Blair and Young would give the Panthers four players taken in the past five drafts. Chris Taft (2005) and Aaron Gray (2007) were taken in the second round. What's interesting is that four Pitt players were drafted during the preceding 15-year span (1989-2004).
Even though there are two rounds and 60 selections in tonight's NBA Draft, Pitt's other two players with designs on making professional teams -- 6-8, 260-pound forward Tyrell Biggs and slick point guard Levance Fields -- aren't likely to be draft picks. They could hook on with an NBA team as a free agent or more likely play in Europe and do considerably well overseas.
In any event, tonight should be an historic event for the Pitt basketball program, and that should not be discounted at all.