There's little Gray area about what the Washington Huskies have to do to beat No. 7-ranked Pittsburgh today. Containing Aaron Gray, the...
PITTSBURGH — There’s little Gray area about what the Washington Huskies have to do to beat No. 7-ranked Pittsburgh today.
Containing Aaron Gray, the Huskies know, is essential if they are to get the kind of win that could revive their NCAA tournament hopes. Tipoff is 11 a.m. on ESPN, a rare Huskies appearance on that network and one of the biggest motivators for making a cross-country trip during the Pac-10 season.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said UW center Spencer Hawes of his matchup against Gray, a 7-foot senior center for the Panthers who is regarded as a possible NBA lottery pick in June. “It’s always fun to go up against the best.”
Hawes wouldn’t have the opportunity, however, if Gray hadn’t decided last summer to pull his name from consideration for the NBA draft to return for his final season.
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After being the only player in the Big East Conference last season to average a double-double (13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds), Gray pondered his future well past midnight on the eve of the deadline before deciding to return.
Asked what gave him the final nudge to stay, Gray says “my mom. She probably knows me more than I know myself, and she just felt like the things I was saying, the way I was acting, that I wanted to stay for another year. Once you get in the NBA, it’s kind of just a job — a great job — but I felt this would prepare me better to make more of an impact once I got into the NBA.”
Hawes figures to weigh similar thoughts a few months from now when he decides whether to return to UW for his sophomore season.
UW @ Pittsburgh, 11 a.m., ESPN
Though the two share a height and an NBA future, much else about their games and pedigrees are opposites.
“Totally different players,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar.
At 270 pounds, Gray is more of a traditional post power, doing most of his work close to the basket, unlike the 225-pound Hawes, whose greatest strengths are shooting and passing.
On defense, Washington might use burly sophomore Jon Brockman against Gray.
Unlike Hawes, there was little buzz about Gray when he signed with Pitt four years ago when Ben Howland was the coach before leaving for UCLA.
A native of Emmaus., Pa., a little north of Philadelphia, Gray played football and baseball exclusively until ninth grade before a basketball coach at his high school talked him into coming out for the team. His size had recruiters interested from the start, but he wasn’t a top 100-type player as he headed to Pitt.
Gray played sparingly as a freshman (88 minutes in 15 games) and was still a reserve as a sophomore. But improved conditioning (he weighed 310 pounds when he enrolled at Pitt) finally paid off last season as he busted into the starting lineup and earned All-Big East honors.
“I can play 35 to 37 minutes a game now if they need me,” said Gray, averaging 14.8 points and 10.0 rebounds.
Most nights, that hasn’t been necessary as Pitt has often rolled, having already clinched its sixth straight 20-win season, with Gray joining returning starters Levon Kendall (a 6-10 forward from Vancouver, B.C.) and Ronald Ramon (6-1 guard) as well as forward Mike Cook (a transfer who was a starter at East Carolina two years ago) to form one of the most experienced teams in the Big East.
Not that there haven’t been stumbles. Pitt was dominated at home on Monday in a 66-53 loss to Louisville, just its eighth loss in 86 games in the on-campus Petersen Events Center, which opened in 2002.
“That is not something we are worried about,” said Gray. “We have a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
The Huskies are coming off a more disappointing defeat, a 65-61 loss to Washington State on Wednesday that put UW in win-or-else mode the rest of the season in terms of making the NCAA tournament.
“I think we are ready to bounce back,” Hawes said Thursday. “We know we had a lot of chances.”
It might help if the Huskies can get the ball inside more consistently than they did at the end of the WSU game, though the presence of Gray will make that a tough task.
Hawes said “it was a little bit frustrating” that he was unable to get a shot the last 5:33 against the Cougs.
“We just have to keep working on it. And when they do take that away, we have to take advantage of that. When they are going to put that much emphasis inside, it gives you that much more opportunity outside, and we have to take advantage of that.”
• Pitt is 46-1 in nonconference games at the Petersen Events Center since it opened in 2002, the lone defeat coming against Bucknell in 2005.
• The Huskies have lost their last 31 games against top-10 teams on the road since winning at Kansas in 1974.