Cook: Gray carrying Pitt on his back
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It's probably an exaggeration to say that sickening thud at the Petersen Events Center last night echoed all the way to Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Wis., and every other Big East Conference college town that has hopes of its basketball team winning the league title.
Not much of an exaggeration, though.
A 7-foot, 270-pound man makes a tremendous noise when he falls 8 or 9 feet and lands directly on his back on a hard wooden floor, especially when that man is Pitt center Aaron Gray.
Pitt won't win the conference championship if he gets hurt and can't play.
That's why, in this marvelous Pitt season, which got a little better last night with a 74-68 victory against Providence, there has been no better sight than Gray picking himself quickly up off the court after his legs were taken out by Providence's Ray Hall on a dunk attempt late in the second half.
The collision with the floor was so violent that it knocked off Gray's size 18 left shoe, left him "a little woozy" and assured that he will wake up this morning with a stiff back. But he was able to finish the game and deliver the type of performance that went a long way toward explaining why the Big East coaches named him as a first-team all-league player last season and picked him as the preseason player of the year this season.
"He's got the whole combination," Providence coach Tim Welsh said after Gray won the game for Pitt. "Size. Strength. Experience. Good quickness now because he's in better shape. A smart player ... "
Gray's numbers -- 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists -- would have been even greater if he hadn't sat out the final 8:53 of the first half with two fouls. Providence, which normally uses a zone defense, played a lot of man-to-man in an attempt to control Pitt's 3-point shooters. It worked to a degree; Pitt made just 5 of 13 3s. But it failed badly overall because of Gray's 10-of-17 shooting night.
"You kind of pick your poison against them," Welsh said, shrugging.
Funny, just about every Big East coach has said that about Pitt this season.
That's why we probably should appreciate Gray a little more than we do.
Maybe it's because he's such a monster of a man and is hauling around that preseason player of the year tag, but it seems like whatever he does is never quite enough. He almost certainly will become just the third Pitt player to be a two-time, first-team, all-league selection, joining Charles Smith and Brian Shorter. Come tournament time -- the Big East and the NCAAs -- he'll draw the most attention from opposing coaches. And in June, he'll be a first-round NBA draft pick, as long as he doesn't have too many more of those unexpected meetings with the hardwood.
So why isn't he getting 40 and 20 every night?
Or so the thinking goes.
Gray said he is not unaware of his detractors.
His feet are too slow, they say.
A good, quick big man will eat him up in the big games. (Remember Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant in the NCAA tournament last season?)
He misses too many layups. (See his 5-for-11 shooting day against Bradley.)
He's a detriment at the free-throw line. (Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, obviously aware of his erratic free-throw shooting, made an injury substitution when Gray landed on his back, sending in Mike Cook to shoot his two free throwss.)
Gray said he doesn't care what anyone outside the Pitt program says about him because he knows his coach and teammates realize his value to a Pitt team that's 22-3. But he couldn't help but add, "We're No. 1 in the Big East and a top-five team in the country. If people still are complaining, that's ridiculous."
Gray was right when he said it's unfair to judge him solely on his stats. They're more than respectable -- 15 points and a Big East-leading 10 rebounds per game. "But they don't measure how much attention I attract out there," Gray said.
It's fair to say Gray's presence leads to open shots for his 3-point specialist teammates Ronald Ramon, Antonio Graves and Levance Fields.
You kind of pick your poison against them ...
It's also fair to say Pitt wouldn't be in first place in the Big East with a 10-1 record without him even if some have said -- OK, me -- that Fields is the team MVP.
"He's just a load," Welsh said.
Gray nearly made Welsh and his Big East coaching brethren happy by leaving for the NBA after last season and would have been a No. 1 pick because, well, you just can't teach a guy how to be 7-foot tall. He said he came back to work on his game.
"Absolutely, I feel like I've improved. I think I'm rebounding better. I think my passing is better."
Gray said the other reason he returned to Pitt was because he believed the team had a great chance to win the Big East regular-season and tournament titles and go deep in the NCAAs.
Nothing that has happened so far this season has changed his mind.
On nights like this, when Gray absolutely dominates, it's a lot easier to like Pitt's chances.
"This," Gray said, "is what my guys rely on me to do."
Now and especially in March.
First Published February 11, 2007 12:00 am