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Gray hopes to maximize return |

Gray hopes to maximize return

| Thursday, July 6, 2006 12:00 a.m

A season of hope ended too soon for Aaron Gray and Pitt, whose second-round loss to Bradley last spring brought an early exit from the NCAA Tournament.

Now, with the start of another season months away, Gray’s decision to return to school for his senior year has made the Panthers an early favorite to contend for a national championship.

At least three preseason polls have placed the Panthers in the top 10, with ranking them third.

“We’ve got a lot of people returning. We’ve got a lot of experience,” said Gray, the Big East Conference’s most improved player after averaging a double-double (13.9 points per game., 10.5 rebound per game.) last season.

That the 7-foot, 270-pound Gray was expected to be a first-round NBA draft pick wasn’t enough to temper his enthusiasm for the potential that is brewing at Pitt this year.

Gray has no regrets about withdrawing his name from the draft before the June 18 deadline.

“The NBA draft is over,” he said. “Every college team in the country knows what players are returning and what players have left. I’ve made my decision, and I haven’t looked back.”

Gray is one of Pitt’s four returning starters, and several players who made significant contributions are back.

Senior Levon Kendall was a staple in the lineup last season. The 6-9 forward averaged 7.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

Junior guards Ronald Ramon (8.0 ppg.) and Keith Benjamin (4.6 ppg.) were in coach Jamie Dixon’s opening lineup at season’s end, though illness forced Benjamin to miss the NCAA Tournament.

Sophomore forward Sam Young (7.9 ppg.), senior guard Antonio Graves (5.0 ppg.) and sophomore guard Levance Fields (6.8 ppg.) also averaged high minutes, sometimes in starting roles.

“One of our biggest additions, Mike Cook, who sat out, has gotten a taste of how competitive the Big East is,” Gray said. “He knows exactly what is going to happen. There’s going to be no surprises. That’s a big advantage to us and something we’re going to look forward to.”

Cook, a 6-4, 230-pound forward, led East Carolina in scoring (15.0 ppg.) as a sophomore in 2004-05.

Gone is guard Carl Krauser, the team’s leading scorer (15.0 ppg.), as well as associate head coach Barry Rohrssen, who took over as coach of Manhattan, and assistant coach Joe Lombardi, who moved on to be head coach at Indiana (Pa.).

Mike Rice, the son of the former Duquesne coach with the same name, left the St. Joseph’s staff to accept one of the spots. The other was filled by Orlando Antigua, who was elevated from director of basketball operations.

Despite a relatively new look, a lot has remained the same for Dixon’s team, as the fourth-year coach continues to deal with the loss of his sister, former Army coach Maggie Dixon, who died in April of an arrhythmic episode of her heart.

“Our whole mind-set, as a team, is we’ve got to get better,” Gray said. “It was a learning process for a lot of us last season. We were playing many times with three freshmen in the lineup, so we were real inexperienced. But we played the whole year knowing what things were going to be like.”

Only Gray and Graves are left from Pitt’s Sweet 16 team in 2004, and neither player made much of an impact that year.

“I played like eight minutes a game over my first two seasons,” said Gray. “Right now, we realize the potential we have, but we really haven’t done much.”

Gray is pleased the entire team is on campus and working out this summer. He said he asked every one of his teammates to make the type of commitment that he felt he was making by returning to school.

“We understand if we want to get better, there’s a lot of things we have to change,” Gray said. “We not only have to change our work ethic and how much we workout but also our mind-set.

“We can’t settle for making it to the Big East championship game and losing. We can’t settle for being the fifth-best team in the Big East during the regular season. We can’t settle for making the NCAA Tournament, or even getting into the second round or even the Sweet 16. We have to set our goals higher.

“Right now, we’re just working as hard as we can to achieve them. This season, it’s going to be special, man.”

For starters

The Pitt basketball team returns a veteran group of players from last year’s 25-8 season, including four starters. They are:

Player Ht. Class Pos. Pts. Reb.
Aaron Gray 7-0 Sr. C 13.9 10.5
Levon Kendall 6-9 Sr. F 7.0 5.4
Ronald Ramon 6-1 Jr. G 8.0 1.4
Keith Benjamin 6-2 Jr. G 4.6 2.9
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