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Gray picks Pitt over NBA

| Monday, June 19, 2006

In the end, the thought of a national championship run at Pitt was too much for Aaron Gray to pass up.

The 7-foot, 270-pound center, expected to be the Panthers' centerpiece on a veteran team that is likely to earn a preseason top-10 ranking this fall, announced Sunday he will return to school for his senior season.

In the process, he spurned the possibility of becoming a first-round selection in next week's NBA draft.

"Aaron and I spent a lot of time together during the past two days," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We stuck to the plan, even though there were some people who were anxious. I anticipated this was going to go down to the wire, and it did."

As late as yesterday, Dixon was receiving calls from NBA personnel, many of whom indicated Gray would have been a first-round selection when the draft is held June 28 in New York.

But Gray, who became a starter for Pitt just last season and was the lone Big East Conference player to average a double-double (13.9 points per game, 10.5 rebounds), remained loyal to the Panthers. He informed Dixon and his teammates of his decision just before the 5 p.m. deadline for early entry withdrawal.

"My options were to play my senior year and graduate from the University of Pittsburgh or play in the NBA," Gray said in a statement. "This decision will allow me to achieve both goals. I'm looking forward to continuing the success that we've established at Pitt and finishing my career with fellow seniors Levon Kendall, Antonio Graves and Doyle Hudson."

Under NCAA rules, Gray retained the option to withdraw from the draft and return to school because he did not sign with an agent.

"This is something that will energize us as a team. It certainly has me excited," said Kendall, a senior forward for the Panthers. "Aaron is a good friend of mine, and I've talked to him about this from time to time. Every time I did, I got the feeling it was pretty much up in the air. I have to tell you that I really had no idea what he was going to do. I think he was feeling the same way."

Gray's return gives Pitt hope for yet another run deep into the postseason next year. The Panthers posted a surprising 25-8 record last season but lost to Bradley in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

But now, they lose only one key player -- guard Carl Krauser, who wound up as the Panthers' ninth all-time leading scorer -- and almost certainly will be considered as a preseason favorite in the Big East next season.

Gray was invited to attend the Orlando Pre-Draft Camp in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., earlier this month but did not participate in games. Instead, he staged a private workout for all NBA teams.

"While his progress has been substantial over the last three years, I believe his improvement in the coming season will be even more dramatic," Dixon said. "From the information we gathered from NBA people, the consensus was that Aaron would have been a first-round pick in this year's draft or next year's draft. Either way, he will have a long NBA career."

Gray, named the Big East's most improved player, became only the sixth Panthers player to make the all-Big East team since Pitt joined the conference in 1982. He shot 52.6 percent (170 of 323) and had a team-high 49 blocked shots. He also was the first Pitt player to average double figures in scoring and rebounding since Jerome Lane in 1987-88.

Gray will be among eight of the top 10 players back from a team that advanced to the Big East championship game for the fifth time in the past six seasons.

"It's huge that he's coming back," Kendall said. "This gives us an even better option to go large or go small. We've got a lot of combinations we can go with. Now, we've got to take the next step. I think we're going to be a real dangerous team. We should be pushing for the Final Four."

RANKING GRAY

Pitt center Aaron Gray led the Big East Conference in total rebounding and defensive rebounds last season. A look at where he ranked in key statistical categories among Big East players:

Category Avg. Rank
Scoring 13.9 20
Rebounding 10.5 1
FG Percentage .526 3
Blocks 1.5 12
Offensive rebounds 3.7 2
Defensive rebounds 6.8 1

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