PITTSBURGH (AP)—One of college basketball’s biggest mismatches so far this season is Aaron Gray against any team on Pittsburgh’s schedule.
Gray overpowered undersized Northeastern for 24 points and 14 rebounds despite sitting out much of the second half and No. 4 Pittsburgh became the second Big East team to rout the Huskies in three days, winning 78-52 Friday.
The 7-foot Gray, 4 inches taller than any Huskies starter, set up in the low blocks along the free-throw lane, took outlet passes and used a soft shooting touch to toss in short-range shots that Northeastern couldn’t defend. He made 11 of 16 shots.
“We didn’t have the size to combat him,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “Aaron Gary is a centerpiece anybody would like to have. He’s tough to guard and commands so much attention.”
Antonio Graves, a senior guard who is playing much more early in the season than he did last season, added 15 points and Keith Benjamin had 11 for Pitt (3-0). Northeastern (0-2) was led by Eugene Spates’ 19 points.
Coach Jamie Dixon repeatedly stressed to his players the importance of taking advantage of Gray’s size and ability.
“We wanted to get the ball inside and feed off that and it was working,” Gray said. “We executed our plays really well, guys were making great passes and we just kept going to it.”
Gray, chosen by coaches as the Big East preseason player of the year, is averaging 17 points and nearly 12 rebounds despite sitting out an average of 15 minutes per game. He was voted the Big East’s most improved player in his first season as a starter last season and Dixon suggested he might have improved even more this season.
“I’ve kept telling people he’ll be a better player and he might be the most improved player in the Big East again and people laugh,” Dixon said. “But as everyone can see, he’s a much better player. He’s better at finishing around the basket, he’s better running the floor, he’s better defending and he is a better passer. He’s doing a better job at getting position, too.”
Gray had 17 points by halftime as Pitt opened a 38-24 lead, then rested much of the second half. Northeastern couldn’t make a run in the second half to get back into the first of three round-robin games the teams will play in three days in the Colonial Athletic Association Classic.
“It’s easy to see why they’re the No. (4) team in the country,” Coen said.
While Gray is Pitt’s marquee player, the senior said the Panthers’ overall depth allows him to assert himself offensively. Pitt returned eight of its top 10 players after going 25-8 last season.
“I don’t really think about scoring when I go out there,” Gray said. “My main emphasis and my biggest asset to this team is my rebounding. We have so many players on this team who can score, and so many guys who are setting me up so well, maybe I get too much credit.”
Northeastern, an 81-58 loser Wednesday to Syracuse in its season opener, no doubt would have preferred to go up against Pitt last season when it had 6-10 Shawn James, the CAA defensive player of the year and the nation’s leading shot blocker.
But James transferred to another Pittsburgh school, Duquesne, after former Huskies coach Ron Everhart was hired there—a move that left Northeastern without its top three players from the 19-win team of last season. That lack of depth and size was reflected in Pitt’s 44-25 edge in rebounding.
Pitt won its 14th consecutive game against non-Big East opposition and is 60-1 at home against non-conference opponents since the Petersen Events Center opened in 2002.
The exempt tournament winds up next weekend when Florida State visits Pitt. Massachusetts, which plays Pitt on Saturday, beat Oakland 65-56 earlier in the day.