Ready for a whopper?

Josh Peter

PITTSBURGH – National signing day is one for recruiting junkies at the University of Pittsburgh, because only a junkie would recognize the names of the Panthers’ recruits.

OK, so when the latest class was announced Thursday, maybe the locals knew DeJuan Blair considering he plays high school basketball a mile from Pitt’s campus. But Darnell Dodson? Allegedly a small forward who hails from Greenbelt, Md. Gary McGhee? Supposedly a center that lives in Anderson, Ind. Bradley Wanamaker? Apparently a guard from Philadelphia who is appropriately described as “underrated” on Pitt’s signing day press release, which is the only way a non-junkie would know who the heck these guys are. Yet Jamie Dixon, Pitt’s head coach, touts the latest class of recruits as the school’s best in eight years.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’’ he said, as if just having spotted a knockout.

For recruiting junkie and non-junkie alike, this is unmistakably beautiful: The Pitt Panthers have reached the Sweet 16 three times in the past five years and entered this season favored to win the Big East conference. They’re ranked No. 4 in the country without a single McDonald’s high school All-American on their roster. In fact, the Pitt Panthers haven’t signed a McDonald’s All-American in almost two decades.

The Panthers, emboldened by five consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, now court the nation’s top recruits. Last year it was Paul Harris, a high school All-American who flirted with Pitt before signing with Syracuse. This year they missed out on Michael Beasley, yet another blue-chipper who batted his eyes at the Panthers before signing with Kansas State. Jilted yet again, Pitt will rely on a system that confounds some and charms others.

Under Dixon and his predecessor, Ben Howland, the Panthers have shown a knack for signing what many see as second-tier recruits and molding them into a first-tier team. The perfect example of how it’s done stands 7 feet, weighs 270 pounds and wears a take-a-look-at-me-now grin. His name is Aaron Gray, and he arrived at Pitt as yet another Who’s that recruit in a Who’s who world. Four years later, he’s a preseason All-American and the latest testament to Pitt’s penchant for Extreme Makeovers.

Gray said he was cleaning out his room this offseason when he found some old videotapes. He popped one into the VCR, only then realizing it was a tape of one of Pitt’s practices from his freshman year.

“I was trying to pick myself out,’’ said Gray, who finally recognized himself as the thick-waisted behemoth lumbering up and down the court. “It’s the perfect Before-and-After.’’

The Before: Gray looked like he did most of his training at the training table. He weighed 310 pounds, shopped at the big-and-tall store (emphasis on big) and turned wind sprints into winded sprints. He had skills, which he displayed that season when he scored on a layup over Emeka Okafor, Connecticut’s All-American. “That’s all everybody was talking about, me scoring on Emeka,’’ Gray said. But Gray remembers something else.

An instant after scoring on Okafor, he was chasing UConn’s star up and down the court, barely reaching the top of the 3-point circle before Okafor and the action already were headed the opposite way. Within 90 seconds, Gray was back on the bench, where he spent most of his freshman season.

He lost 35 pounds that offseason and played 20 games as a sophomore, but averaged only 4.3 points and 2.8 rebounds. Then, when Pitt center Chris Taft left early for the NBA, Gray finally got his chance. Pitt fans were hoping for a solid 20 minutes per game. They got much more.

Starting all 33 games, he played almost 28 minutes per game and also averaged a double-double, 13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. And when the likes of UConn sent in waves of big men to try to slow down Gray, he looked like, well, not a gazelle, but not like that lumbering giant from his freshman year either.

That became even clearer when Gray found that practice tape this summer and got a look at the Before-and-After reel.

The After: He still shops at the big-and-tall store (emphasis now on tall), weighs 270 pounds and occasionally leads the team when they break out on wind sprints. He looks like a solid NBA prospect and scouts projected him as a late first-round pick had he gone pro after last season. But Gray decided to come back to make himself better, and help Pitt better. They’re still waiting for the breakthrough here, where the Sweet 16 has become the Bittersweet 16.

The Panthers have failed to advance beyond that round in the NCAA Tournament during this five-year run, and last year they lost to Bradley in the second round. The year before they lost to mighty Pacific. Critics contend that the Panthers, who rely on defense and a methodical offense, are built for the bruising Big East, but not for the NCAA tournament. Yet now the Panthers are talking Final Four. Not brashly, but audibly.

Gray said he decided to return for his senior season only after talking to his teammates and making sure they were as committed as he is to reaching the Final Four and making a serious run for the national championship. With its traditional alchemy, Dixon and his staff have turned a group of second-tier recruits into a top-flight team. Carl Krauser, the team’s most dynamic player from last season, graduated. Gray is the only Pitt player on the preseason All-Big East team. But the Panthers return three starters and eight of their top 10 players from last season.

Some teams are a twisted ankle away from disaster. Pitt will run out of sports tape before it runs out of players. Ten scored for Pitt on Friday night against Northeastern, and Gray led the Panthers to a 78-52 victory with 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 14 rebounds.

Dixon said what he likes most about his team is it’s unselfish. That’ll be a requisite for the Panthers to make full use of their talent. Ronald Ramon, a shooting guard who started all but four games last year, is coming off the bench. So is Sam Young, a burly forward who would be starting on most teams. Without a single McDonald’s All-American, Dixon hopes he has no All-American egos, the kind who can undermine a balanced team expected to contend for the national championship.

So far, so good, with the team getting together for occasional bowling night in the offseason and early this week assembling to watch one of the mid-week games on ESPN. Gray and a bunch of teammates got particularly excited during the halftime show when commentator Steve Lavin prepared to announce his top five teams.

Turns out they’re ranked somewhere sixth or lower. Pitt didn’t make Lavin’s list.

“At first we were kind of mad,’’ Gray said.

But the Panthers decided to use the snub as fuel to prove that they belong among the nation’s elite teams. Now’s the time.