By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Georgetown center Roy Hibbert tries to treat every game with equal importance. But tonight's game at seventh-ranked Pittsburgh is a little different, because he will be facing a player who can look him in the eye: Aaron Gray, the preseason Big East player of the year.
"I've been looking forward to this one all season," Hibbert said. "But I'm not going to try to make it personal. It's Georgetown versus Pittsburgh, not Roy Hibbert versus Aaron Gray."
But the matchup between Hibbert, a 7-foot-2 junior, and Gray, a 7-foot senior, will be at the center of the game. Both are rarities in the current college game: back-to-the-basket centers with solid low-post fundamentals. And both have transformed themselves from raw freshmen into unanimous picks for the preseason all-Big East team.
"I compare those two as far as their development," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said. "Roy was probably a bigger recruit and more well known [coming out of Georgetown Prep], but both have progressed over their careers. Aaron's always had the tools, similar to Roy -- the soft hands, the ability to pass. It's his work ethic that's made him better."
Gray, who was named the Pennsylvania state player of the year as a senior at Emmaus High, came to Pittsburgh as a 310-pound project. He, like Hibbert, needed to improve his conditioning. He, like Hibbert, was redshirted as a freshman. But he, unlike Hibbert, rarely played during his first season.
Hibbert was forced to learn on the job as a freshman; he started 17 games and appeared in all 32, averaging 5.1 points. He often looked awkward and overwhelmed. But Hibbert benefited from playing alongside forward Jeff Green -- his classmate and friend, who was named the Big East co-rookie of the year -- and part of his motivation stemmed from wanting to become a stronger player to help alleviate some of the pressure on Green.
Gray spent most of his first two seasons on the bench, averaging just 9.6 minutes while playing behind Chris Taft and Chevy Troutman. Gray now says that sitting on the bench as a freshman was the best thing for him, because it "added to my fire" and drove him to become a better player.
He also says that he knows exactly what Hibbert went through.
"It takes longer for bigger guys to develop. Your body keeps changing, so you progressively have to be re-acquainted with yourself," said Gray, who lost nearly 30 pounds between his sophomore and junior seasons. "It's probably one of the best feelings when you can stop worrying about, can I catch the ball? Am I going to be able to get up and down the court?"
For both Hibbert and Gray, that transformation came last season. Hibbert was leaner and more confident, he unveiled a baby hook shot, and he doubled his scoring average to 11.6 points. Gray, who spent his offseason driving to Philadelphia to play against other college and pro players, became one of the Big East's most dominant inside players, strong on the blocks, and capable of stepping out to shoot. He became the first Pittsburgh player in 18 years to average a double-double (13.9 points and 10.5 rebounds), and was named the Big East's most improved player.
This season, Hibbert leads the Hoyas with 11.7 points per game. He and his teammates are having to learn how to deal with double-teams; in Georgetown's 56-52 loss to Villanova on Monday, the Hoyas struggled to get the ball inside to Hibbert, who wasn't credited with a single field goal attempt (though he was fouled on three shot attempts).
Gray -- known as "Grayzilla" in the Oakland Zoo, the Pittsburgh student section -- is averaging 14.9 points and 10.2 rebounds. Dixon said the Panthers haven't seen nearly as many double-teams on Gray as they thought they would. Gray, an excellent passer, is surrounded by several good shooters: senior Antonio Graves (27 of 53 three-point attempts), sophomore Levance Fields (22 of 63) and junior Ronald Ramon (36 of 82).
"Gray is such a focal point that everyone asks, 90 percent of the questions are, 'What do you think about Gray, Gray, Gray?'" Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said. "But then you sit and watch tapes of them, and they're terrific at every position. Their guards are as good a tandem as there is in the league and maybe the country."
After declaring for the NBA draft last spring, Gray consulted family as well as his returning teammates, asking them if they were committed to becoming Big East champions. He stayed in Dixon's office until 1:30 a.m. the night before the deadline before withdrawing.
"Basically what it came down to, when I looked back on my life, I thought I'd be giving up too much of an opportunity, to pass up my senior year and [not] play for a team that I think can do a lot of special things," Gray said.
Hibbert could find himself in the exact same position in a couple of months. He has repeatedly said that he intends to stay at Georgetown for four full years, following the same path as Gray.
"It's a testament to hard work," Hibbert said of Gray's four-year career. "If you work hard, good things will happen. That's what I plan on doing."