Panthers Pre-Game: UCLA

Aaron Gray

PITTSBURGH -- While most people are talking about how similar the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA are, junior Mike Cook believed that senior Aaron Gray could be a difference-maker for the Panthers. Pitt (29-7) and the Bruins (28-5) meet Thursday at 9:40 p.m. Eastern at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.

"The biggest difference probably is Aaron, our 7-footer,'' Cook said. "I think we're pretty much even, other than the height difference at center, so it should be a good game. It's very exciting for us to play against a good team like UCLA and a program like that which has so much history.

"I guess it has to be exciting for everybody. But we're a great team, too, so we just have to go out and play the best game that we can play. From now on, we're going to face a tough team every night. That's the way it is in the NCAA Tournament. But the first games were tough games, too.''

Senior forward Levon Kendall further dissected the matchup.

"I think their strength is probably their guards, but we're a little more balanced,'' Kendall said. "And I think our front line is a little deeper, so that's a matchup we might be able to exploit. But we're just looking forward to this game and finally getting into the Elite Eight. That's our goal.

"Sure, UCLA has a great tradition, and we want to take our program to that next level. But I think both programs are kind of on the upswing right now. They had a down time for a while, and we're both sort of making that run to the top teams in the country. So, we'll see what happens.''

Actually, Pitt is the top Big East team in the past six seasons with an 80.2-percent winning percentage overall (162-40) and in Conference games (71-25, 74 percent). The Panthers are fifth among all Division I-A programs behind Duke (167-37, 81.9 percent), Gonzaga (159-36, 81.5), Memphis (159-37, 80.7) and Kansas (167-40, 80.7).

Pitt and UCLA haven't played each other since the 1990-91 season, the Panthers' fifth loss (112-85) in the six-game series, but that doesn't mean the two programs aren't familiar with each other.

"Just watching them on TV, we can call out the plays that they're running and everything,'' Pitt junior forward Mike Cook said. "We have basically the same plays and the same type of players, so it should be a very interesting game.''

It initially didn't appear that Cook would be able to play against UCLA due to a knee injury suffered in Pitt's second-round game. He banged knees with an opponent in the first half and played just seven minutes in the second half. The knee was bruised and subsequently swelled, but he took part in practice at Santa Clara University and is ready to go.

Cook again will be joined in Pitt's starting lineup by guards Levance Fields and Antonio Graves, forward Levon Kendall and center Aaron Gray. This group, it was noted by former Pitt point guard and current team video coordinator Brandin Knight, could give UCLA some matchup problems.

"I think a lot of the principles are the same, so it should be just like going against each other in practice for these guys,'' Knight said. "It should be fun to see who's going to be able to withstand what the other guys can do.

"And it's going to be a grind-out, defensive game. So, the stars are going to have to shine on their team, and they're going to have to shine on our team. And whoever performs better is going to win.''

Look for Graves to guard the Bruins leading scorer, 6-foot-5 junior guard Arron Afflalo (16.7 points per game). Kendall likely isn't athletic enough to handle him. There is a size differential for the 6-2, 190-pound Graves to deal with, but that shouldn't matter too much.

"I always get a good matchup,'' Graves said. "They can't be any tougher than the guys we played all year in the Big East. I know they're good, but we have several guys who should give them some problems, too.''

Another 6-5 swingman, sophomore Josh Shipp, averages 13.2 points per game for UCLA. And 6-1 sophomore point guard Darren Collison is at 12.8 points and about six assists per game, while 6-8 sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (8.5 points and 7.7 rebounds) and 6-9 junior center Lorenzo Mata (6.8, 5.5) provide a more balanced contribution.

"They have a lot of good players, but this is an opportunity for us to advance further in the NCAA Tournament than any other Pitt team,'' junior Keith Benjamin said. "So, we definitely want to take advantage of that opportunity, because you never know when you'll get another chance.''

The Panthers played in three straight Sweet Sixteen games from 2002-2004, but lost each one. The only other teams to advance to four third-round games in the past six seasons are Duke (five times), Kansas, Texas and Connecticut (four each like Pitt).

With a difference-maker like Gray in the lineup, Pitt could take that next step.

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