An Understated Career

Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy, when asked of senior guard Zach Graham, had a fitting description."Zach is understated," he said. Well put.

When his career in basketball ends, be it upon the final horn of his last game in an Ole Miss uniform or further down the line, Zach Graham will have his time to reflect.

Because he can't do it now. Not with his team midway through its challenging regular-season schedule. The future, at least today, seems so far away. He wants to continue in basketball for as long as he can. He has developed a passion for this game. It's a part of him now.

"People ask me that all the time," Graham said of his future. "I've put so much work into this since I've been a kid. I've developed a love for this game. I like football, but I love basketball.

Zach Graham

"If you put so much work and effort into something that you love, you definitely want to continue doing that as long as you can."

Before he signed with Ole Miss in November of 2006, Graham was a two-sport standout for Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga. He was athletically gifted in basketball and football, receiving multiple scholarship offers in both sports.

Graham simply preferred basketball. He had a future in the sport. Yes, he was a gifted quarterback. Mississippi State offered him the opportunity to don maroon and white. Arkansas offered. Boston College offered.

But he was drawn to Ole Miss. More importantly, he was drawn to its head coach, Andy Kennedy. Graham was Kennedy's prize recruit. Graham was his priority.

"Zach is understated," Kennedy said.

Graham played in every game over his freshman season and performed well enough. He averaged just 5.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 14 minutes a game. Meanwhile, his fellow 2006 signee, Chris Warren, burst onto the scene, setting Ole Miss basketball on fire with his volume offense and rainbow 3-pointers.

"Coming into college, I wanted to see improvement every season – freshman, sophomore, junior," Graham said.

Modest, but determined goals. As Kennedy said, Graham is understated. What he wanted to accomplish was simple. So he went to work, living and breathing basketball each and every day. Now his career numbers speak for themselves.

Graham is but a handful of wins shy of become the winningest player in program history. Jason Flanigan currently holds the record with 87 career wins. Graham also has a chance to eclipse 1,000 points in his career.

"You can't stop working," Graham said. "You've got to always try and get better. My freshman year to my sophomore year, I always thought of things I could get better at. Now I've gone from my sophomore year to my junior year. Now I'm in my senior year. As you get older, I think you become more mature. You gain wisdom. You have to listen to what others ask of you, and try and bring that on and off the floor."

Warren gets the publicity, and that's fine by Graham. He is an ultimate team player. He and Graham have a strong bond both on and off the court. He cheers for Warren. Warren cheers for him.

Warren gets the headlines, but Graham has never cared for those, anyway

So go right ahead and call Graham a complimentary player. Call him a defensive specialist. Call him a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter. Describe him however you wish.

Because whether admitted or not, Graham has developed into a player encompassing all of those traits – a consistent, better-than-he-gets-credit-for program great.

"He's really grown up before our eyes," Kennedy said. "I know he's got a real sense of urgency that you want to see seniors play with. He's a quality kid who's going to get his degree in business and be very productive when basketball stops."

What he cares for, what drives him, is his competitiveness.

His sophomore season, when Warren suffered a season-ending ACL injury, Graham stepped in and led a youthful roster. And he did it on a partially torn patella tendon.

He could barely practice. Actually, as the conclusion of the regular season neared, he didn't practice at all. But without fail, upon every tip that season, no matter the game, Graham was in the starting lineup.

Again, understated.

"My primary goal is for Chris (Warren) and Zach to leave here the way that they want, the way they deserve," Kennedy said.

Kennedy, of course, was referring to the NCAA Tournament. It's a final destination Ole Miss hasn't reached in eight years. The Rebels were close last season, finishing 24-11. But a loss to Tennessee in the conference tournament sealed their fate and left them to settle for the NIT.

It was another oh-so-close season. Graham has had plenty of them. In his previous three years, only once had Ole Miss not been in contention for the field of 64 late in a season. Each time, however, the Rebels were left out.

"I don't know what it would feel like," Graham said of appearing in the NCAA Tournament. "I've never gotten there. It's a long way away from right now. It's a long road of hard work. If I do get that experience, I'll let you know how it feels."

If given the chance, what advice would Graham the senior share with Graham the freshman? Graham laughed at the notion when asked, mainly because he couldn't find the answer. He's learned so much in his three-plus seasons.

"Man, I wouldn't even know where to start," he said, eyes turned upwards in recollection. "I'll just say I know a lot more now than when I first got here."


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