Graham prepares for year two with Rebs

There's been a lot of talk about the new front court players and how they'll do this season and also the return of Chris Warren at point guard. Zach Graham is flying a bit under the radar, but he's an important part of the Rebels' team again this year.

I doubt if most fans would guess accurately just how many games the 6-foot-6, 225-pound guard/forward from Suwanee, Ga., played in last season. Some might, but my guess is not most.

How about all of them? Graham, then a freshman, played in all 35 games and was a key factor in the 24-11 Rebels' run to New York in the NIT.

He started seven games and averaged 5.9 points per contest along with 2.7 rebounds in 13.9 minutes per game.

The talent level up and down the roster has improved for Ole Miss men's basketball. Graham will likely play another key role in whatever success the Rebels have this season.

"I'm way more comfortable now than I was coming in last year," said Graham, who prepped at Peachtree Ridge High School where he was also a record-setting quarterback on a postseason playoff team. "I came in here last year and didn't really know a lot. From my first year to my second year has been a big transition, and that's good."

He wants to help the several new guys in the program get adjusted and acclimated.

"I see in them where I was last year," he said. "I see some things they need to do. I know they are new at everything, and I try to help them out as best I can."

Graham and the other veterans will have to step up early to lift this team through a tough preseason schedule. The Rebels were 13-0 before Southeastern Conference play last season and ended up 14-0 in regular season non-conference games.

By Dec. 18 they will have faced the likes of West Virginia at home, Utah and Marshall in a tournament in Daytona Beach, Louisville in the SEC-Big East Invitational in Cincinnati, New Mexico on the road in The Pit, New Orleans on the road, and have had home games with South Alabama, Arkansas State, and Central Florida.

I repeat, all that by Dec. 18, along with home games vs. Morgan State and Alabama State.

But the Rebels are equipped to handle a schedule like that. Graham said they are preparing diligently toward all those games and others as the season approaches. He likes what he sees throughout the team.

"Everything we do in practice is intense. Everything is hard. Our guys have really been picking up the schemes of what we have to do quickly. I think our team is smart. The young guys have been learning well, what we need to do and what Coach (Andy) Kennedy wants."

Graham knows a key to the year is not only the development of the front court but also the continued strong play of the back court where most of the veterans are.

"The back court is taking care of the basketball, and the front court is more athletic and versatile than last year," he said. "They are picking things up and learning what needs to be done as far as intensity and things like that. But having veterans in the back court is a big strength for us this year."

Graham shot 46.4 percent from the field last season and a team-best 43.3 percent from long range (13-for-30). He scored in double figures in six games and grabbed five or more rebounds seven times. He tied a season high with 14 points (including 10 in overtime) to help the Rebels to an NIT second-round victory over Nebraska. He also had 14 points against South Carolina. He had nine rebounds in a game at Arkansas for his season high in that department.

He has developed in every area the past year. He's mentally confident and physically stronger.

"I've been working in the weight room. My endurance has gotten better. Just a whole year of experience has made me more comfortable, and I feel it's going to show on the court."

The style of play the Rebels will be able to have this season will be more diverse with their athleticism.

"A big strength of ours will be pressing," Graham said. "The big guys can move and they can step behind the three and shoot. That's going to give us new dimensions. We'll be more versatile and that will help."

The Rebels host an exhibition game Friday, Oct. 31, at 4 p.m. in Oxford against North Alabama.

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