Balancing Act

Despite a nagging knee injury, sophomore Zach Graham takes the floor every night without fail. Read about it inside.

Referred to as the "glue" of the Rebels by head coach Andy Kennedy, guard Zach Graham has taken on a much different role this season.

Like many of his teammates, the sophomore has had to make noticeable changes to his game, including a more vocal and mental approach in each and every matchup.

However, this season has been a trial for Zach. While he continues to emerge as an on-the-court leader for the Rebels, the versatile guard has been hampered by a partially torn patella tendon for most of the season, with the pain getting worse by the day.

But when gametime arrives, without fail, you'll always find No. 32 in the lineup.

"I had to sit out before the season even started because my knee would be hurting too bad," Graham explained. "I've been playing with the pain for a while now and it's gotten to the point where it's not really getting any better. It's always there. I'm starting to feel the pain more and more every week. It's just a matter of time I think."

The injury bug has been a continuous problem for Ole Miss, with a handful of Rebels bothered by different types of bumps and bruises at various moments this season.

ACL injuries to Chris Warren, Trevor Gaskins and Eniel Polynice have been well-documented, but Zach's knee struggle isn't anything to sneeze at.

The sophomore hasn't practiced in over a month, limited simply to walkthroughs of opposing teams. In fact, his work schedule has been scaled down to core training, mixed with small doses of game-type situations.

"Practice days, I usually ride on the bike for 20 minutes, and then I stop and do some ball handling drills and stuff like that," said Graham. "Coach Turner has me doing some push-ups and ab exercises. I also do some jump shots and free throws."

Kennedy expanded on Zach's daily routine.

"He'll get some shots when we get some scouting. He'll simulate the scouting; he just can't go live when he's out there," he said. "He'll condition in the IPF. They have a submerged treadmill which he'll run on. That gets his wind up and it takes off of his knee."

For most, such an injury would end one's season immediately. Zach, however, refuses to give in. He believes in this team and understands his importance to the Rebels' chances this season.

"The doctors have told me there's a realistic chance, that if I continue to play on it, it could tear completely at any time," he said. "They said it feels like I got shot in my knee when I do it, and the more I play on it, the more it's going to continue to tear.

"When those guys had injuries, I felt I could at least do what I can to help the team. I can still move, jump and shoot."

Kennedy said Zach has the option to shutdown his season at any time.

"You never know how much it hurts. You just don't know," said Kennedy. "You just have to trust him. When we found out he had a tear, we talked to the doctors and tried to figure out what was the best way to get through this without jeopardizing him.

"He can shutdown at any time. It's his call. I think if we were sitting on game eight or nine, it would have been an easy call. Let's get it fixed, because there's no reason to risk it. But being 20 games into the season and not having an opportunity to get it back, this is something that has been bothering him for months. From what he's told me, you kinda become conditioned to the way that it feels. Some days are better than others."

Despite it all, Zach averages 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in conference play, including 47.6 percent from the three-point line.

Graham and the Rebels head to Nashville Saturday, with Ole Miss having an opportunity to get above .500 in the SEC for the first time this season with a win.

"It's contagious man," Graham said of the team's growing confidence. "When one person starts talking, another one starts talking, and we all get confident. Everybody's talking now and we're just having fun."

It's hard to pinpoint one player who has been the catalyst for Ole Miss' current three-game win streak, but Graham certainly heads the list.

While he runs the chance of completely tearing that bothersome tendon, he knows this season hangs on his ability to create and play relentless defense.

"We're having fun now," said Graham. "We know we have to work hard to win. With everybody, it's been a collective effort. Everybody's having fun now, everybody's contributing.

"We're all raising our games."

None higher than Zach.


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