Year Three Improvement

Zach Graham has started three games for 15th-ranked Ole Miss this season and played in all 11 games to date. The Rebels wouldn't be where they are without Graham's contributions.

The 6-foot-6, 218-pound junior wing has continued to grow during his time as a player at Ole Miss. He's scoring 10.2 points per game and pulling down 3.5 rebounds per outing, averaging 23.2 minutes a contest.

Beyond the numbers, the Suwanee, Ga., product makes things happen on the court – defensively, offensively, in all aspects of the game.

Take last Wednesday's 91-81 overtime win against Texas-El Paso, for example. Graham had seven rebounds and 14 points, including one of the game's biggest buckets. His 3-pointer to start the extra period gave Ole Miss a 75-72 lead, and the Rebs then rolled to victory.

Last year Graham was hoping to build on a solid freshman year by following it up with a stellar sophomore campaign. But a battle with a partially torn patella tendon in his knee for most of the season prevented him from making any real progress.

That first season he played in 35 games, starting seven, while averaging 5.9 points per game and 14 minutes. In year two he averaged 8.5 points playing in 31 games, 23 starts, and logged nearly 26 minutes an outing.

But it wasn't easy. In fact, he was lucky to make it through the year. But he did, even with a nagging injury that required surgery upon season's end.

This winter he's come back and appears to be on course for the season that might have been last year.

"I just think he's playing with a great deal of confidence," said Ole Miss fourth-year head coach Andy Kennedy. "As a true freshman you'll have the ups and downs, but he certainly showed some promise. As a sophomore he played the majority of the year with a partially torn patella tendon. Obviously from a pain standpoint, his body didn't feel right all year. Now he's healthy. Now he's playing in great rhythm. Now he's an integral part of everything we do."

The Rebels are 10-1 on the season and play at No. 6 West Virginia (8-0) Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Graham says the team likes its position but still knows it's a young season with many hurdles ahead. And he's been around the Ole Miss program long enough to know that earning it is the only way to gain favor from the public and media.

"A lot of people always hesitate to give us respect," Graham said. "I think every game we're just trying to play to earn respect."

So far, mission accomplished. Part of that is because of Graham's improvement in his third collegiate season, particularly on defense.

"He's become a good defender out of necessity," said Kennedy, referring to the fact that with three other players out last season, Graham had to step up his game and did.

"Physically he's always had the same attributes. He understands a little more now. Obviously he's a year older and a year wiser. But more than anything it was just what was demanded based on where we were. He was put in a position last year that he'd never been asked to do before, and he responded. As a result, it's helped him in year three."

The 20-year-old Graham admits the defensive aspect of his game didn't come around until college. And even then, not until that most difficult season of 2008-09.

"Last year really got my focus more on defense," Graham said. "I was kind of pushed into that role. I just did the best I could. I didn't really play defense in high school. I learned to play defense when I got here. It's helped in a big way."

Graham says defense is obviously a point of emphasis for the coaches and team as the Rebels attempt to continue their drive to get to the NCAA Tournament - a place the program hasn't been since the 2001-02 season.

"We emphasize it in practice every day," he said. "We work on denying the ball, closing out on defenders, and just staying down and playing hard on defense. I think it's been getting better and better each game. We've just got to carry it over to the next game."

Graham said it isn't necessarily all about what some may see happening on the court either.

"It's just a mindset," he said. "A lot of it is mental. Basketball is physical for some people, but most basketball is mental. You just have to have that mindset that your defender is not going to score, and you have to use that much more energy."

A mindset that Zach Graham now uses day in and day out. His stats and his game this season bear that out.

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