Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Slimmer Graves becomes key player for Jayhawks

By Doug Tucker
The Associated Press

LAWRENCE, Kan. - When Jeff Graves gets a double-double nowadays, it's no longer a reference to his chin.

Graves might never be skinny, but the Kansas junior has used persistence and hard work to shed the lumps from his hulking physique.

The Jayhawks are back in the Final Four primarily because of the consistent excellence of seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. But Kansas' season probably would have ended last weekend if not for Graves' 13 points and 15 rebounds against top-seeded Arizona.

That's some production from a player who, just a few months earlier, failed to meet his coach's minimal conditioning standards.

"Right now I feel like I'm on cloud nine," Graves said after the Jayhawks beat the Wildcats 78-75 Saturday to earn their second straight trip to the Final Four. "If there's a cloud 20, that's where I'd be, too."

When practice began in the fall, Graves weighed 293, about 40 pounds too heavy for his 6-foot-9 frame. Coach Roy Williams even refused to talk about him on media day.

"Right now, I don't consider Jeff Graves a member of this team," Williams said.

At the time, the situation didn't seem that important. Williams didn't plan on Graves playing a major role, even if he did get himself in shape. Graves was supposed to play behind Wayne Simien, a talented, muscular sophomore projected as a future star.

When Simien dislocated his shoulder on Jan. 4, the pressure fell to Graves.

It wasn't easy. Graves was struggling to get into shape, and he had a tendency to foul. Overall he had a few good moments, but there were a few more bad ones. But he began to show improvement and started making more contributions.

Eventually, he got his weight down to between 255-260 - still a bit portly, but workable.

Graves has averaged nine points in six postseason games, two points more than during the regular season. His 15 rebounds against Arizona in the West Regional final were a career high, and the third time he reached double figures.

Graves said reaching the Final Four "is what I've dreamed of since coming here. I think this shows how much heart and dedication I have."

Most important for Kansas, Graves has taken some of the pressure off Collison. Collison managed just eight points against Arizona's double-team, but Graves filled the void.

"Jeff had his ups and downs this year, but he's a much different person now than when he came into the program," said guard Michael Lee.

Collison said: "That's about as well as he's played. He's come so far from when he got here."

Williams acknowledged that he was furious when Graves reported overweight and out of shape. The player's conditioning was slowed even further when he sustained a concussion in a car accident in September.

Graves failed several times in his attempt to pass a test that required running six laps around a quarter-mile track in 121/2 minutes. Finally, in mid-November, he made it. The rest of the Jayhawks had completed the test in September.

"I've been on his tail from Day One, and I've been on his tail every single day," Williams said. "But it looks like it paid off."

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