February 20, 2009

Rebels' Graham emerging as top defender

Zach Graham was less than 24 hours removed from a stellar defensive effort against Tennessee's Tyler Smith when Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy approached him just outside the Rebels' locker room.

In the grind that is the Southeastern Conference basketball season, there's little time for enjoyment of a job well-done. By Thursday, Graham had forgotten about Smith and had turned his attention to Georgia's Terrance Woodbury.

"I think we all know from last year in the SEC tournament that he's a really good player," Graham said. "He's underrated. I don't think people give him the respect that he should have. He's definitely a good player and I'll be ready for the challenge."

Welcome to the life of an SEC stopper, a role that Graham has stepped into out of necessity and found to his liking.

"He's done a really good job," Kennedy said. "I hope at the end of the day, he gets some consideration for being on the all-defensive team. Everbyody has to go back and look at, 'OK, who's getting things done?' Obviously (Mississippi State's Jarvis) Varnado blocks a lot of shots and (South Carolina's Devin) Downey gets a lot of steals, but he does a lot of the things that go unnoticed."

Graham, Kennedy and Ole Miss (14-11 overall, 5-6 in the SEC) will face Woodbury and Georgia (10-16, 1-10) Saturday at 4 p.m. at Tad Smith Coliseum. The game can be seen on Fox Sports South and ESPN360.com, and it can be heard on the Ole Miss Radio Network and XM Radio channel 199.

"When he's really locked in defensively, I think our whole team is," Kennedy said of Graham, who held Smith to a hard-earned 16 points in Wednesday's 81-65 win over the Volunteers. "He did a great job on (Kentucky guard Jodie) Meeks (earlier this season) and against Tyler Smith, a whole different animal, he did a great job of kind of keeping him out of his rhythm."

Graham, who is averaging 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, has stepped up as a defensive specialist despite a 60 percent tear of the patella tendon in his knee. He said Thursday that while he doesn't focus on the injury, "…sometimes I think about it and I think about how these are really good players who are respected and I'm playing D on them."

Kennedy said the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Graham has been able to excel thanks to "good size, strength and decent length. He's getting a better understanding of the responsibilities of the defensive assignment that he draws. That usually was (Eniel Polynice's) job, but someone had to take responsibility and he's done a good job of it."

The highlight of Georgia's dismal season so far was a stunning 88-86 victory over rival Florida for its first league win of the season this past Saturday. The Bulldogs are 1-5 under interim head coach Pete Herrmann since he took over for the departed Dennis Felton. Woodbury paces Georgia with 13.9 points per game, while Trey Thompkins is the only other in double figures with 12.6 points per outing.

"Terrance Woodbury is a very good player," Kennedy said. "He hurt us last year in the SEC tournament (in a 97-95 Georgia win in overtime in the first round in Atlanta). He's a hard match-up. He's a wing, a multi-talented wing. And then they have a big, strong, talented front line. They've got four bodies out there bigger than anybody on our team that they can put on you. It's a little concerning from a match-up standpoint."

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