When Brian Graham decided to transfer to USF from the University of Central Florida last year, basketball was the last thing on his mind.
After all, it was his junior season and he was a walk-on for the Golden Knights and less than one year removed from a two-year junior-college stint at Florida College. And to top it all off, his two younger brothers, who were his teammates at UCF, were headed for Big 12 contender Oklahoma State, while he was headed back home to Tampa with some academic problems.
Enter the USF basketball program, fresh under the direction of newly hired Robert McCullum.
Though Graham had his share of problems, he saw an opportunity to continue his career, even if it meant being a senior walk-on with the Bulls. But he never imagined being a staple in the Bulls’ starting lineup.
“I know there’s a lot of people that would want to be in my position right now, so I’m really thankful to be in the position I am,” Graham said. “It’s a chance to play basketball at a big-time Division-I level, TV all the time and stuff like that, and I just think it’s great.”
There may be 100 different reasons Graham now stands as one of USF’s starting five. It could be because numerous players have left or been dismissed from the program, combined with a few injuries. It could be because he works hard in practice and deserves a chance. It could even be because he’s the only Bull who seems to fit the small forward role.
What is certain is that Graham is continuing his collegiate career, and for the senior walk-on, that’s all that really matters.
“Situations happen when people get hurt and people do what they need to do,” Graham said. “I can’t fault them for making their own decisions, but when the opportunity is there you have to take it when it’s there for you.”
There’s no question Graham has seized his opportunity. He made his season debut against Saint Louis one game after senior Jimmy Baxter quit the team. One game later, redshirt freshman Sam Barber was dismissed from the program, and Graham did something no one would have expected — he made the first start of his collegiate career at Memphis.
“I thought it was really awesome,” Graham said about making his first start. “I was really excited, but I was a little nervous, too. I didn’t foresee that happening, but there are situations that just happen.”
Through his first few games, Graham struggled with quick foul trouble, turnovers and extensive knowledge of the Bulls’ game plan. Players like junior guard Brian Swift and junior forward Terrence Leather were constantly in Graham’s ear or face, “explaining” where Graham needed to be and what he needed to do.
“I think the first couple of games he was kind of like ‘Wow,’ and he really didn’t know what to do,” Swift said. “He doesn’t really have a lot of experience, but he’s progressing each game.
“Each game I have to coach him less and less (on the floor).”
“When I first got (in) I was really primed,” Graham said. “I wanted to be everywhere, (and) I wanted to jump all over the court and cover everybody’s man and stuff like that.”
But the past few games, especially Monday against TCU, Graham seems to have settled down and has begun to play smarter. And he believes it was just the amount of repetition he’s getting on the court that is allowing him to build up a comfort zone.
And that’s good news for McCullum, who said after the Bulls’ loss to East Carolina that he couldn’t ask Graham to do things he wasn’t comfortable doing.
“Part of a coaches role is to put guys in a position where they’re going to be successful,” McCullum said after the loss to the Pirates. “To ask a player to do something that he can’t do — that he’s not comfortable doing — I think that’s unfair.
“We’re talking about a guy last semester that didn’t step on the floor a single time. We have a pretty good idea of what he can and can’t do. If he’s shuffle-cutting into the post to catch, we’re comfortable with him doing that. If it’s finishing in transition, or offensive rebounding, those are things that he can do. We have to be cognizant of what he can and can’t do and not put him in a position that’s unfair to him and unfair to his teammates.”
But Graham’s attitude and comfort level has definitely changed, and even his teammates, especially Swift, have noticed it.
“Now (playing is) just like nothing to him, and he looks good out there,” Swift said.
That’s why Graham believes it’s time for him to increase his production, especially with the types of defenses the Bulls have faced the past couple games.
With Swift forced to deal with a box-and-one late in the game combined with the Bulls’ inability to get Leather the ball against a zone defense, Graham knows he can’t be his normal passive self on offense, ultimately making his team play a man down on offense. Graham said he has spoken with McCullum about being more involved on offense in order to help the Bulls deal with their current struggles.
“He told me just to be aggressive,” Graham said. “We can’t be playing out there four on five because they’re definitely concentrating on some of our other players.
“Hopefully, I can pick up my numbers a little bit more and at least not be a shadow man out there on the court. If you hit a few shots and get your confidence going, there’s no telling what could happen.”
Less than a year ago, basketball was the furthest thing from Graham’s mind. Now, it would be hard to imagine he thinks about anything else.