Wednesday February 4th, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. -- Treveon Graham is 6-foot-6 and a stone-cut 220 pounds. Those measurements and his on-court verocity have inspired his VCU teammates to dub him “Freight Train.” This nickname is often shortened to “Freight”, and it neatly implies the mass and force that the Rams’ leading scorer and rebounder exerts on those who clutter his path. It is difficult to imagine him operating any other way. But sitting in a courtside folding chair after a recent practice, Graham assures a visitor that he was not always like this. He was, in fact, one of the fast kids.

“People don’t believe me now,” Graham says. “But I have medals. I have medals that show that I was fast.”

They hang in the trophy case off to the right as you enter his Bowie, Md., home: A silver medal for the 100 meters, and a bronze for the 200, from a long-ago Junior Olympics event. Graham says he once had a picture on his phone for proof and he offers to bring them out if  if anyone remains unconvinced. Even if it’s myth, no one at VCU is fact checking at the moment. After a season-ending injury to one of its stars, and after its first loss of the Atlantic-10 campaign, the program needs to believe in Graham now more than ever.

No, Graham is not wired like the kinetic Briante Weber, the expert thief and igniter of the Rams’ “Havoc” defense, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Saturday. Graham is equipped, though, with a stubbornness borne from being underappreciated at nearly every stage; this is the player who woke at 5 a.m. to ride a bus two hours to his preferred high school when he had other, closer options. The dedication complements a consistency in both production and approach that has led to 16.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per night, along with career-best shooting marks of 47.1 percent overall and 41.9 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Depending on how far the Rams can go, Graham may evolve from a recruit with two scholarship offers to the program’s all-time leading scorer, fulfilling the destiny only his current coach saw for him.

“Usually on game day I say one rosary,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli says. “When we play Graham, I say two rosaries. Other than prayers, I don’t know how you guard him.”

MORE CBB: A guide for football fans to catch up on college hoops

For VCU, how “Havoc” functions without Weber is the more immediate concern. As of Tuesday morning, the senior was the national leader in total steals (78), steals per game (3.9) and steal percentage (8.7). He was 12 pilfers shy of breaking the NCAA career record when he suffered a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus against Richmond. For years, Weber’s skills perfectly accentuated the Rams’ pressure defense, and vice versa. “His hands are like a magician,” VCU coach Shaka Smart mused the day before Weber’s injury.

“We don’t have another guy on our team that we can say, hey, go do what Briante Weber did,” Smart says now. “It doesn’t work that way. What we need is for (replacements) to step up and be the best version of themselves and not necessarily try to be Bri. We’re still going to try to be VCU and play the way we play. We’ll see how that works out without him.”

*****

As he entered high school at St. Mary’s Ryken in Leonardtown, Md., Graham hadn’t yet grown to six feet. In basketball, he’d relied on that “medal-worthy” speed -- “Just flew past everybody and shot a layup,” he says -- before a sophomore-year growth spurt and weight gain changed his mindset. Suddenly everyone on the junior varsity squad seemed smaller. “I knew I was going to get stronger in the offseason,” Graham says now, “and play some bully ball.”

College Basketball
Bracket Watch: Wichita State, VCU fall out of top 16 after upsets

As Graham and his production grew, other area powerhouses -- DeMatha Catholic, Bishop O’Connell -- tried to entice Graham into a transfer. He stuck with the near-dawn wakeups and four-hour round trip to St. Mary’s Ryken. On the AAU circuit, Graham’s D.C. Triple Threat club saw several players split off to form Team Takeover in 2009; he remained with the less-renowned Triple Threat roster.

The words of his mother, Katrina, rang louder than any other calls: Be loyal. Don’t run when things get tough. “I didn’t feel that I needed to move just for me to prove that I was good,” Graham says.

Remaining loyal left Graham with two scholarship offers, to Cleveland State and VCU. But it also left him with Smart, and his vision for what Graham could accomplish. Smart first articulated it as Graham sat in his office on a visit to campus, when the player was a 6-4 tweener without a star next to his name on recruiting sites: You can be the all-time leading scorer here, Smart told him. Graham all but laughed it off as a transparent sales pitch. When Smart visited his home and sat down for Graham’s favorite dinner -- fried chicken, candied yams and seafood salad -- the VCU coach repeated himself. He looked at Katrina Graham and told her that her son could score more points than anyone ever had at the school. By then, Smart had said this enough that Graham was convinced the coach actually believed it.

And he did. Smart offered Graham a scholarship based off of video footage; he’d never seen Graham on a court, in-person. “The guy could just score,” Smart says. “Probably the bigger schools, whatever you call them, maybe didn’t think he was tall enough. I don’t know. To me, it was a no-brainer.” Smart recalls watching an AAU event in Washington D.C., on July 31, 2010. As Graham dropped 30-plus points on a talented D.C. Assault club, with about a dozen high-major schools represented in the audience, Smart and then-VCU assistant Mike Jones looked at each other with unspoken panic. This could turn out badly for us, Smart thought.

Cal Sports Media via AP

Instead, no one noticed. “People really didn’t see me as that player that was going to make it,” Graham says. “Whatever school I chose, I was going to have to prove everybody wrong when I got there. It wasn’t disappointment. It was buckle down and show people what I can really do.”

He was a role player as a freshman -- averaging seven points in 16.8 minutes per game -- but his scoring more than doubled as a sophomore (15.1 points per night) and increased again as a junior (15.8 ppg) and now as a senior (16.8 ppg). The sheer force in his game became the foundation for everything else. During one freshman year practice, Graham matched up with senior star Bradford Burgess in a block-charge drill. Burgess laid out Graham and drew some cheers, so Graham figured that was what he was supposed to do. On his turn, he drove on Burgess, dipped a shoulder and connected with such power that he lifted Burgess off his feet before the Rams’ best player thudded to the court.

“He has not been in a charge drill since,” VCU assistant Mike Morrell says.

Incrementally, Graham enhanced his arsenal. He began to build out his mid-range game and hone his ability to drive left before his sophomore year; now, as a senior, he’s in the 90th percentile nationally for points per possession in both scenarios, per Synergy Sports data. He focused on adding a reliable three-point shot after that, as evidenced by the career-best efficiency from behind the arc this year. Meanwhile, his stature increased, literally: Graham spurted two more inches during college. All of that, plus a gradual increase in understanding the nuances of VCU’s system, has allowed Graham to grow into what Smart calls his favorite position. “Which is, he can play every position,” the Rams coach says.

“If you have a big, slow power forward, I’m quick enough to go past him and I’m strong enough to check you,” Graham says. “If they try to switch me where a guard’s taking me, I’m strong enough where I can overpower them and quick enough where I can check you.”

*****

Martelli’s prayerful plan to stifle Graham is a bit glib, but not far from the truth. There are no easy answers when a 6-6 player rates in the 86th percentile or better nationally in points per possession on spot-ups (1.386), pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler (1.085), isolations (1.025) and offensive rebounds (1.333). “Treveon Graham plays rim to rim and he dares you to stop him,” the Saint Joseph’s coach says. “He’s really trying to put you in the basket.”

MORE CBB: One of these eight teams will win the NCAA tournament

How to combat this is anyone’s guess. Fordham coach Tom Pecora dispatched different defenders at Graham, of all shapes and sizes, to keep him guessing and making different offensive decisions. Graham responded with an efficient 14 points in 25 minutes in a 17-point win on Jan. 4, and he has continued to shape his game according to contours of whatever scheme he faces.

Seth Wennig/AP

Take, for example, one of Graham’s best lines of the year: 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including four three-pointers, in a five-point win over Rhode Island on Jan. 13. “We wanted to take away the three-point shot from him,” coach Dan Hurley says. “So he drove and posted us a little bit. Once we took away a little bit of the driving and posting up, that’s when he got on the offensive glass and started making perimeter jump shots. He’s obviously a tough cover.”

With Weber gone (he was the team’s third-leading scorer), Graham will deal with perhaps even more defensive attention. But the more meaningful test will be steadying the team and keeping its fragile, half-game lead in the Atlantic 10 intact.

The good news? The Freight Train has been on track this season: He has posted double-figure scoring in 18 of his 20 games. Last Friday, Graham had a 9 a.m.-noon shift for his internship at nearby Carver Elementary School, where he talks with students or stretches them before gym class or helps teachers with their class prep. Morrell, the VCU assistant who monitors Graham’s academics, reminded Graham the day before to wake up for breakfast 45 minutes earlier than usual. When Morrell sent a text to strength coach Daniel Roose on Friday morning, Roose replied that Graham was indeed at training table at 8:15 a.m., already eating an omelet. Morrell wondered why he even bothered to ask.

No matter what the program, there is no way to draw within 268 points of a school’s all-time scoring record without remarkable consistency. (Eric Maynor, who played for the Rams from 2005-09, is the school’s leader with 1,953 career points.) Weber may provide encouragement off the bench, but Graham will be the player to whom everyone turns. “These guys look up to Tre, everyone in our program, including me,” Smart says. “Because he has phenomenal humility. And then Bri is Deion Sanders. He’s on the other end of it.”

They are two different personalities who were equally important to VCU. They were both recruiting afterthoughts, and both were on the verge of record-setting careers. And there is just one left.

On Saturday night, after an MRI confirmed the worst, Weber called his teammates into his room and delivered the news. He was done. Graham, upon hearing this, retreated to his own room. And he cried. Once Graham collected himself, he returned to Weber’s side and spent the rest of the night there.

Treveon Graham, at every step, had erased doubts about what he could accomplish. It was as clear Saturday as it is now that he carries so much more than a burden of proof. “It’s just more put on me,” Graham says, riding the team bus to George Mason, knowing he must deliver more than ever.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.