(AP) - VCU coach Shaka Smart hopes protecting Treveon Graham from himself will pay off going forward as his team heads into Saturday's visit from Massachusetts in a three-way tie atop the Atlantic 10.
The senior swingman and leading scorer for the No. 25 Rams has battled a high left ankle sprain since mid-January. He had only allowed himself to miss one game before aggravating it again early this month.
That's when Smart decided the Rams (20-6, 10-3) needed Graham more at the end of the season and sat him down. Graham also might have been minimizing the amount of pain he was in to stay on the floor, Smart said.
''When it first happened, I wanted to just get back out there,'' Graham, who averages 15.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, said this week. ''I didn't care about the pain. I just played through it and that kind of hurt me.''
While Graham was undergoing intensive treatment, the Rams suffered a pair of narrow losses, falling into a tie for the conference lead. Since his return, VCU won a crucial game at George Washington with Graham playing 30 minutes and beat Saint Louis 74-54 on Tuesday as Smart was able to limit Graham to just 22 minutes.
In that time, Graham scored 16 points and showed signs of being back to his old self. Twice he drove hard to the basket, pivoting on the injured ankle with the explosive first step that helped make him the league's preseason player of the year.
Smart hopes to see more of the same against the Minutemen (16-10, 9-4).
''It's good to see because he's really been laboring on that thing and hasn't moved as well, and if you watch him closely, not as much tonight but in previous games, he almost winces sometimes when he pushed off of it,'' Smart said.
''He's not practicing much,'' Smart said. ''He wears a boot walking around. He comes to practice and takes the boot off. He's getting a lot of treatment around the clock. There's a lot of different things you can do treatment-wise.''
Graham's treatment regimen includes ice, stimulation and massage.
His return, meanwhile, has provided a spark of confidence to the Rams' young roster. He's the only senior in the lineup, the team having lost senior point guard Briante Weber to a knee injury, and Graham's leadership has been key.
''He's a leader for us on defense and offense,'' said Michael Gilmore, one of eight underclassmen in the 11-man playing rotation. ''He just gives us a boost in confidence having him out there.''
One of those underclassmen is JeQuan Lewis, who's started the five games since Weber went down and averaged a team-high 13.4 points - 7.4 more than he put up in 18 minutes a game off the bench up to that point.
UMass was part of a four-way logjam for first place heading into Wednesday night's visit to Rhode Island, but it's now a game behind after its six-game winning streak ended with a 75-59 loss.
All five Minutemen starters average between 9.0 and 11.7 points, but Trey Davis had emerged as the team's unquestioned scoring leader during the winning streak by putting up 15.5 points per game. He was held to six on Wednesday.
Davis had 13 points off the bench and UMass beat VCU 80-75 at home last Feb. 21 despite not making any of its eight 3-point attempts. Graham had a team-high 19 points but shot 8 of 19 from the field.
Graham only needed 11 field-goal attempts to put up 19 points when UMass last visited the Siegel Center two seasons ago and lost to the Rams 86-68.