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Why Jayvon Graves chose to stay at UB after losing five teammates, coach

Jayvon Graves said he never considered leaving the University at Buffalo.

Not after five top players, including three starters, graduated from a basketball team that had won back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships and made consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Not after Nate Oats resigned as head coach to take the job at Alabama.

Never. But of course it wasn't that simple.

“Some people asked me if I was going to leave,” the junior guard said Tuesday night, after recording a double-double in a comeback victory against Ball State at Alumni Arena, “but this is the best opportunity. This is the place I want to be. So I think we have a lot of talent and we can win another one, another MAC title.”

UB’s triumph against Ball State was its third consecutive victory, its eighth in 11 games, and avenged a blowout loss to the Cardinals in January. Of greater importance, it moved the Bulls (17-9, 8-5 MAC) into fourth place in the MAC and into position for a first-round bye in the conference tournament with five games remaining in the regular season, beginning with a nationally televised (ESPN2) contest Friday at Kent State.

Graves’ high school basketball coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio, Dru Joyce II, the same man who coached LeBron James, expects to be on hand to see Graves inch closer to his 1,000th career point and continue to grow into the on-court leader UB needed him to become.

Joyce saw Graves embrace a similar role in high school and win the state championship as a senior. And he’s continued to serve as a trusted adviser.

“I’m more of an encourager at this point,” Joyce said. “I’m just always going to encourage him to be the best he can be, and there’s no shortcuts. Put in the work. And I compliment him on the work that I see he’s put in. But he has enough coaches. He doesn’t need his high school coach butting in. …

“Now if he ever comes to me, like this past summer when there was the coaching change and he was a little concerned about it, we talked about that. But other than that, I just encourage him to just be the best version of himself that he can be and to keep working.”

It turns out, Graves did consider leaving UB, if only for a split second.

All the questions led to some reasonable doubt.

“I asked him, ‘As you look at this, how do you see yourself in the structure of the guys coming back?’ ” Joyce said.

“And he said, ‘I’m going to be the leader.’

“I said, ‘Well, then if you leave, what are you going into?’ There’s a whole bunch of unanswered questions when you leave someplace, and those questions are harder to answer because you’re taking yourself out of a situation where you’re familiar to one that you’re unfamiliar. But when there’s familiarity, those are questions that are easy to answer. You have a feel for who the teammates are and the part of the staff that’s staying around. As long as you’re comfortable there, that’s what was most important with me when talking with him.

“Are you comfortable?” Joyce said he asked Graves. “And he felt like, ‘Hey, I am.’

“Sometimes the grass looks greener, but it’s not always greener when you get over there. So I felt like if you’re comfortable there, then let’s stay.”

Graves didn’t require much convincing, Joyce said.

But his last point helped seal the decision.

“Every kid has that dream of playing at the next level,” Joyce said, “and it’s been well-proven now that there are a number of guys that play at a mid-major that go to the league and can have a lot of success. So it’s not where you are, it’s will someone give you a chance? And as long as he continues to play like this and into his last year, then he’ll get that chance.”

Graves needs 36 points to reach the 1,000-point milestone at UB.

He finished just shy of his career high with 27 points in Friday’s victory at Toledo, then added 16 points (and 10 rebounds) Tuesday against Ball State to push his career total to 964 points, the most among active players on the Bulls. He ranks sixth in the MAC in scoring.

Graves is averaging 16.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 42.5% from the field.

Earlier this season, UB coach Jim Whitesell, who served as an assistant on Oats’ staff, challenged the soft-spoken junior to step into the “alpha dog” role.

“I think he’s done a good job with that,” Whitesell said Tuesday night, pointing out how the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound guard fought through shooting woes against Ball State to contribute in other ways, including hitting all of his free throws and playing smart defense.

“Defensively, he keeps getting better,” Whitesell said. “That’s what good players do. They play both ends of the floor. His first 10 minutes weren’t great, we just said to him, stay with it, just keep playing, you’ll find your shot. Just keep playing. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Senior guard Davonta Jordan has seen Graves develop since the day he first stepped on campus.

“Jayvon, he’s just a hardworking, humble guy,” Jordan said. “He doesn’t talk much, but he leads by example so to speak. He’s a person that’s going to compete every night, in and out. He’s going to produce whatever you want to him to produce. He’ll play defense or he’ll score the ball. And he’s just a good leader that really leads by example.”

Graves said he feels like he’s built for the challenge.

“The alpha dog role, it kind of was like that in high school eventually,” Graves said. “That just translated. And my coaches have trust in me.”

Graves also trusts his coaches.

The continuity, with Whitesell taking over the UB men’s basketball program after Oats’ departure, obviously contributed to Graves’ comfort level and decision to remain in Buffalo.

“It’s a natural question,” Joyce said. “That’s the nature of the beast today. Kids transfer. …

“Sometimes it’s OK to look. And I’m sure he took a look. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to trust your heart. And he trusted his heart that this is where he’s going to fit best and I think that’s proven out to be the right decision.”

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