Omaha, Neb. — We can all see what Devonte’ Graham does on the court to make teammates do their jobs better, but with the senior from Raleigh, N.C., it runs deeper than that.
Knowing very little English, Svi Mykhailiuk joined the Kansas program at age 16 for summer classes in June, 2014.
“We were both freshmen and he was kind of the guy getting to know everybody, getting to know everything,” Mykhailiuk said. “He was new to the town, too, so I was just sticking with him every time. He definitely took me under his wing and taught me everything.”
Junior Lagerald Vick came a year later, by which time Graham knew more KU students than most meet in four years.
“He’s been a great leader for me on the court and off the court,” Vick said. “Even when I got here freshman year in the summer, he helped me out with classes. He’d guide me through it. Or when I first got here, I didn’t know where the classes were and he and Frank (Mason III) were the ones to tell me where the buildings were.”
In a sport that demands consistency, Vick can have his bad stretches and great ones. He’s a few weeks into a good one in the wake of a prolonged slump. He can test a coach’s patience. Graham has great radar for knowing when a teammate going through a tough patch needs a boost.
“Always a positive attitude,” Vick said of Graham. “Always telling me the right things, never anything negative, always leading me in the right direction on the court and off the court. He’s been a good leader for me.”
Close-knit teams such as this one are filled with players who want to win it for each other. KU's players know the time has come to thank Graham for bringing them this far.
“He’s a great leader and a hardworking guy who gives his all for the program," Mykhailiuk said. "Doesn’t care about himself, he only cares about the program, and I want to pay him back."
Vick said he wants Graham to experience the Final Four for the first time “very bad. I’m going to leave it all out there for him. I’m going to put my life on the line for him. I know him and Svi have been to it three times and haven’t accomplished what they wanted. Our job as a team is to make sure they make it that far.”
And Vick’s job is to infuse all things Jayhawk with energy that comes from out of nowhere, thanks to him showing extraordinary athleticism on a jaw-dropping play. In Friday night’s 80-76 survival against Clemson, Vick blasted off the ground and reached way above the rim, put his right hand on top of a missed shot and threw it down for two loud points.
That’s one way the quietest Jayhawk can help his teammates — Graham included.
“It gives me energy and boosts our home crowd, felt like a home crowd,” Vick said of CenturyLink Center. “It brings juice in the building. It definitely hyped up the bench and the coaches. It just brings a lot more energy to the building, gets the place going crazy, gets the crowd on our side and everyone’s just feeling good.”
Newman energizes the team by hitting big 3-pointers and driving open lanes for buckets. In time, he has made himself an important cog in the team chemistry instead of the outsider trying to fit in that he sometimes looked like early in the season.
“Not only Devonte’, but also Svi,” Newman said of subtle motivating factors against Duke. “They’ve been knocking at the door and we’re right back here in the same position and they’re knocking on it again. We have a chance to kick down the door this year, so I would love to see those guys in the Final Four. I’d love to be beside those guys in the Final Four. We’re going to lay everything out on the line, do the best we can to help those guys get over the hump.”
Graham returned to Kansas for his senior year to improve his NBA draft stock and make it to the Final Four. He accomplished the first and will be remembered forever, regardless of the outcome of the Duke game.
“I think that his legacy is cemented right now, and he'll go down as one of the all-time greats,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He'll have his jersey retired. He's an All-American. He's Player of the Year in our league.
“But more importantly than that, I think he's the best intangible guy we've ever had here and has as good of leadership qualities as anybody I've ever coached. So he's been the complete package as a player, and basically he's a guy that I don't think coaches get an opportunity to coach but every few years. And certainly we've been blessed to have him.”
Self has emboldened his team, a three-point underdog to Duke, with a three-word battle cry: “Let it fly.”
Said Graham, who shot well in the Elite Eight loss to Villanova in 2016 and poorly in the Oregon loss last season: “Most of the time we do play with a free mind. You have to be aggressive. Have to show that personality, that smile, show that you’re happy to be out there and just put your heart out on the line and go play.”
Graham didn’t show that smile against Oregon in Sprint Center.
“Last year we might have been a little tense,” Graham said. “This year, definitely plan on playing a lot looser, 1 through 5, whoever’s on the court.”
He feels the love of teammates and knows how badly they want it for him and his best friend, Mykhailiuk.
“You definitely can feel that guys know that we’ve been in the game the last two years and that we’ve come up short,” Graham said. “And even though they might not have been in the two games, they can feel how we feel, and that we really want to get over it. So you can feel them rally around us and want to make that happen.”
Duke has superior size and NBA prospects, but not all factors that determine outcomes can be measured. Some can just be felt. Kansas feels ready.