Jeff Graves looked more like Santa Claus, Minnesota Fats and/or the Pillsbury Doughboy than a major-college basketball player in August when every other member of Kansas University's basketball team lapped the 6-foot-9, 293-pounder in the Jayhawks' back-to-school 12-minute run at Memorial Stadium.
"He looks totally different now than the start of the year," KU senior power forward Nick Collison said Saturday after watching the lean, mean 250-pound Graves grab a career-high 15 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 78-75 West Regional championship victory over Arizona in Anaheim, Calif.
"It's a credit to Jeff and credit to coach for sticking with him," Collison added.
Graves, a Lee's Summit, Mo., junior, had 13 points off 6-of-6 shooting in a game that propelled KU into a Final Four matchup Saturday against Marquette.
The national semifinal will be played at the Superdome in New Orleans. Collison admits he never could have foreseen such productivity from Graves when the big guy struggled to run up and down the court during preseason drills in October.
"When he got here it was tough to see, really," Collison said of whether he initially thought Graves would contribute. "He came in at 293. He was missing class. He got here, and so many things were going on with him. He had a lot of extra baggage. It didn't look good.
"Coach stayed on him, and he made changes for himself eventually. He's really improved and means a lot to the team," Collison added.
The Jayhawks are headed to the 2003 Final Four without forward Drew Gooden, who bolted for the NBA after last year's Final Four appearance. And they are headed to New Orleans with 6-9 sophomore Wayne Simien playing the role of cheerleader after being sidelined because of a right shoulder injury.
A main reason for the Final Four encore is Graves, who has averaged 6.4 points and 5.7 boards in 36 games for the 29-7 Jayhawks.
"He's getting a lot more comfortable," Collison said.
Graves didn't miss a shot Saturday.
"Jeff Graves has the capability," KU senior Kirk Hinrich said after his own 28-point performance against 'Zona. "He's been big in big games. We need it from him every night."
The Jayhawks realize they need the foul-prone Graves on the court.
That's why sophomore Aaron Miles gave the big guy a pep talk during warmups Saturday.
"I told him we need him in the game. We need him to stay out of foul trouble," Miles said. "He grabbed rebounds, scored 13 points. He did what he can do and didn't play outside his game. I'm happy for him. He was big, man. Big."
Everybody seems to be happy for the easy-going Graves, who has had some adversity this season, suffering a concussion in a September car accident and having a close personal friend shot to death several weeks ago.
What's more, Graves has been worried about a high school buddy serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq and worried about his dad, an Army reservist, who still might have to head overseas.
"I think throughout the season Jeff has had some ups and downs," soph Michael Lee said after KU's win over the Wildcats, the 1,800th victory in school history. "But he's figured things out and he has improved every game. He's a good big man now and a force for us."
Graves had one of the most memorable plays in KU's West Regional semifinal victory Thursday over Duke, racing out of bounds to save the basketball and bounce it off the leg of Casey Sanders, saving a possession that led to a crucial KU hoop.
"I think I have shown my heart and dedication to this team," said Graves, who never let criticism sour him. "I've discovered if you work hard every day, good things happen. I'm like, 'Don't count me out. Don't count out the Kansas Jayhawks.'
"I've been the underdog all year and our team's been the underdog. We surprised a lot of people in getting to the Final Four. Now we want to win two more games."
Graves was one of the happiest Jayhawks after Saturday's victory assured him of a trip to the Final Four in his first season at KU.
He was a juco All-American at Iowa Western CC last season.
"It's real satisfying to me," he said. "I got to cut down the nets for the first time up here and dance in front of my family (in The Arrowhead Pond stands). Right now, I am focused on not stopping here. I want a national championship for the Kansas Jayhawks."