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Jayvon Graves is leading Buffalo into its next era

The Bulls’ star is one of the final holdovers from the 2019 NCAA Tournament team.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Arizona State vs Buffalo Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jayvon Graves is one of the last holdovers from the most successful stretch in Buffalo basketball history. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously.

“This year, it’s an even bigger role for me,” Graves, a rising senior, said. “Being one of the last guys, me and my teammate Brock [Bertram] that have been here, just showing a way for the new guys.”

The Bulls closed out the decade with three consecutive 20-win seasons and a pair of NCAA Tournament victories — their first in school history.

Whenever the next season starts, it’ll be a new era at Alumni Arena.

In 2017-18, as a freshman, Graves immediately stepped into a role as a contributor on one of the best mid-major squads in the country. The Bulls went 27-9 as Graves played in all 36 games on a stacked roster. After winning the MAC regular season and tournament, they entered the Big Dance for the third time in four years, looking for their first-ever NCAA Tournament win. What came next was more of an evisceration, as the Bulls dominated 4 seed Arizona from tip to buzzer, winning 89-68.

“Being a freshman, you expect to play, but you’re not sure what type of role you’ll have,” Graves said. “So when I got here, I knew that I had to put work in on defense and then have the offense to follow. It was exciting beating Arizona in the Tournament. It shocked the whole world.”

Entering the 2018-19 season, the Bulls were on everyone’s radar in the MAC. It didn’t matter. Buffalo earned the school’s first-ever AP Top-25 ranking early in the season after taking down No. 13 West Virginia on the road. The Bulls continued to slowly climb up the rankings before jumping into the top-15 after a decisive win at Syracuse.

For the remainder of the season, they stayed ranked in the AP Poll as they ran through the MAC nearly unscathed. Graves was an established starter, despite being a sophomore on a veteran-heavy team. He did a little bit of everything, but took a backseat on offense to seniors like MAC Player of the Year CJ Massinburg, Sixth Man of the Year Nick Perkins, and All-MAC performer Jeremy Harris.

The Bulls entered March Madness as a 6 seed — a better mark than any other mid-major outside of Gonzaga (if the Bulldogs even count). They didn’t let the committee down either, beating Arizona State, 91-74, before falling to eventual national runner-up Texas Tech in the second round.

“That season, it was different,” Graves said. “It was so exciting. After we beat Syracuse and West Virginia, it was like we had a target on our back the whole rest of the season.

Last season saw the exit of head coach Nate Oats, owner of a sterling 96-43 record in Buffalo, as he took over at Alabama. It also saw the exits of Massinburg, Perkins, Harris, defensive ace Dontay Caruthers, and starter Montell McRae. Graves and Davonta Jordan were the only contributors left. Suddenly, Graves was thrust into the main role on offense.

“Before the season, my coach and I had a great conversation,” Graves said. “He just kept telling me that I had to be the alpha dog for the team. And I really just stepped into that role. Being a leader wasn’t what I asked to be prior to that, but that was my main role.”

Graves embraced the role successfully, upping his scoring average by nearly eight points to 17.1 per game and earning an All-MAC First Team selection. After such a successful leap, the NBA Draft came calling this offseason, but Graves decided to return for one final season in Buffalo.

“It was mainly the uncertainty of the draft,” Graves said. “And then just wanting to win another MAC Tournament and get back to the NCAA Tournament. Those were big things for me. I feel like I have unfinished business.”

Heading into the 2020-21 season, following a tumultuous offseason for every team in college basketball, Graves is officially the last starter left from the 2019 NCAA Tournament, but he believes this roster can return to the Dance.

“I think our goals are just growing together, working on our chemistry, and getting the new guys acclimated to the team to the culture we have here,” Graves said.

Graves, a native of Akron, Ohio, attended St. Vincent-St. Mary in high school, home to another basketball player who knows about being the centerpiece of a longstanding contender: LeBron James.

“As a basketball player, I like how LeBron gets others involved,” Graves said. “He knows when to take over. But as a person, even watching how he’s handled social injustice and things like that, he’s somebody people can look up to, especially in my shoes, especially for our community back home.”

For a team with a number of new players stepping into important roles and few returnees, Graves may need to channel his inner LeBron.

“We have a great group, a lot of dedicated guys, a lot of people that didn’t play last year that stepped up big in the off season and stepped up big during practice and helped us get better,” Graves said. “The likes of Savion Gallion, David Nickelberry, David Skogman, LaQuill Hardnett. We have a lot of great guys, a lot of talent. I’m just looking forward to it.”