Posted February 9, 2008

Men's basketball: Butler still rides Graves-y train

By Rob Demovsky
A. J. Graves
A. J. Graves, right, hits a shot

First Matthew, then Andrew and now A.J. — the Graves brothers have inflicted enough pain on opposing Horizon League teams to last a lifetime. It only seems like there's been a Graves playing that long.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men's basketball team has been playing against the Graves boys for more than a decade. The Phoenix can take solace in knowing it's about to come to an end. The youngest of the clan will play in Green Bay for the final time tonight, when A.J. and the 10th-ranked Butler Bulldogs (20-2 overall, 8-2 Horizon League) come to the Resch Center to play the Phoenix (13-9, 7-5).

"There are no more of us," said Matthew, the first of the trio to play for the Bulldogs and a Butler assistant coach. "That's it, I promise."

The latest Graves, A.J., might be the best. The scrawny-looking senior guard, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 155 pounds, was the Horizon League's preseason player of the year. Just as tough as his brothers, A.J. is a 3-point assassin. He's knocked down 66 3s this season. Only one player in the Horizon League (UIC's Josh Mayo) has made more. It hardly matters that Graves shoots only 35.3 percent from behind the arc since he always seems to make the important shots.

Just ask the Phoenix.

Last season, in Butler's 80-69 win in Indianapolis, A.J. blitzed the Phoenix with 21 points in the first 16 minutes on the way to a 28-point game. He made 5-of-8 3-pointers, a few of which came from well behind the line. A month later at the Resch, he scored 10 of his game-high 20 points in the final 6 minutes to secure a 68-58 Butler win. He hit just 6-of-17 shots in that game, but he made the ones that mattered down the stretch. The same thing happened on Tuesday in Butler's 71-68 win at Valparaiso. Late in the game, he was sitting on a 4-of-15 shooting night until he buried his last three shots to finish with 20 points.

Typical A.J.

"I know he has a great ability to move on to the next play regardless of what happened before," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "If he misses a couple of shots, it doesn't — and shouldn't — faze him."

In eight career games against the Phoenix, A.J. has scored fewer than 13 points just once; as a freshman, he went 0-for-12 (including 0-for-6 on 3-pointers) and managed his only points on four free throws. That's also the only game he has lost to UWGB.

In his next seven games against the Phoenix, he has averaged 17.9 points per game. Given the family history, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Consider some of the daggers the first two Graves boys threw at the Phoenix.

Matthew, who began the family's migration to Butler from Switz City, Ind., a town of 311 people, played for the Bulldogs from 1993 to 1998. By the end of his career, he partially was responsible for two of the most crushing defeats in recent Phoenix history.

In the 1997-98 regular-season finale, he hit two technical free throws with 1.7 seconds left for a 59-57 victory after forward Wayne Walker called a timeout when the Phoenix didn't have any left. Ten days later, in the championship game of the conference tournament at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena, Matthew scored a team-high 20 points in Butler's 70-51 win and buried a key second-half 3-pointer when the Phoenix had cut the lead to three points. UWGB hasn't played in a conference title game since.

"The thing I remember about that game was the atmosphere at Brown County Arena was absolutely incredible," Matthew said. "The pressure in that game was intense. We knew if we lost, it was over. It was the same way for Green Bay. I loved playing at Brown County Arena. I'm a little old school, but Brown County was one of the neatest arenas that I've ever played in."

Little did UWGB know it at that time, but the Graves boys weren't done breaking its heart. The next season, Andrew helped the Bulldogs prevail in what widely is considered one of the best games in the 28-year history of Horizon League tournament. In a semifinal game in Chicago, Butler needed three overtimes to beat UWGB 68-65. That Phoenix team finished 20-11 and probably needed one more win to secure an NIT bid. Instead, its season was over, and UWGB hasn't had a 20-win season since.

The next season, Andrew scored 12 points in a 62-50 win in Green Bay that left an accomplished Phoenix senior class that included 1,000-point scorers Jerry Carstensen and B.J. LaRue with a 1-10 career record against Butler.

Fortunately for the Phoenix, the fourth Graves brother, Mark, didn't play college basketball.

And there's even better news: there are no more Graves boys.

"The people who should be excited are the women's basketball programs," Stevens said. "The next round (of Graves children) is all girls."

Matthew has two daughters, and Andrew has one.

"I know Green Bay's women's basketball program is really good," Matthew said. "Who knows? Maybe they'll see them."

That's all the Phoenix needs.