No one gave Graham a chance to survive the D-II boys basketball regional at Wright State last year. This season no one will be surprised if they make it out of the Cincinnati regional. No one will be surprised if they don’t either. Facing one of the toughest routes to earn a trip back to state, the Falcons are ready for the challenge. So too is a loaded field.
Canal Winchester’s warm up routine before the 2008 Division II regional semifinal was the wildest show to grace the floor of Wright State’s Ervin J. Nutter Center since the monster truck rally left town.
Featuring 7-foot-1 McDonald’s All-American, B.J. Mullins (now a part time starter for Ohio State), the Indians were practicing way, way above the rim – and the near capacity crowd was soaking it all in. As was the evening’s opponent – the undefeated, but diminutive Graham Falcons.
If C-W were to be Globetrotters on this day, then these Falcons were at least the pre-game version of the Washington Generals.
With a roster that didn’t even pretend to list a post player, or even anyone over 6-foot-3, the Falcons were too small (on paper) for many observers to take seriously this late in the state tournament.
The Graham starting five was seated casually near center court – fanned in a semi-circle, taking in the spectacle – while their teammates ran a more traditional lay-up line behind them.
Obviously, the pressure was killing them.
At one point the year before, Graham was 5-7 and looking pretty ordinary, but suddenly the Falcons put it all together and won eight of the next ten games before losing in the Troy District Lower D-II final to a gifted Tippecanoe team.
And up until now, the 2008 season had been kind of hard to believe – an impressionistic blur, rendered boldly in Technicolor.
“(The C-W lay-up line) was a lot of fun to watch, I’m not going to lie to you,” Falcon senior wingman Josh Schuler laughed. “We’d only seen them once before, so we kind of enjoyed it.
“But we had no intention of letting them do much of that stuff on us. We had our own thing going on.”
Fronting Mullens with 6-3 Ethan Ward and then sandwiching him with whomever happened to be the wing on the weak side, Graham somehow “limited” the nation’s No. 1 ranked college recruit to 29 points. Mullens had scored 64 on Our Savior of New York at the Flying to the Hoop Invitational earlier in the season.
The Falcons didn’t use any offensive sets. They didn’t run any plays. They were 100-percent motion on offense, and in the process the Falcons won the game easily, 64-50, despite having been out-rebounded 28-14.
“We have a really good group of kids and they have played a lot of basketball,” Graham head coach Brook Cupps said. “At that point they were simply beyond being intimidated by anybody. They were ready to perform, and obviously, they were ready for the next challenge. It’s a team game.”
If their next challenge involves any other blue chip center prospects they already have a working game plan.
In scrimmages held earlier this season, Graham was able to neutralize 6-10 junior Adriean Payne (a blue chip power forward from Jefferson) and 6-11 senior Matt Kavanaugh (a prized University of Dayton recruit from Centerville) using the exact same tactics that they used against Mullins.
Mix in the fact that the Falcons are one deadly shooting team and you are looking at a legitimate state title contender.
“This is the best group we have ever had at understanding what is and what is not a good shot,” Cupps said. “Having guys that are capable of making shots is obviously a plus, and we’re able to put several guys out on the floor that can do that.
“We talk to our guys about toughness, both mental and physical. We consider patience to be an aspect of toughness and our kids have really bought into that. It’s a discipline and for the most part they play within those parameters. We want to take good shots. And we want to encourage the other guy to take bad shots. Doing that gives us our best chance to win.”
Undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the final AP state poll, Graham has evolved into a very balanced and successful team. The Falcons have won 50 of their last 51 games, the only loss coming to Toledo Libbey in last year’s state semifinals.
Schuler leads the team in scoring, with a cool 24.7 points per game. A streaky 3-point shooter, he gets most of his points from his mid-range game.
Ward (14), Austin Jones (11.7), Ben Rosenberger (7.4), and Nick Van Hoose (6.8) can all shoot from the outside and that makes it unlikely that he will get double teamed for very long. Jones is the program’s all-time leader in assists.
“(Rosenberger) is one of the best point guards in our league (the Central Buckeye Conference – Mad River division),” Schuler said. “He set the school (single-game) record for assists with 15 against Northwestern, and he’s had 14 a couple of other times, too. Ben never takes a bad shot.
“Ethan (Ward) is a junior this year is a solid player, and next year I expect him to carry this team when we are gone. He’s our big guy when we play smaller teams and he does big guy, stuff. He can shoot and he is fast enough to go around you.
“Austin and I have been playing together since the seventh grade,” Schuler continued. “He and I play really well together. We both are wings and we know everything there is to know about each other.
“We just have good team unity. We hang out together because we like each other.”
Rut-roh! When they were freshmen, some upperclassman saddled Schuler and Jones with the nicknames, ‘Shaggy’ and ‘Scooby,’ and unfortunately the nicknames stuck.
“Shaggy is easily the most intelligent basketball player I have ever coached,” laughed Cupps. “He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen play high school basketball. He’s special, and we have a pretty cerebral group of kids anyway. Eligibility issues will never be a problem with this bunch.
“But Josh has always been special. He is our best defender, too. He holds the school record for steals.”
Other than a B that he received in an art class when he was just a freshman, Schuler has gotten nothing but A’s since arriving on the scene at Graham. Jones’ grades are almost as good, and the same can be said for most of the rest of this team.
The son of Tim and Toby Schuler of Urbana, he has already signed a letter of intent to play NCAA Division I basketball at the University of North Dakota (conveniently located near the arctic circle in sunny, Grand Forks).
“I went on an unofficial visit last summer and I fell in love with the place,” Schuler said. “They have brand new facilities and I really like the school. As for the weather, I’ll just have to wear more clothes, right?”
North Dakota head coach, Brian Jones, saw him at an AAU basketball exposure event held in Louisville when he was playing with the Ohio Valley Force Elite (coached by Tony Lupia).
Two weeks later, assistant coach Ryan Moody called to extend an offer.
“I went back on an official visit recently, and I can’t wait until next year,” Schuler said. “In the meantime, I want to leave the fans with the impression that I represented this program well.
“I hope they see me as a class act. I hope they think that I contributed significantly.”
For Graham the future is now, but the road ahead is long with many a winding turn.
“The southwest is going to be so tough,” Cupps lamented. “Like they say, “If you can make it there you can make it anywhere,’ I guess.”