|Mississippi State's 'Swat' a force in the middle for SEC leaders|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 23 January 2008 23:23|
Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado leads the nation in blocked shots and keys college basketball's stingiest defense. He uses his Stretch Armstrong physique to flummox opponents and has helped the Bulldogs to the Southeastern Conference's fastest start.
``When I block a shot, it gets our crowd going, it gets the players going,'' Varnado said. ``You know it gets us up running back in transition trying to score.''
In Starkville, where Mississippi State (13-5, 4-0) hosts No. 17 Mississippi (15-2, 2-2) in a highly anticipated SEC West showdown, the offense starts with defense. There is no better example of this than Varnado's play in the middle.
Varnado has given his team scores of chances for quick transition baskets with opportunistic rejections and the Bulldogs have thrived with eight straight wins. He leads the nation with 5.2 blocks per game and is on a record-setting pace.
Twice during the Bulldogs' 4-0 start, the 6-foot-9 center has used his 7-4 wingspan to lift the team to victory, blocking 10 shots each against Kentucky and Georgia in close games where Varnado's skinny arms were a whip under the basket.
He had the school's third triple-double against Kentucky with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks, which tied his own school record. Against Georgia he finished a point and a rebound shy of a second.
Of all the shots he blocked in that two-game span, however, nothing was as impressive as when he blocked three Georgia shots within 30 seconds on back-to-back possessions.
Mississippi State point guard Jamont Gordon said he was ``stunned'' when he saw Varnado completely deny Georgia.
``You're playing the game, but you're just watching him,'' Gordon said. ``You're like, 'Dang, this dude is blocking all those shots.'''
Varnado has been blocking shots since middle school when he was a head or two taller than his classmates. He's always had an uncanny sense of timing, but steadily improved his blocking skills after coming to Mississippi State from Brownville, Tenn.
He set the freshman record for blocks last season with 67 - two more than Erick Dampier's mark set in 1994-95. And he is within easy reach of Dampier's single-season school record of 106 with 93 so far. Barring injury he even has a shot at Shaquille O'Neal's conference record of 157 set in 1991-92.
While he may be shadowing Shaq, Varnado doesn't measure up to the former LSU star. O'Neal was freakishly large and agile in college at 7-foot-2 and 300 pounds.
While Varnado may have the kind of reach O'Neal does, he isn't as imposing. He weighs 210 pounds after putting on 20 pounds since last season. He hit the weights in the offseason and added protein-rich foods like peanut butter to his diet.
At times, though, he finds the added bulk isn't nearly enough. Richard Hendrix bulled him off the block in a 66-56 win over Alabama on Saturday and he finished with four points and no rejections.
``Big bodies do play a role, but I've got to start using my quickness more to get around them,'' Varnado said.
Varnado will face the beefiest challenge of the season against Ole Miss, the SEC's top rebounding team. Starters Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams are both 6-8 and weigh more than 250 pounds. Like Varnado, each pulls down more than eight rebounds a game.
``Those two guys are probably the two most physical guys in the league,'' Mississippi State coach Rich Stansbury said.
Curtis said the plan is to take the ball right at Varnado. But he'll only be leading the charge. The Rebels will send waves of players at him, attempting to take Varnado out of the game with foul trouble, something he's been susceptible to at times.
``We're just going to attack him in and out,'' said slashing guard Eniel Polynice, whose role with the Rebels includes driving the lane. ``We're going to make him work.''