Saturday, January 17, 2009

The center of attention

During Thursday’s press conference and coaches teleconference, Kevin Stallings fielded a variety questions about tonight’s matchup at Mississippi State. It didn’t take long to get to the center of attention.

“They play primarily man-to-man (defense), and play it well,” Stallings said, “and the big fellow back there causes lots of problems.”

That “big fellow” would be center Jarvis Varnado.

The 6’9 junior leads the nation in blocked shots with 90, a total that surpasses nine other teams in the SEC. Last season, he tied the SEC single-season mark set by former LSU great Shaquille O’Neal in 1992 with 157 blocks, earning him the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in a unanimous vote.

With such a large number of blocks, you would think Varnado would flirt with foul trouble. That’s not the case, as he has yet to foul out of a game this year and has only been charged with four fouls twice (although he did foul out in overtime of last year’s loss at Vanderbilt).

So how do you game plan against the bulldogs’ shot-blocking machine in the middle?

“There's nothing you can do to keep him from affecting what happens around the basketball when he's on defense,” said Stallings. “He's probably the most prolific shot blocker in college basketball history. He's going to block some shots, and he's going to alter a lot of others. You just have to play through that and figure out other ways to score.”

“Sometimes you have to take it at him. Sometimes you don’t need to challenge him. Sometimes it’s better just throwing it back out when he’s getting ready to block it. There are ways to keep shot blockers off balance, and you have to have a feel for that. Sometimes if you get your work done before you catch the ball, then the shot blocker can be put at a disadvantage. Now, on the ones who are 50-50, that kid’s going to win a lot of those.”

Sure, Varnado might be best known for his ability to reject all on-comers, but the Brownsville, Tenn., native, has had a positive presence in the Bulldogs offense as well. He leads MSU with 12.9 points per game (up from 7.9 in 2007-08), is second in the SEC with 9.8 rebounds per game and third in field goal percentage at .609. He also has recorded a team-high six double-doubles and has scored 20-plus points four times this season.

“He's going to affect some shots,” Stallings added, “and that's why he's a great defensive player, and his offense has improved dramatically over last year. He's one heck of a college player.”

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. CT from Humphrey Coliseum. Fans can watch the matchup on FSN South, or listen to the game on 104.5 the Zone. Click here for a game preview.

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