Mississippi State's 6-foot-9 Jarvis Varnado weighs barely 200 pounds, but uses quickness, timing, leaping ability and long reach to lead the nation in blocked shots. He'll face Washington and Jon Brockman on Thursday in an opening-round game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Jarvis Varnado speaks in a soft, low bass tone that would have made Barry White envious.
But when Varnado gets on the basketball court, he’s capable of reaching the highest of notes.
The 6-foot-9 junior center leads the nation in blocked shots this season, at 4.7 per game, and will present an imposing presence in the middle for Mississippi State when the Bulldogs take on the Washington Huskies in the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. That game will be played Thursday in Portland’s Rose Garden at about 1:55 p.m.
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“He’s just an unbelievably active, unbelievably athletic big man down in the paint,” said UW senior Jon Brockman. “He can control a lot on the defensive end just by blocking shots, and he does even more in terms of changing the arc and making people alter their shots.”
Varnado does all that even though he is listed at 210 pounds, though Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury says that’s an exaggeration.
“He’s like 203 pounds on a good day when he eats a big breakfast,” Stansbury said. Varnado compensates with a wingspan estimated at 7-4.
Varnado says he has tried to get bigger, and notes that he weighed just 180 when he arrived at Mississippi State in 2006.
“It’s hard playing against some of these big, ol’ bruisers in the SEC,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.
That figures to make for an especially intriguing matchup Thursday between the above-the-rim Varnado and the Huskies’ bruising 6-7, 255-pound Brockman.
Varnado, though, has learned the last few years how to win the battle of the bulge.
“I just try to outquick them and try to beat them to the spot and outjump them,” he said.
Varnado was schooled in a lot of the tricks of the trade by his father, Winston, who was a college player at the NAIA level and later a coach. Winston was the head coach at Haywood High School in Brownsville, Tenn., when Jarvis was a senior.
“He was more of a defensive-minded coach,” Varnado said. “I’ve been playing defense my whole life.”
He was listed as having offers from the likes of Tennessee and Memphis — John Calipari compared him to one of his former players, Marcus Camby — but said he chose Mississippi State because he liked the small-town atmosphere of Starkville.
He began blocking shots immediately, and as a sophomore he tied the Southeastern Conference season record for blocks in a season, 157, set by Shaquille O’Neal. He broke it this season with 165.
“He’s got great timing,” said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar of Varnado. “He’s not just a shot blocker because he can jump. He’s got great timing. He’s got an uncanny ability to go up and get a shot without leaving his feet all the time.”
Varnado is the first player to be SEC Defensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons.
He also improved his offensive game this season, emerging as the team’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per game while leading the team in rebounding at 9.0.
Varnado often is Mississippi State’s only real inside threat. The Bulldogs work primarily out of a four-guard offense that Romar says is similar to the one UW faced earlier this year against Oklahoma State.
“It’s good because it gives me more room to operate down low,” Varnado said. “And if they double me, I can kick it out to my guards, who are good shooters.”
His calling card, though, will always be blocked shots, which can cause opponents to tread warily into the paint.
Romar says the key for the Huskies will be to keep testing Varnado as they did against the top shot blocker in the Pac-10 this year, USC’s Taj Gibson. Gibson blocked seven shots in two games against UW, but the Huskies won each time.
“It’s important that we are aggressive,” Romar said. “Important that we are not tentative. If we are fearful of getting our shot blocked, it will get blocked more than if we are just aggressive. He’s going to block shots, that’s for sure, because he’s done it with regularity the last couple of years.”
Washington players say that won’t be a problem.
“I’m never scared,” said Washington’s 5-8 guard, Isaiah Thomas. “So I’m going to still do what I do.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.