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SEC surprise: Mississippi St. takes risks for an unstoppable frontcourt

College basketball's offseason has belonged to Kentucky, whose title-starved fans have been celebrating John Calipari, John Wall and everything in between. There is more than one intriguing story in the SEC, though, and in a saner spring, Mississippi State might have been a national focal point, with its acquisitions of two elite high-school big men (one mysterious, one controversial) and a potential All-America center pulling out of the NBA draft.

If everything works out, the Bulldogs could have a frontcourt that rivals, or surpasses, the Wildcats'. But there's no guarantee that this will be the case.

The sure thing: Junior center Jarvis Varnado, who's averaged a nation-leading 163.5 blocks over the past two seasons -- was over at Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's house a week ago for cake and ice cream, and Stansbury was understandably relieved that the occasion wasn't a farewell party.

Varnado put his name on the NBA draft's early-entry list on April 27, and was hardly shunned by the league, earning an invite to the pre-draft combine in Chicago on May 27, and several invites for teams' private workouts. Initial appraisals of his draft stock put him anywhere from the end of the first round to going undrafted, though, and at 6-foot-9 and just 205 pounds, he wasn't convinced he was physically ready for the pros. The more he thought and prayed about the situation, he said, "I had a feeling that it just wasn't right. I didn't want to leave a bad impression on NBA scouts at workouts."

Varnado opted to pull his name out of the draft pool on May 11, just two weeks after declaring. He's determined to add bulk to his slight frame during his senior campaign, during which time he'll need just 19 more blocks to break Shaquille O'Neal's career SEC record of 412, and 142 more to break the NCAA record of 535, set by Louisiana-Monroe's Wojciech Mydra from 1999 to 2002. "I wasn't going to try to talk him out of coming back," Stansbury said of Varnado, who helped lead the team to an SEC tournament title last season. "He was in a position where he didn't need to roll the dice."

Having Varnado in the fold makes it easier to justify taking chances on filling out the rest of the Bulldogs' frontcourt rotation, which is what Stansbury had already done during the spring signing period. By bringing in 7-foot-1 Sudanese center John Riek and 6-10 McDonald's All-America Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State made a splash on the recruiting scene that, if not for Calipari landing five-star point guards Eric Bledsoe and Wall, would have been the biggest development of May.

Stansbury's last two signings were noteworthy for their degree of surprise -- in the fall, neither player's expected college destination was Mississippi State -- and risk. While there's a chance Riek and Sidney could be on NBA rosters someday, there's also a chance that neither could appear on the court in Starkville this season.

The mystery recruit: Riek started out as a near-mythical figure on the summer basketball scene, showing up at the LeBron James Skills Academy in the summer of 2007 as a total unknown, and wowing onlookers to the point that he began to be considered a first-round pick for the 2008 draft. He left the Winchendon School and entered into IMG Academy's post-graduate program in Bradenton, Fla., to prepare for the draft that spring. But NBA evaluators saw a different version of him at the pre-draft camp in Orlando. "He looked broken there," one scout said of Riek. "He couldn't even run."

Riek had no choice but to pull out of the draft, and he returned to IMG, where two injuries that he was believed to have suffered in late 2007 or early 2008 -- microfractures in his tibia as well as an ACL separation from the insertion on his femur -- were finally discovered. He has yet to return to the court since those were treated, in June 2008, and was initially expected to commit to Cincinnati for the past season. His coach and trainer at IMG, Dan Barto, said Riek signed and faxed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Bearcats, but it was never official because it hadn't been signed by his guardian, Gary Lorden. Riek also experienced enrollment issues at the school, and the decision was made to re-open his recruitment this April.

Mississippi State got into the picture when it was recruiting Kyryl Natyazhko, a four-star Ukrainian center who was playing for IMG, and found out about Riek's availability. Natyazhko ended up signing with Arizona, and the Bulldogs brought Riek in for a visit. He was hosted not by basketball players, but by two Sudanese track and field athletes, Michael Chapa and Thuom Mathiang, and was introduced to three women's basketball players from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rima Kalonda, Armelie Lumanu and Chanel Mokango. Mississippi State officially announced Riek's signing on May 6, but it's uncertain whether he'll gain immediate eligibility from the NCAA clearinghouse, and unlikely that he'll be healthy enough to contribute in the fall.

Barto said he put Riek on a two-year, post-surgery outline last June, in order to rehabilitate the microfractures, ACL and atrophied leg muscles. He estimates that Riek is at 65 percent with the potential of getting back to 95 percent of where he was at in the LeBron showcase. "With a guy built like John, you have to be extra careful," Barto said. "Because if you rush him back at this point in his career, he could be done."

The earliest Riek would be ready for game action, Barto said, is January or February 2010 -- a reality that would seemingly make redshirting a strong possibility. Stansbury alluded to that last week, saying, "We took a chance on [Riek] because he's big, and you can't find bigs everywhere. We don't know if he'll play this year -- we'll have to see where his knee's at -- but because Jarvis is back, that's something we can be cautious about."

The question mark: The recruit they're hoping can play immediately alongside Varnado and junior Kodi Augustus is Sidney, a versatile, sweet-shooting big man who'll be perhaps the highest-profile freshman in the history of the program. Sidney was raised in Jackson, Miss., but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a high-school freshman, and he was at one point regarded as a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. His stock has slipped due to concerns over his weight and motor, but Rivals.com still ranks him the No. 16 overall recruit in the Class of 2009, and he was the MVP of the Jordan Brand All-Star Classic in New York in April.

Issues with Sidney center on whether he'll ever be declared eligible by the NCAA, as his amateur status has been called into question. Questions abound as to why his original college choice, USC -- a school that accepted O.J. Mayo and recently had its coach, Tim Floyd, accused under oath of making a cash payment in broad daylight to Mayo's handler, Rodney Guillory -- backed out of his recruitment. And why did UCLA do the same thing prior to that? As Stansbury said, you can't find big men everywhere -- especially those with five-star ratings and the ability to effortlessly knock down college three- pointers.

Former shoe-company kingpin Sonny Vaccaro initially gave Sidney's father, Renardo, a $20,000 Reebok consulting contract to move the family to L.A., which was entirely legal under NCAA rules. But the elder Sidney went on to form a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization in 2007 called the Los Angeles/LA Dream Team Foundation, which, as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, allowed him to receive donations for the AAU team he was coaching -- the LA Dream Team -- that featured his son as the centerpiece.

SI.com confirmed with the IRS that no federal Form 990 documents had been filed for the LA Dream Team for 2007, and as the Times reported, "Federal law requires a nonprofit to allow public inspection of its application form and, if the organization has received more than $25,000 in donations in a given year, its federal Form 990." Foundations raising less than $25,000 are required to file an e-postcard by November 2008, which the LA Dream Team also has neglected to do. The Times also indicated that UCLA had been concerned with how the Sidney family afforded to rent a home near Hancock Park that was valued at $1.2 million. Two lawyers have been retained to work on the case -- Michael Glazier (hired by Mississippi State, due to experience with past NCAA scandals) and Donald Jackson (hired by the Sidneys, due to experience with amateurism cases of Mario Austin and Jackie Butler, among others) -- and battle to get the younger Sidney officially on the roster. Jackson denied any wrongdoing by Sidney, telling the Times, "There have been no violations of NCAA amateur regulations in this young man's life."

Stansbury, meanwhile, frames the situation as one in which Mississippi State couldn't get burned, given that UCLA and USC were the schools involved in Sidney's recruiting process in L.A. -- not the Bulldogs, who only came into the picture after the smoke cleared. "There's no risk to Mississippi State here," Stansbury said. "Renardo's been out in California for three years, and we basically didn't recruit him while he was there. For whatever reason, he wanted to come home. ... You don't have those guys fall in your lap very often. We were in the right place at the right time."

It would be nice if Sidney's tale turned out to be a happy one, where a high-profile recruit escapes the underworld of L.A. hoops -- which may not have been as good for his development as originally thought -- and heads home to lead State U to glory. His family declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a video Q&A with a Scout.com site two weeks ago, Sidney said, "California will tell you I never got out of Mississippi, I never lost it."

He also indicated he has high hopes for this Mississippi State team in '09-10, stating, "I expect us to win the national championship the first year." Bulldog fans would probably settle for a darkhorse run at an SEC title -- and in the meantime, just getting Sidney cleared to be on the court.

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