Menace in the Middle

To SEC foes' regret, a star shot blocker pays for another chance to reject them
November 23, 2009

In early April, a few weeks before the NBA draft, Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury called a meeting with power forward Jarvis Varnado and his father, Winston. The Bulldogs had a chance to get 6'10" prospect Renardo Sidney (page 94), Stansbury explained, but time and scholarships were short. So the coach proposed a hypothetical: If Varnado chose not to enter the draft, would the player who led the team in points (12.9), rebounds (8.8) and blocks (4.7, best in the nation) last season be willing to, well, pay to play his senior year?

"My teammates were shocked [that I said yes]," laughs Jarvis. "When I told them I was going to walk on, they didn't believe me."

For Varnado, a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year who defends paint better than a Swiss Guard at the Sistine Chapel, the decision to forgo an instant pro payday wasn't a no-brainer. (Winston is a high school teacher and basketball coach in West Point, Miss., and Jarvis's mother, Janice, is a factory worker.) But after taking out a student loan, Varnado remains the anchor of what could be the nation's most dominant frontcourt. "That's typical Jarvis," says Bulldogs assistant Robert Kirby. "Kids have come through here who were [good enough] to leave early, [and] their humbleness left them at that juncture. But Jarvis is still a very humble kid."

Varnado's blocking stats, on the other hand, are flashy. Having led the country in rejects as a sophomore (157) and as a junior (170), he is a mere 19 away from breaking Shaquille O'Neal's alltime SEC career record of 412—and 142 blocks from Wojciech Mydra's NCAA mark. Former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried has even gone so far as to compare Varnado, who has a 7'4" wingspan, to a certain Hall of Famer. "If he develops [his offense], he might become the next Bill Russell," said Gottfried last season.

Varnado has guardlike quickness and possesses arguably the best second jump in college hoops. "If we give up penetration, guys might think they got a layup," point guard Dee Bost says. "But then out of nowhere they'll find their shot going into the stands."

And Varnado, who sprouted from 6 feet in the eighth grade to 6'9" by his junior year of high school, hasn't reached his physical peak. The "picky eater" meets every weekday with a dietitian who maps out his meals. Slowly but surely, the plan is working: The player who, Kirby says, had "no pectoral muscle" when he first arrived in Starkville in 2006 now walks around campus wearing tank tops. Just one more show of strength by Mississippi State's menace in the middle.

Varnado defends paint better than a Swiss Guard at the Sistine Chapel.

PHOTOBRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN/SCHWARTZMAN SPORTSSHAQ KNACK Delaying his pro career, Varnado (32) will soon eclipse O'Neal's conference record for blocks.