Cats won't retreat from Miss. State's 'Swat'

Rejected 10 times last year, Cats to challenge Varnado again

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 3, 2009 

Be aware. But don't beware.

That's the sensible-yet-aggressive approach Kentucky plans to use against the nation's leading shot blocker: Mississippi State big man Jarvis Varnado. Be cognizant of him, but don't be frightened of him.

Facing UK's take-it-to-him strategy last season, Varnado blocked 10 shots en route to the only triple-double in Mississippi State history and perhaps the only one ever inflicted on the Cats.

Kentucky plans no retreat, no surrender when facing Varnado Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.

"That's the way we're supposed to play regardless of who someone has in there," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said at a Monday night news conference. "The last thing we need to do is take steps backward."

On a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference earlier in the day, Gillispie noted how Varnado's shot-blocking ability mandates that opponents be aware of his defensive presence "at all times."

Varnado, a 6-foot-9 junior from Brownsville, Tenn., is averaging 4.7 blocks a game. He led the nation in blocks last season with an average of 4.6. His 157 blocks surpassed the total of more than 250 NCAA Division I schools.

Yet Varnado, aptly nicknamed "Swat," hasn't repeated the spectacular shot-blocking games this season. He also had 10 blocks against Georgia last season. So far this season in league play, Varnado's 16 blocks rank second to LSU big man Chris Johnson's 23.

Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury cited two factors. With the departure of Charles Rhodes, Varnado is the only big man in the Bulldogs' four-guard lineup. So he can't cheat off his man to challenge as many shots. The second factor is fatigue. Varnado averaged 31.5 minutes in the last two games.

Varnado, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds to go with the 10 blocks against Kentucky last season, cited another factor. "People have been preparing for me," he said. "They do a good job forcing me away from the basket."

In winning 67-63 at Mississippi State last weekend, Ole Miss abandoned the standard approach of going at a shot blocker to get him in foul trouble.

"We tried to stay away from him," Rebels Coach Andy Kennedy said. "He's an incredible, incredible defender (because of) his length, his athleticism, his timing. We brought him away from the basket some."

Varnado had one block. It helped Ole Miss that Stansbury suspended two of his big man reserves, Elgin Bailey and Brian Johnson, for the game. Both are expected to play against UK.

When Georgia played Mississippi State, now-interim coach Pete Herrmann called one of his former players at Navy, All-American David Robinson, and asked about how to approach a shot blocker.

"I said, 'Were you good at blocking with two hands as Jarvis does?' " Herrmann said. "He said, 'You have to block with the arm nearest to the ball or you'll foul or you'll be off-balanced and be susceptible to shot fakes.' "

Stansbury expects Kentucky to come full force at Varnado again.

"(Patrick) Patterson is not going to change his game plan," Stansbury said. "He'll be the same old strong, tough guy on the inside. He'll try to catch it and go through him like he does everybody."

With Jamont Gordon and Rhodes leading the scoring, Varnado was more of a defensive specialist last season. Now he has jumped his scoring (from 7.9 to 12.7) and rebounding (7.8 to 9.5).

Varnado credited the four-guard lineup, which makes it risky for opponents to collapse defenses into the lane.

"It allows me to free up in the post," Varnado said. "I have more space to operate."

Gillispie suggested that basketball people notice the expansion in Varnado's game.

"I talk to a lot of NBA guys and they love him," Gillispie said. "He's improved so much."

In essence, Varnado has added an offensive game to the already imposing defensive presence.

Or as Gillispie put it, "He dictates everything they do on both ends of the court."

Varnado's improvement extends to the foul line.

In his first two seasons, Varnado barely made half of his free throws (51 percent). This led opponents to relish sending him to the foul line.

At his news conference, Gillispie continued to deny UK fouled Varnado purposely late in last season's game, surely because intentionally fouling is supposed to result in a technical foul.

But that's how Varnado, who made four of 10 free throws, remembered it.

"I couldn't hit a free throw," he said. "It didn't hurt (my pride) too much. I would have done the same thing if I was the opposing coach."

Varnado worked on his free-throw shooting in the off-season and it shows. He has made 67 percent of his foul shots and 15 of 19 in SEC play.

"This year they can't do that," Varnado said of fouling him on purpose (wink, wink). "Going to the line last year, I was a little nervous. Now I feel comfortable."

Then and now, it is players shooting in Varnado's vicinity who feel a little nervous.

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