In his last two games against Kentucky, Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado has blocked 17 shots and grabbed 24 rebounds.
"I dominated, I guess," Varnado said of his contributions to two State victories. Then the player with the Southeastern Conference's most apt nickname, Swat, added a cautionary note. "This is a new Kentucky team."
Kentucky, the nation's No. 2 team, has three big men to throw at Varnado Tuesday night. It makes for a compelling matchup pitting Varnado, who needs 17 blocks to set a national career record, against UK's three-headed monster of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton.
"That's going to be a handful," Varnado said.
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Varnado, who had a triple-double (10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks) when the teams played in Starkville two years ago, moved Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy to reference the patron saint of shot blocking: Bill Russell.
"One of the most underrated guys in college basketball," Kennedy said earlier this season. "If you were naming the best players of the decade in the SEC, anybody who leaves him off the list is being shortsighted. He changes the game defensively. He's much better offensively than people give him credit for."
Varnado isn't a big scorer (11.8 points per game against SEC teams). But he leads the league in rebounding (12.0 per SEC game) and blocks (his 51 are 20 more than second-place Sam Muldrow of South Carolina).
When asked why Varnado does not get mentioned in discussions about the SEC's best players, Kennedy said, "He's just not a flamboyant guy. He's kind of a Bill Russell throwback. When he blocks shots, he just goes about his business. And he's consistent in his production. That's what I respect about the kid. He's very workmanlike in his approach."
Kennedy suggested that Varnado's presence makes a profound impact on a game. Ole Miss challenged Varnado, hoping to deny him the room to get up and out after a shot or, better yet, get him in foul trouble. Kentucky Coach John Calipari promoted much the same idea on Monday.
"If you don't get into his body ... you're not getting it off," Calipari said. "You have to get into his body."
Varnado, who already has more than 100 more blocks than previous SEC career leader Shaquille O'Neal (519-412), affects a game plan as no other player can, Kennedy said.
"Typically, the first thing you talk about when you're scouting an opponent is, how do we guard this? How do we guard that? How do we stop this player or that player?" the Ole Miss coach said. "When you prepare for Mississippi State, the first thing that comes in your mind is to try to do something to take Varnado away from the basket. ...
"We challenged him three or four times and he made us pay. He had six blocks. I bet he altered another six or seven, and he dissuaded another six or seven. Your talking about 20 shots over the course of a game that are directly affected by his presence. That's quite a presence."
The problem for Mississippi State is depth. Varnado stands almost alone. His expected backup, Elgin Bailey, has applied for medical redshirt status after dislocating an ankle. Another option, heralded freshman Renardo Sidney, has not gained academic eligibility.
With backup point guard Twany Beckham, a native of Louisville, redshirting after undergoing two hip surgeries, State Coach Rick Stansbury frets about depth.
Three State players, including Varnado, are among the SEC's top six in minutes played.
"I'm fine with it," Varnado said of his SEC average of 35.4 minutes. "My body is not broken down. It really helps me get ready for the next level, in a sense, playing those long 82-game seasons."
Maybe. But Stansbury sees it differently.
"It has an effect on him being as efficient," the State coach said. "The toll it takes on him physically, it shows over 36 minutes. Six or eight minutes, he's not as effective because he's worn out."
Stansbury laments his lack of depth at center and point guard. Meanwhile, he described UK's players at those positions as maybe the best any team has.
"Like everybody else, it's a very tough challenge for Jarvis," Stansbury said of UK's Cousins-Patterson-Orton triumvirate. "All three have big bodies. That will be a very difficult challenge for Jarvis."