STARKVILLE — Jarvis Varnado doesn”t spend much time thinking about his ascent to the top of the NCAA record books.
But Mississippi State men”s basketball fans are keenly aware of the chance Varnado has to make history Wednesday night.
Just seven blocks shy of former Louisiana-Monroe standout Wojciech Mydra”s record 535 blocked shots, Varnado needs eight Wednesday against the University of Alabama to set the all-time mark.
But who”s counting?
The countdown banner of fly swatters in Humphrey Coliseum and the contingent of SWAT team members in Rick”s Rowdies have been keeping track.
And now that Varnado”s benchmark to reach history is below double digits, MSU coach Rick Stansbury is ready for his senior forward to cement his name in college basketball”s annals, especially since it”s a defensive record.
Stansbury-coached teams have annually been at the top of the Southeastern Conference defensive standings, and the same is true this year, as the Bulldogs (19-8, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) lead the league in field goal percentage defense and scoring defense.
The Bulldogs also lead the league in blocks.
“That”s one of those goals when you bring publicity to it that you can”t go get if you wanted to,” Stansbury said. “Some guys may be able to get in the gym and work on their 3-point shooting to get better, but that”s not one of those things you get in the gym and work on. I don”t know if I”ve ever seen a guy take a ball and go to the basketball court by himself and work on blocked shots.
“A guy can be selfish in any defensive category he wants. If it was a rebound record, it”d be the same way — go get every one you want to get.”
Varnado has done just that and has altered the way teams attack the Bulldogs. He has blocked shots guarding his man one-on-one and helping on defense, but he doesn”t look at the potential to become a NCAA all-time leader as a notable personal achievement.
“I”d like to say it”s an unselfish act because if one of the guards get beat off the dribble they know I”ve got their backs,” Varnado said. “I think it”s a team goal. I”m not too caught up in (the record). I do what I do. Blocking shots is my best thing, so I”m going to do that well.”
Varnado has blocked 20 Crimson Tide shots in his career, tied for fifth most against any SEC team. The last time he blocked eight or more shots was Jan. 14 against Arkansas, when the Wooden All-America candidate had 10. Varnado blocked four shots in the Bulldogs” 62-57 loss to Alabama on Jan. 23.
There”s a chance the record could be broken Saturday at South Carolina or March 3 at Auburn. Varnado hopes to eclipse the mark Wednesday.
“I”m trying to do it at home, for my fans, who have been so tremendous to me over the years,” Varnado said.
MSU senior guard Barry Stewart, who is one 3-pointer away from owning the MSU record for career makes (258), said he can tell Varnado knows the record is close even though he has remained calm.
“I think he”s handling it great,” Stewart said. “He”s not the type of person whose going to be arrogant about it, but can tell he wants to break it the way he”s going after shots.”
Rebels behind at the line
Coach Andy Kennedy said there”s a big reason why the University of Mississippi men”s basketball team has lost five of its past six games.
The disparity at the free-throw line is glaring, as the Rebels have been outscored by a combined 78 points in their seven league losses. The Rebels lost those seven games by a combined 39 points, with several coming after they held second-half leads.
“We have got to stop fouling and limit our opponents” opportunity to get points off the free throw line,” Kennedy said. “That has been a major downfall of our team this year.”
In the Rebels” 64-61 loss to the University of Florida on Saturday, the Gators were 25 of 27 from the free-throw line, while Ole Miss was 9 of 11. In their 82-78 loss to Vanderbilt University, the Rebels were 10 of 18 from the stripe and the Commodores were 26 for 34.
Kennedy admitted the absence of Reginald Buckner, who injured his ankle Jan. 18 at Auburn, has been the biggest factor in the team”s struggles to get to the free-throw line and keep teams off it.
Buckner returned for portions of the team”s losses against Vanderbilt and Florida, but “tweaked” both ankles and is probable to be in uniform Wednesday for the Rebels” home game against Auburn.
“Before his injury, he was either second or third in the league in blocked shots,” Kennedy said. “We”re 1-5 without him playing the role he was prior to that, so you can see how much we miss him and his ability to alter shots at the rim. Without him, our shot blocking presence has been gone and we may be a step late and fouling too much. Also, it cuts into our front-court rotation, which forces us to go small. We may have amped the pressure up as a result, and, as a result, we”re fouling more than we should.”
Jemison working way back to full fitness
Without injured senior forward Demetrius Jemison, the Alabama Crimson Tide have missed out on depth and experience. But he”s slowly getting back to 100 percent.
Jemison started 32 games as a sophomore and appeared in 28 last season. He was poised to make an impact this season until he tore his Achilles tendon before the start of the season.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant said Monday that Jemison has progressed on schedule and should be ready for next season after successful surgery.
“Probably from the last couple of weeks he has been able to participate and practice on a semi-limited basis,” Grant said. “We like the progress he”s made. He”s a guy, a front-court player, a senior this year that would have been a valuable asset from a depth standpoint and from an experience standpoint. Our hope is he”ll continue to progress and make a full recovery and be available next year.”