Last season, Mississippi State won the SEC Western Division, made the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed, knocked off Oregon and then lost by three points to eventual national runner-up and No. 1 seed Memphis. The Bulldogs lost Jamont Gordon, Charles Rhodes, and Ben Hansbrough from that team – their two best players and a solid shooter – and yet here they are again in the Big Dance.
This year’s squad finished third in the West and seemed NIT-bound after losing five of six games. But State won its last two regular-season games and swept through the SEC Tournament to earn the automatic NCAA berth as a No. 13 seed. Two different teams, two different paths, the same destination. So I asked Jarvis Varnado, one of two returning starters from the 2008 Bulldogs, how the two teams differed.
“I think we came together as a team. Last year we weren’t all together as a team,” he said. Then I asked him which team he thought was better. “I would say this team is hotter than the team entering (last year’s) tournament. We’re playing our best ball right now.” Interesting. MSU is currently on a season-best six-game winning streak. Last year’s squad entered the NCAA tournament having lost two of its last four, including a 64-60 setback to that Cinderella Georgia team in the SEC Tournament.
Now, that 2008 group certainly finished strong, pushing Memphis closer to the edge than anyone else prior to the Tigers’ loss to Kansas in the national championship game. But the 2009 Bulldogs, as Varnado noted, are more of a team. There are no real superstars like Gordon or Rhodes, who tended to dominate the ball. “This team, we’ve just got to work a little harder because we don’t have those great scorers like Charles and Jamont,” Varnado said. Certainly, MSU has grown a great deal over the course of the season, due mainly to an increased need for players to rely on each other.
I talked with Varnado about some other things, like the strained groin he suffered Sunday against Tennessee. “It’s getting better by the day,” he said as he rolled a rod covered in wide plastic wheels up and down his left thigh. His health will be key against the bruising style of Washington big man Jon Brockman (6-7, 255), who has a nice skill set to match his physical approach.
“I can’t match his physicality, he’s going to win that every time,” Varnado said. “I’ve just got to get back to my quickness, try to get around him, not let him get the ball in his sweet spots.”
UW coach Lorenzo Romar is quite concerned about Varnado. “Not that he’s a bully, but if you’re tentative at all with a bully, he’s going to bully you all night, and all year probably,” he said. Brockman essentially called Varnado the most well-rounded center he’ll have faced all season. “I’ve played against people who have a lot of skills he has,” Brockman said. “I think he’s got pieces from different players all put together. He’s unbelievably athletic, a great shot blocker, great timing, and he is unbelievably active.”
When MSU is clicking at its best is when both Varnado and State’s guards are putting it in the basket. Romar said the Bulldogs’ small lineup has many advantages, including the myriad outside shooting options. “They have about 500 guys that can shoot the three, and they’re all over the place. They’re not just spot-up shooters; they can put the ball on the floor and make plays,” Romar said.
Coming in tomorrow’s Journal will be plenty more coverage from Portland. The game advance will focus on the point guard matchup between MSU’s Dee Bost and Washington’s Isaiah Thomas, and I’ll have a lengthy notebook as well.