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February 18, 2009SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (18-5, 7-3 SEC)
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (16-9, 6-4)
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, Miss.
Tickets: Available at the box office
Latest line: Mississippi State by three
South Carolina's probable starters: G Devan Downey 5-9 Jr. (19.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Zam Fredrick 6-0 Sr. (15.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Dominique Archie 6-7 Jr. (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg); F Sam Muldrow 6-9 So. (6.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg); F/C Mike Holmes 6-7 So. (11.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
Mississippi State's probable starters: G Dee Bost 6-2 Fr. (11.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Ravern Johnson 6-7 So. (12.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg); G Phil Turner 6-3 So. (8.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg); G Barry Stewart 6-3 Jr. (11.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); C Jarvis Varnado 6-9 Jr. (13.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg)
Notes: South Carolina again travels to a place where it has never fared well historically. The Gamecocks are 2-6 all-time in Starkville. They were 1-10 at Alabama but beat the Crimson Tide 75-73 four days ago. ... MSU leads the all-time series 11-8 but USC has won three of the past four. ... With a win, USC will notch at least a .500 league finish for the first time since the 2003-04 season, its last NCAA tournament year. ... The Gamecocks haven't won two straight road games all year. ... The Bulldogs have lost two straight. ... Downey needs just 55 points to reach the 1,500-point plateau for his overall career. ... MSU seeks to strengthen its NCAA tournament resume (notable wins -- at Kentucky and over Western Kentucky) and keep the heat on leader LSU for the SEC West crown. ... The Gamecocks want to remain tied for first place in the SEC East.
Next game: USC hosts Arkansas at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The numbers seem like a mistake.
One hundred twenty-two blocks through 25 games (4.9 per). Coming off a season with an SEC single-season record-tying 157. Career total of 346 in just two years and change.
Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado knows how to block a shot.
For a team whose main source of offense is a 5-foot-9 windmill who loves to tie big men in knots while driving into the lane, it's a concern.
"We're just going to play and not worry about one individual player," insisted South Carolina guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who's also had his share of twisting drivers to the rim. "We're going to attack him. We're not going to change for him."
But the Gamecocks are probably going to be darned careful about how they attack and don't change.
The Bulldogs' 6-foot-9 junior center's shot-blocking finesse reads like a page from the Guinness Book of World Records. Varnado easily broke Erick Dampier's school record of 106 blocks last year and tied Shaquille O'Neal's SEC single-season record. He's already MSU's career leader and should he come back for his senior season, he'll have very good chances of breaking the career records for the SEC (O'Neal again, with 412) and Division I (Louisiana-Monroe's Wojciech Mydra, 535).
He was so good at it last year that he won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award and was named Rivals.com's National Defensive Player of the Year. By himself, Varnado blocked more shots last year than close to 300 Division I teams.
Not to beat a dead horse, but ...
"Obviously they've got one of the most prolific shot-blockers literally in college basketball history," coach Darrin Horn said. "He does what he does every night. That's what makes players good."
USC (18-5, 7-3 SEC) is again on the road tonight, seeking to add another to its two-game winning streak and hoping to keep winning at a place where they haven't won much. The last game was at Alabama's Coleman Coliseum, where the Gamecocks had one win in 11 tries; tonight it's MSU's Humphrey Coliseum, where they've won twice in eight.
The Gamecocks remain tied with Tennessee for first place in the SEC East, with Kentucky a half-game behind following a loss to Vanderbilt on Tuesday. The Volunteers are close by tonight, playing at Ole Miss, and should the Rebels triumph while USC wins, the Gamecocks will be all alone in first place.
To take care of its part, USC will have more to worry about than Varnado -- the Bulldogs' four-guard set fluctuating around the man in the middle has been good enough to get MSU to second place in the SEC West. Freshman Dee Bost and sophomore Ravern Johnson have proven to be capable and sometimes spectacular scorers.
But Varnado is the main guy on each end of the floor. He's the team's leading scorer (13.4 points) and obviously the leading rebounder (9.3), and then there's that ability to get those lanky arms over and through any enemy shot attempt.
He rejected five attempts in a five-point overtime MSU win in Columbia last year. Devan Downey's going to have to do some extra acrobatics to get around Varnado on his home floor.
What's Varnado's secret?
"You all want to try so hard to try to define everything or find a reason for something and sometimes, it's just not that simple," Horn said. "I'm sure a lot of people are game-planning for Jodie Meeks, he still gets 25. I'm sure people want to keep Devan Downey in front, he still ends up in the paint. I'm sure a lot of people would like Jarvis Varnado to not block six shots a game, he still blocks six shots per game. That's what good players do."
Horn didn't compare Varnado to anyone else through history, saying he was only 36 and didn't have much personal history to go by. "I think he's as good probably as I remember going against as player or coach," he said. "He just seems to have a knack for it."
The top 25 through Division I history features names like Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning and Pervis "Never Nervous" Ellison. With 15 more blocks, Varnado will move onto that list.
But as Raley-Ross pointed out and Horn agreed with, the Gamecocks got this far without altering their gameplan for individuals. They didn't get 18 wins and put themselves squarely in the NCAA tournament picture by throwing the offense out the window whenever a defensive specialist popped up on the schedule.
"I'm not going to look at it like that," Raley-Ross said. "We got Sam Muldrow -- we got him against Jarvis."
"We have great respect for him," Horn said. "He's just good at it, he is. Like a shooter or anything else.
"We're not going to change what we've done all year based on one player."