After a five year absence, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are back in the NCAA Tournament as the ultimate sleeper pick. They are coached by Rick Stansbury, who is in his 10th year at MSU, and is appearing in his fifth NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs finished the regular season 22-10, No. 2 in the SEC.
The Bulldogs raised some eyebrows with what was reported as a nationally televised SEC showdown win against Kentucky. It should have been reported as it was viewed, by this sports fan, a meet-the-nation game by a little known sophomore, Jarvis Varnado. He was basically everywhere—scoring, rebounding and swatting enough shots to have the entire Kentucky team leave Starkville, MS with a maroon and white T-Shirt that reads “ I went to MSU and had my shot blocked by Jarvis Varnado” on the front.
Varnado stands 6’9”, which isn’t all that uncommon, but his 7-4 wingspan is a unique weapon for the Bulldogs and another reason opponents are shooting just 36.9 percent from the field. Varnado leads the nation with 4.8 blocks per game, and in six games this season he has had more blocked shots than points.
Every time Jarvis Varnado rejected another Kentucky shot he could feel Mississippi State gaining strength. It happened often. Varnado finished the game with a Triple-double that included 10 blocked shots. Any time you earn a triple-double in a game it is impressive and you clearly had an impact on the game but when you do that and blocked shots are included makes the feat that much more impressive.
“He changes the game around the rim,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.
Adding to the mix for the Bulldogs is the stellar play of Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes leading four players who average more than 10 points. For those who aren’t familiar with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Jamont Gordon is the star. Shot-blocking Jarvis Varnado is the show. But Charles Rhodes has grown into an offensive terror since Valentine’s Day, averaging 22.1 points per game on 57.1 percent shooting. Rhodes sudden improvement has made the Bulldogs increasingly dangerous.
This leads me into the 8 Mississippi State vs. 9 Oregon match up, in the first round of the Tournament. Oregon is one year removed from a Regional Final appearance traveling south to Little Rock, Arkansas to take on MSU. I view MSU as a solid team and OU as a good but up and down team. Several people didn’t think the Ducks would make it to the NCAA’s but here they are ready to make a return to the Elite Right.
The Ducks have experience, they’ve been there before, and have been playing better of late. The Ducks return four players all averaging better than 12 points per game. The knock on them is their defense or lack thereof. The Ducks' calling card is their shooting the three. Their defensive FG percentage is horrible so it is a matter of can they consistently knock down enough three-point shots to advance.
The Ducks have played up and down in the Pac-10, which is a strong conference—one of the toughest in the nation. The Ducks can stoke it but they haven’t been consistent. The edge goes to Mississippi State whose calling card is defense and solid team play. They're big, strong, physical team with great guards that will overwhelm the Ducks and send them home defeated.