Senior Jarvis Varnado entered his freshman year as a scrawny, long psuedo-athlete with little conditioning, little offense and a keen eye for blocking shots. He wasn't ranked in the nation's top 100 recruits, and he served as a backup as a freshman.
As a sophomore, Varnado grabbed some of the league's limelight. In just his second year as a collegiate player, and first as a starter, he tied Shaquille O'Neal's SEC single-season block record with 157 swats to lead the nation and garner National Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Last year was much the same, with improved offense. Varnado stands 12th in the league's returning scorers and 4th in field-goal percentage. He also is one of the league's most efficient rebounders and increased his blocking total to 170 - more than over 300 Division 1 schools and again leading the nation and earning National Defensive Player of the Year honors.
And he's the nation's best walk-on, and one of the best of all time.
That's right. He's a walk-on.
After his experimentation with the NBA draft last spring/summer, Varnado learned that MSU had the chance to sign Renardo Sidney and John Riek, both of which are former top five players. Knowing that would put State over the scholarship limit, Varnado offered to give up his scholarship.
Hard to find positive stories involving athletes in the presses nowadays.
As a team, the Bulldogs didn't expect much going into last year. The team had lost one of the most dynamic duos to play in the league this decade in Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes, and were starting a freshman point guard.
After an average non-conference season, the Bulldogs pulled some upsets and finished third in the West, far worse than they were used to. However, a spirited march through the SEC Tournament landed them in the Big Dance and gave Rick Stansbury more than 20 wins yet again.
This year is different. Expectations are very high for Stansbury, as the team returns every significant player and loses only one benchwarmer. With the addition of former top five player John Riek and the possible inclusion of infinitely-talented Renardo Sidney, the Bulldogs have the school's second Final Four appearance in sight.
Despite losing just one player, the Bulldogs' signing class was actually pretty sizeable.
(#9 overall - #2 PF - 5 stars - 6'11" - 255lbs)
Sidney is repeatedly mentioned as the nation's most talented recruit. Questions exist about his effort level, but his talent level simply can't be matched.
Although he's been cleared by the NCAA academically, his amateur status has been a long, ugly fight throughout the summer and continues to be in doubt.
Whether or not he plays for State, every scout in the nation knows Sidney would dominate in college. His shooting touch is extremely rare for a big-man, he would be the best-passing big-man in the collegiate game and he is a massive scoring threat.
If he receives clearance, he could elevate MSU from a deep-March team to one that could challenge for a title. Look for him to start immediately if he were to be declared elligible.
(C - 4 stars - 7'2" - 240lbs)
Riek also faced challenges to his amateur status, and will sit nine games as punishment.
Those nine game will serve him well, however, as he is still recovering from an ACL tear that took his stock from Top Five to nearly-forgotten prep-school player.
Riek is much like Varnado when he entered college: raw offensively but with great size, rebounding and defending skills. His wingspan alone is a force to be reckoned with, and should provide a tremendous impact for the team when he is elligible.
Riek likely won't start, but will be a force off the bench.
(#26 SG - 3 stars - 6'5" - 180lbs)
Smith comes out of high school as one of the most heralded shooters to ever graduate from the state of Mississippi.
His size and body are beneficial to him, and his shooting touch is outstanding. If that touch can translate effectively to the college game, Smith should contribute immediately for the Bulldogs.
(C - 2 stars - 6'8" - 220lbs)
Lewis is an underrated inside player with a strong offensive set of skills. Coaches say that Lewis has been a surprise and could challenge for minutes off the bench, despite a deep Bulldog rotation.
The Bulldogs are one of the deepest teams in the league, if not the nation, and one of the most experienced as well.
Jarvis Varnado - 6'9", 230lb Senior C
(12.9ppg - 8.8rpg - 170blk - 54.9% FG)
Varnado's acclaims say it all. First-team All-SEC, two-time National Defensive Player of the Year, Fourth-Team All-American.
Varnado is quite literally the best shot-blocker the nation has ever seen, while his rebounding and scoring skills tend to be overlooked.
While he has a tendency to foul and is attempting to add bulk on his wiry frame, Varnado will easily challenge for SEC Player of the Year honors this season.
Barry Stewart - 6'3", 170lb Senior SG
(12.4ppg - 3.8rpg - 36.5% 3PT - 46 stl)
Stewart is a rare case, in that he began his collegiate career with a bang and has faded since. He shot nearly 40 percent from behind the arc as a freshman and was down about three percentage points by last year.
Stewart is still a very capable shooter with the capability of 20-point nights. He's a smart player with a good handle on the basketball, and is a great defender.
Look for him to back up Dee Bost at the point with the offseason loss of Twany Beckham to surgery.
Ravern Johnson - 6'7", 175lb Junior SG
(12.1ppg - 3.1rpg - 39.5% 3PT - 84.8% FT)
Johnson was one of the more underrated shooters in the nation a year ago, as he led the nation from behind the arc at several points last season.
His shooting touch is helped by his height, which creates mismtaches for his defenders. He's also a speedy and dynamic player who can streak to the rim.
His defense needs work, as does his ball-handling, but Johnson could be one of the best shooters in the league this season.
Dee Bost - 6'2", 170lb Sophomore PG
(10.9ppg - 3.6rpg - 1.53 A/TO - 156 ast)
Bost was one of the better true point guards in the league last season, but saw his shooting plummet once SEC play started. His size causes his shooting mark to struggle occasionally under pressure, and he tended to be a bit impatient with the ball.
Selfish, however, he is not. He ranked third in the league in assists as a freshman.
His ball-handling and defense are very solid, but his shooting touch needs to improve if he plans on attempting over 300 shots again this season.
Phil Turner - 6'3", 170lb Junior SF
(8.5ppg - 5.5rpg - 46stl - 37.7% 3PT)
Turner is a surprising jumper and a dynamic, energetic player. He's yet another Bulldog that is capable of 20-point scoring nights and has a tall tear-drop shot that is effective most of the time.
He's also very potent defensively because of his energy and length. He will challenge for a starting spot, depending on if Stansbury goes big or small.
Kodi Augustus - 6'8", 220lb Junior PF
(6.2ppg - 3.4rpg - 48.1% FG - 79.2% FT)
Augustus sparked MSU's run through the SEC Tournament last season, and has offensive firepower to boot. He's one of the team's most versatile players, and can extend his reach out to behind the arc.
He is a poor decision-maker and ball-handler however, and needs to work on his defensive effort before he can challenge for a starting spot.
Romero Osby - 6'8", 230lb Sophomore PF
(4.1ppg - 2.6rpg - 43.2% FG - 67.2% FT)
Osby is a physically gifted player who hasn't learned the game of basketball well enough to be truly effective in college. His shot-selection must improve, but if it comes around he will be a very effective player.
Riley Benock - 6'4", 180lb Junior SG
(2.3ppg - 0.9rpg - 37.5% - 1.47 A/TO)
Benock is a rather unidimensional player, but is pretty good at what he does, which is shoot. However, his confidence level is very low and he has very little assertion on the court.
Bailey is likely out this season, as he is still recovering from an injured ankle. Beckham is recovering from surgery and is also out.
Cupcakes : Rider (H), Southeastern Louisiana (H), Bethune-Cookman (H), Texas Pan-American (H), St. Bonaventure (H), DePaul (N), Centenary (N), Mississippi Valley St. (H), San Diego St. (A)
Real Games : Richmond (N), Wright St. (H), Houston (A)
Marquee Matchups : UCLA (N), Western Kentucky (A)
Opposite Division : Georgia (H), Vanderbilt (A), Florida (A), Kentucky (H), South Carolina (A), Tennessee (H)
Predicted Result : (24-6, 12-4), NCAA Tournament
Analysis : The Bulldogs aren't playing a particularly difficult schedule, with a reasonable chance of running through the non-conference slate undefeated. The team plays more games on neutral and away courts than most any team in the conference, and that should help out when the SEC schedule hits in January.
Points : 90.85 percent (3rd—SEC Avg: 73.81 percent)
Rebounds : 86.53 percent (4th—SEC Avg: 75.80 percent)
The Bulldogs seem to be set for a big season in 2009-10. If things go well and Sidney is allowed to play, MSU could make a run for April.
One thing is for sure, with or without Sidney, Stansbury's lack of Sweet Sixteen appearances has no excuse not to end this season.