By now most people have heard about Mississippi State forward Jarvis Varnado’s selfless decision to give up his scholarship and walk-on this season so the Bulldogs could sign a couple of high profile recruits.
Like most players who choose to walk-on, a fraternity of outliers in D-I basketball, Varnado's actions are based on a desire to help the team. Whether it's by running on the scout team or coming in to spell the starters for a minute or two, a walk-on must buy into the program and the ethos of team play.
Of course, what separates Varnado from other walk-ons is that he is the face of MSU, and arguably SEC, basketball.
Varnado led the nation in blocked shots the past two seasons, and was named the nation’s best defender as a sophomore. Last year, as a junior, all he did was lead MSU to an SEC tournament title and a birth in the NCAA tournament.
Over the summer, Varnado was named to the Team USA World University Games team, where he ran with Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, Ohio State’s Evan Turner and West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler. In six games, he averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, as Team USA captured the bronze medal.
The senior physical education major surrendered his scholarship when he found out that MSU had gone over the NCAA scholarship limit of 13, after signing blue chippers John Riek and Renardo Sidney. Varnado spoke with his father, Winston, and MSU head coach Rick Stansbury and decided to walk-on so that the Bulldgos would be able to award Riek or Sidney a scholarship.
The Varnados took out a loan to pay for his final year of school; tuition at MSU is $5,151. The move was also likely predicated on the fact that Varnado, an intriguing NBA prospect, will hear his name called by some NBA team at the draft next year.
A sentinel in the paint, the sinewy 6-foot-9-inch 230-pound Varnado fits the mold of former SEC leapers Stromile Swift and Tyrus Thomas. He comes into the 2009-2010 season as a Wooden Award candidate, on pace to expunge the SEC and NCAA career block marks from the record books.
With all due respect to George Herman Ruth, Varnado is the new Sultan of Swat.
For evidence, Youtube his emphatic block of a dunk attempt by Tennessee’s Scotty Hobson in a game last season.
On that play, the slashing Hobson drove to the basket, determined to relegate Varnado to the mise en scène on next month’s Slam Magazine “Slam of the Month” pullout poster. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year met him at his apex and summarily turned him away.
The block was particularly satisfying considering that just months before Hobson, then an MSU commit, had spurned Varnado and his teammates, to sign with the Vols.
In a way, the Brownsville, Tenn. native fits the mold of a walk-on.
At Haywood High School, he put up decent numbers, collecting 13.2 points and 10.1 boards per game. During his freshman season, he averaged a proletarian 5 points and 4.2 rebounds.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year that he began receiving significant minutes, and his rebounds average jumped to 7.8 per game. That year, Varnado passed Shaquille O’Neal’s SEC single season blocks mark. He finished with 157.
Last season, he averaged 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, and blocked 170 shots, more than 21 of 330 D-I teams.
These numbers and the national attention that they garner, present an intriguing question: Is Varnado the best walk-on of all-time?
Names that come to mind in recent memory are Washington’s Will Conroy, Kansas’ Christian Moody (Billy Packer knighted him as the best walk-on ever), and Kentucky’s Cameron Mills. All played vital roles on their respective squads (Mills even won a title with Kentucky), yet none were as instrumental to their teams’ success as Varnado is to the Bulldogs.
The impact he has on the defensive end is undeniable. Most forays into the paint by opposing teams, if not outright rejected like unknown friend requests on Facebook, are heavily contested.
Varnado is still refining his offensive game, and yet his jaw-dropping athleticism allows him to take over games on that end as well, like when he dropped 31 points on LSU last year.
Still, before Varnado can lay his claim to the title of greatest walk-on ever, he must catch up to a couple guys by the name of Walt Frazier and Jeff Hornacek who played some ball in their day.
Even without the distinction of being the best of all time, Varnado still has several goals for this season, such as sweeping through SEC and All-America honors, and of course leading his team to a championship.