Varnado at center of high hopes for No. 18 Miss St
The season hasn't even started yet and Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is already saying he's sorry to fans of the 18th-ranked Bulldogs. Not for the reasons you might think, though. "I'd like to apologize for those fans who can't get a ticket," Stansbury said. "I wish everyone who wanted a ticket could get a ticket, but unfortunately it's not that way." Anticipation is high for the Bulldogs, higher than it's been in years, and fans have snapped up tickets accordingly. Eligibility and injury questions still have to be answered, but the Bulldogs return a core of key players who helped the team win the SEC tournament last season. Everyone knows senior Jarvis Varnado, a potential preseason All-American and the nation's leading shot blocker the last two seasons. If Renardo Sidney, one of the nation's top prospects, gains eligibility from the NCAA, and 7-foot-1 center John Riek can regain the form that made him one of the most talked about players in basketball before a severe knee injury, Mississippi State will have one of the most talented frontcourts in the nation. And if those things don't happen, Mississippi State still has an experienced, varied roster that features talented role players like Kodi Augustus and Romero Osby, who say they are ready to step into larger roles and provide Varnado with some offensive help. The potential has expectations for the team mounting beyond Starkville. Mississippi State was picked to win the SEC West and push for the league title again. "In the past we were always a team having something to prove by chasing the teams like Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama," Varnado said. "But now we are a team that they are all gunning for. It's a different feeling, but I like being the team everybody wants to beat." It all starts with Varnado, the most dynamic defensive player in the nation. Only 21 teams in Division I had more blocks than Varnado's 170 last season. He briefly considered entering the NBA draft, but quickly decided to come back for a senior season that should include breaking the NCAA career mark for blocks. Varnado also led the 23-13 Bulldogs in scoring (12.9 ppg) and rebounds (8.8), but should get more help in both areas. Riek, who wowed at the Lebron James Skills Academy two years ago and signed with Cincinnati before the knee forced him to sit out, will add to an imposing presence in the middle and put pressure on opposing offenses. Riek, a native of Sudan, says he's been paying close attention to Varnado's game. "I learn from him everyday," he said. "If he tells me to do something, I do it." Even without Sidney, whose amateur status is under investigation by the NCAA, Stansbury has some interesting choices at power forward. There's Augustus, who came on late last season and was a real presence in the team's surge to the NCAA tournament. And Osby, who showed flashes of talent last season and has worked to round out his game. Augustus clashed with Stansbury last season and found himself buried on the bench for long stretches. But he's found peace with his role on the team, he said, and is working on his defense and shoot-first mentality. "Sitting on that bench makes you hungry," Augustus said. Barry Stewart, the team's only other senior, leads a backcourt that matured quickly last season. Stewart's role diminished with Phil Turner and Ravern Johnson taking more shots, but he remains a steady influence and a guy who can hit a big shot. And Stansbury says Dee Bost returns a more polished player after a very strong freshman season at point guard. "It's a huge difference from the freshman to sophomore year," Stansbury said. "That's the year they all make a big improvement, especially for a guy who played 32 minutes a game last year at the point guard." Despite all the familiar faces, Stansbury says this is a new team and whether the Bulldogs live up to expectations depends on whether the coach can pull the team together. He knows there are a lot of improvements to be made before the season opener Nov. 13 against Rider. "There's so many things, not just one little area," Stansbury said. "We have to defend better, rebound better and take care of the basketball. There are some of those self-inflicted turnovers that we can be better at, but we basically can improve the whole thing."