Shot-Blocking Specialists

FAYETTEVILLE — The immediate areas around both Bud Walton Arena baskets should have signs installed around them tonight.

Arkansas will suit up 7-footer Steven Hill and 6-10 center Darian Townes. Mississippi State will counter with 6-9 center Jarvis Varnado and 6-8 forward Charles Rhodes. And all four players love to send shots back to where they came, so a warning might be nice for the Razorback and Bulldog guards.

The caution sign could read: Beware, shot-blockers present, drive at your own risk.

"It'll be fun, I think," Hill said. "I'm sure that's the little side show everyone's intrigued about."

That little side show, actually, should shape the outcome of tonight's crucial SEC West showdown.

Hill is Arkansas' second-leading career shot-blocker and won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Townes ranks fourth on the school's all-time list. Rhodes places sixth on Mississippi State's career list, and Varnado is on pace to shatter all their marks.

Varnado, a sophomore, leads the nation in blocked shots. His average of 5.1 blocks per game dwarfs that of LSU's Anthony Randolph (2.5), the conference's second-best shot-blocker.

They all thrive in different ways, all embracing their own style. But they all succeed in consistently defending the lane because they have grasped that shot-blocking doesn't just happen by accident.

It's an art, a conscious, calculated act, and can't be perfected without constant practice.

"I just use my instincts most of the time," Varnado said. "I know when to go for a block and when to not go for it. But that comes from blocking shots over and over. I've been doing it since I was in little league basketball. I've had to work at it."

Timing Is Everything

Casual observers think any 7-foot stiff can block shots. They think the deed automatically boils down to the simple equation of height multiplied by leaping ability equals blocked shots. Well, in truth, that theory works for a while.

Hill repeatedly dominated opponents of Branson (Mo.) High, using his far-superior size to block six shots per game as a senior. Varnado did the same at Haywood High in Brownsville, Tenn., become a shot-blocking force immediately.

But once shot-blockers get to college, once they meet foes of the same size, just getting by on natural ability isn't an option.

"It's all about timing," Hill said. "It's all about shot-fakes. Everyone wants to shot-fake a shot-blocker. So you have to stay on your feet to jump when they jump. You can't just go for them all."

Varnado had difficulty with this idea last season, when he blocked 67 shots as a freshman. He continually battled foul trouble, as Hill has his entire career, and used poor technique. Often times, Varnado couldn't resist even a flinch of a shooter's head.

The slightest movement, and up he went.

"He was so physically weak then," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "He weighed about 190 pounds. He could only play about 11 or 13 minutes, and he was always in foul trouble or just fouled out."

Not the case this season. Varnado credits his emergence as the nation's premier shot-blocker to strength coach Richard Akins, as well as the entire Mississippi State coaching staff. They all helped him put on weight and learn the discipline a shot-blocker needs.

And they aided in instilling the confidence that has led to Varnado blocking at least nine shots in four games this season. He swatted 10 away in the Bulldogs' victory over Georgia, leaving a lasting impression with Georgia associate head coach, Pete Hermann.

Hermann compared Varnado to former San Antonio Spurs star David Robinson, who Hermann previously coached.

"Jarvis has really improved his timing," Hermann said. "He's a terrific shot-blocker. He's terrific off the ball. But on the ball he can take your shot fakes. He can go up one, two, three times and time it well enough to still block it."

Constantly Attacked

In an ironic twist, shot-blockers rarely have to seek out opportunities. They almost always come right to them. That's the catch-22 about facing an imposing inside presence. They're imposing figures who can intimidate around the basket. But the allure of getting them in foul trouble is too good for opposing coaches to pass up.

The risk, getting a shot redirected, doesn't outweigh the reward, and that's what legendary shot-blocker Artis Gilmore loved about basketball. Even as he continued to swat away attempts — he blocked 1,747 shots in the NBA — opposing teams would come right back for more.

"In many situations, I'd set up the opponents to the point where they thought they had a clear pathway to the basket," Gilmore said. "I had the agility and speed to be able to recover and be able to take advantage of the situation, where as they underestimated my ability to get to a destination and be able to defend against the basket."

Hill and Varnado have both admitted to resorting to similar tricks.

In fact, first-year Arkansas coach John Pelphrey feels so confident in his centers' ability to deal with attacking players, he encourages his guards to play overly aggressive.

That leaves Hill and Townes in a position where they must make astute choices, must avoid premature impulses to jump. But as with Varnado and Rhodes, these are two Razorbacks who know a few things about the art of shot-blocking.

"(Opponents) have to know, once you do go to the basket, you better pull up short," Pelphrey said. "Because if you go all the way to the basket, you have to deal with (them)."

So consider Mississippi State warned, even without any on-court signs.

SIZING UP THE SHOT-BLOCKERS

Steven Hill, Arkansas

Height: 7-0

Weight: 245

Class: Senior

2007-08 Blocks: 39

Career Blocks: 283

Darian Townes, Arkansas

Height: 6-10

Weight: 243

Class: Senior

2007-08 Blocks: 26

Career Blocks: 182

Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State

Height: 6-9

Weight: 210

Class: Sophomore

2007-08 Blocks: 97

Career Blocks: 164

Charles Rhodes, Mississippi State

Height: 6-8

Weight: 245

Class: Senior

2007-08 Blocks: 20

Career Blocks: 121

CAREER SHOT-BLOCK LEADERS

Arkansas

1. Oliver Miller (1989-92), 345

2. Steven Hill (2005-present), 283

3. Andrew Lang (1985-88), 252

4. Darian Townes (2005-present), 182

5. Nick Davis (1996-98), 130

Mississippi State

1. Erick Dampier (1994-96), 249

2. Tyrone Washington (1996-99), 198

3. Kalpatrick Wells (1980-83), 183

4. Jarvis Varnado (2007-08), 164

5. Rickey Brown (1977-80), 163

Southeastern Conference

1. Shaquille O'Neal, LSU (1990-92), 412

2. Kyle Davis, Auburn (2001-04), 360

3. Lavon Mercer, Georgia (1977-80), 327

4. Robert Horry, Alabama (1989-92), 285

5. Steven Hill, Arkansas (2005-present), 283

NCAA

1. Wojciech Myrda, Louisiana-Monroe (1999-2002), 535

2. Adonal Foyle, Colgate (1994-97), 492

3. Tim Duncan, Wake Forest (1993-97), 481

4. Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown (1988-92), 453

5. Tarvis Williams, Hampton (1997-2001), 452

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