Washington Ready For Test From Varnado

Even as the level of his competition has improved, Arkansas junior forward Michael Washington hasn't regressed.

In fact, he has excelled.

Washington wasn't bothered by Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, a possible No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. He continually took the ball right at Griffin and finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds. The big bodies in Texas' frontcourt didn't affect Washington, either, as he tallied 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

That said, Washington matches up with someone tonight who will challenge him in ways he hasn't experienced this season. Mississippi State comes to Bud Walton Arena for both teams' Southeastern Conference opener with Jarvis Varnado, a lanky 6-foot-9 shot-blocking extraordinaire, manning the middle.

"His arms are so long," said Arkansas freshman forward Michael Sanchez, who watched Varnado from the bench twice last season as a redshirt. "You can ball-fake all you want, and he still might block it. He's so quick off the floor. ... But I think Mike's ready for the challenge."

Washington, who averages team-highs in points (17.8) and rebounds (10.3), said Thursday that he was eager to compete against Varnado. He complimented Varnado's shot-blocking ability and said he would "probably come with a different game plan" tonight.

Asked to expand on that, Washington laughed and said, "I'm not going to say."

Washington surely won't be intimidated, especially after thriving in Arkansas' two wins over Top 10 foes. A main reason for Washington's unshakable confidence, even when thinking of facing Varnado, is his increased strength and stamina.

Varnado has an NCAA-high 82 blocks this season, but Washington has 15 more pounds of muscle.

"Before the sweat even dried on Michael Washington's body last year from the (NCAA Tournament loss to) North Carolina, I told him that his role had changed," Pelphrey said. "(He had) to find a way to get (his) body in good enough shape and be big and strong enough where (he) could handle playing 30 minutes a night.

"To that kid's credit, he did that. He physically changed himself. He's in great shape."

Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury already believed in Washington's ability, even before the 6-9 native of McGehee dedicated himself to gaining weight in the offseason. While the Hogs had senior big men in Steven Hill, Darian Townes, Charles Thomas and Vincent Hunter last season, Stansbury was still the most impressed with Washington.

"I thought he was the most talented of all those big guys they had last year, a guy that probably had as much ability or more to play on the next level," Stansbury said. "Now he's got all those other big guys out of his way and knows he's the guy on the inside."

Varnado also has taken on more responsibilities because of a departed player, former Bulldogs forward Charles Rhodes. Varnado isn't only a defensive threat anymore, meaning Washington will have to work on both ends of the floor tonight.

He leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 12.8 points per game, and Varnado's making 60.7 percent of his field goal attempts.

"He's making face-up jumpers, and he can (make his) jump hook in the middle of the floor," Pelphrey said. "He's as good a big man as there is in the country."

That's quite a comment from Pelphrey, considering the Razorbacks already have faced Oklahoma and Texas. So does Washington agree that Varnado will provide the stiffest challenge he has seen all season?

"Probably so. The way he blocks shots is kind of crazy," Washington said. "He'll send it into the fifth row or something like that. You never know."

Today's Ticket

Mississippi State at Arkansas

When: 7:06 p.m. TV: Fox Sports Net (Cox channel 27).

Where: Bud Walton Arena, Fayetteville.

Records: Mississippi State, 10-5, 0-0 Southeastern Conference; Arkansas, 12-1, 0-0.

Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3.

Coaches: Mississippi State, Rick Stansbury (218-120, 11th season at Mississippi State; 218-120 overall in 11 seasons); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (35-13, second season at Arkansas; 115-79 overall in seven seasons).

Series: Arkansas leads 26-19 (16-3 in Fayetteville).

Last Meeting: Mississippi State beat Arkansas 80-74 on Feb. 16 in Starkville, Miss.

LINE: Arkansas by 4.

Tale of the Tape

Michael Washington Jarvis Varnado

Arkansas Team Mississippi State

Junior Class Junior

6-9 Height 6-9

239 Weight 210

McGehee Hometown Brownsville, Tenn.

17.8 PPG 12.8

10.3 RPG 9.9

1.2 BPG 5.5

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