Whatever happens in Atlanta, Gordon and Rhodes are expected to be first-teamers with the media as well. The last time State had two first-team All-SEC picks was in the league championship season of 2003-04, as both Timmy Bowers and Lawrence Roberts were tabbed on both the Coaches and Writers groups.
The question is can one of these Dogs, most obviously Gordon, be the media Player of the Year? Vanderbilt's Shan Foster got the Coaches nod and few would dispute the credentials of the league's leading scorer. Still he wasn't a unanimous pick, and judging by public comments from the coaches last week Gordon was a strong candidate. He went to Atlanta the fifth-leading SEC scorer, third in assists, and the 15th best shooter. Plus he upped his scoring from an All-SEC soph season 16.0 to 17.5 points—best by a Bulldog since Darry Wilson's 18.0 points 12 years ago.
Yet the obvious question: did Rhodes joining the first team ‘steal' support from his teammate for POTY? "He probably did!" Gordon grinned. Seriously, though, the junior guard doesn't mind sharing the spotlight or awards with his senior cohort. Gordon would vote for Charles for POTY. "He's been playing really well the last couple of games. I wish he could have got it. It's up to the media and the coaches."
Roberts in 2004 was State's last SEC Player of the Year. Before that, it was Jeff Malone back in 1983. Gordon is also a candidate for both the Wooden and Cousy awards, and should be the frontrunner for Mississippi's Howell Trophy.
CASTING A LONG SHADOW: For his part, Varnado just became State's first-ever SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The league years ago briefly sponsored an All-Defense team, and only Greg Carter made it in 1991.
While some years picking the ‘best' defender in the league is sheer subjectivity, this time around there was no doubt who rose above the crowd. Literally, as Varnado has been the SEC's top shot-blocker all season. He went to Atlanta with 144 blocks; the next-nearest man on the list was LSU's Chris Johnson with 65.
But it's another LSU post player Varnado is competing with now, as he chases the SEC record for season blocks of 157 set in 1991-92 by one Shaquille O'Neal. Varnado, who already has the third-best tally in league history, needs his team to play a few more post-season games to reach that mark. But just to be compared to the premier big man in SEC history? "It's a big compliment!" Varnado said. "I mean, I'm flattered to be mentioned with O'Neal."
Now at 210 pounds soph Varnado casts a far thinner shadow than the man-monster of league-yore. But where O'Neal dominated the lane by sheer physical presence, State's second-year center controls opponents with his own talents for rejecting shots. "It's just timing, instincts…and my 7-4 wingspan!" he smiles. All of which he was programmed with from birth. Yes, Varnado said, most of what he does is instinctive and can't be practiced like a jumpshot or even a rebound. But as he matures he's found ways to be even better at blocking balls.
"And watching film, knowing the best moves your opponent is going to do and try to cut that off."
MAKING HIS POINTS: Varnado's defensive prowess is certainly respected around the league. What foes are starting to realize late this second season is not only can he guard a basket, he can score at the other end. Almost unnoticed, Varnado scored double-digits in seven SEC games and shot 63% for the conference campaign; 66% in MSU's league victories, by no coincidence.
The fact is, Varnado is now a legitimate option in State's offense. "Well, the guards are doing their job getting me the ball and I'm just finishing around the basket," he said.
For the first three months of the season ‘finishing' could accurately be translated ‘dunking.' Most of Varnado's made baskets were slammed throw the rim, with an occasional layup for good measure. Put another way, he only took the highest percentage type shots. But in recent weeks he's expanded his shot selection and range alike; still making good use of the glass but at least from farther than arms-length.
"I'm not hesitating about shooting the jumper," he said. "That's what I did in high school." Stansbury agrees, having seen Varnado as a prepster. His tentative approach to college offense was partly yielding to more-skilled elders like Rhodes…and partly lack of conditioning. "After about three trips he'd be shot," the coach said. A year and 20 pounds of muscle have changed that. Along with being asked to do more to help the team's attack.
"I think he became a better offensive player without Charles in that stretch, when we were forced to go to him," Stansbury said. "He gained confidence from it and we gained confidence in him. And once we got Charles back it was a combination. Naturally Charles is a guy we go to a lot more, but because Jarvis was able to help us in that stretch he continued to gain confidence."
Now Varnado is confident he and Rhodes can be a potent post tandem in post-season play. "It'll be a tough job for them. Charles is I think the best big man in the SEC right now."
BEWARE THAT BEAST: Certainly that case can be made by Rhodes' career-best year of 16.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. And befitting a senior leader, his scoring was even better in SEC season—despite those January ankle issues—at 17.7 points. That was the best average of any league frontcourt player in SEC-only action, behind five guard-type players.
His SEC-game rebounding was also better than the all-season rate, at 8.8 boards. He ended the regular schedule with 14 at Vanderbilt and 10 against LSU. Yet Rhodes actually said he would have had more rebounds—and thus more double-double games—down the stretch, had he not backed off on the aggression.
"I was trying not to foul," he said. "Because usually I get over-the-back calls. I don't go too aggressive, but the referees have been getting me sometimes."
OLD DOG: With John Brady out at LSU, Rick Stansbury now shares a status with Friday-night foe Mark Gottfried of Alabama. They are tied for second-longest active tenure among SEC coaches at ten seasons each, and counting. Only Florida's Billy Donovan has been in the league longer, and by only one year.
Told this fact, the 48-year-old coach at least acted surprised. "Are you asking where that is in my thought process, or what it means to me?" he responded. "Zero on either. It means I'm getting older, I guess!" Old enough to already be the winningest coach in MSU hoops history with 206 victories in this tenth season.
Actually, the question isn't does Stansbury feel like an elder statesman of the SEC. It's has the game become so pressurized that decade-long tenures will always be the exception, not the rule at this level? Maybe, maybe not, Stansbury said. The key though is not letting outside opinions and attitudes take priority. At least that is his approach.
"There'll never be more outside pressure put on myself than coaches put on ourselves."
DOME AWAY FROM HOME: All five of this year's starting lineup played two games in the Georgia Dome last March; though only Gordon and Rhodes took tipoffs in the 2007 SEC Tournament. There was little the games with overtime win against Kentucky and regulation loss to Arkansas had in common on the box scores, team or individually. Gordon, for instance, was 9-of-16 shooting the first game, 3-of-13 the second. Rhodes had 15 points against the Wildcats and eight against Arkansas. And so on.
But the key to tonight's game is how the three sophs—Varnado, Barry Stewart, and Ben Hansbrough—make their transitions from backup jobs last March to starters this time. Hansbrough had the best results of the trio a year ago with 12 points and a pair of treys each game. Varnado didn't score a point against UK, then hit all his three shots against the Hogs. Stewart was 2-of-7 and 2-of-4, and a combined 3-of-9 at the arc.
Naturally it is the guards who have to adjust the most for this particular venue. Lanes and goals don't change for the big guys, but every shooter sees the rim differently in Atlanta's spacious setting. "You just have to maintain focus," said Stewart. "It's different, because everybody (in the background) is far away. But it's just a little bit of adjustment you have to get used to."
This season has seen Stewart making his own adjustments. As a freshman he actually shot better on longballs on either hostile or neutral courts. This year he made himself really at home in The Hump, with better accuracy from outside.
The Bulldogs tried to speed-up that adjustment with a Friday morning shootaround in the Dome. By 9:30et tonight all will know how well they succeeded in finding the range.