"It's a real good opportunity, to go show what I'm made of against the best players in college," Varnado said. And from there the best junior amateurs in the world, or at least those who also make national cuts for the 24-team event. Certainly Varnado is expecting to be in that number, and if so he will also be the lone Southeastern Conference player in Belgrade.
"It's an honor just to be invited to try out. It's a big thing, USA basketball." And if Varnado doesn't know the latitude of the team's destination, he does know the attitude of the man in charge of this squad, Bo Ryan of Wisconsin. "I haven't talked to him yet, I know he's a defensive-minded coach so if I just play defense I should be alright."
Alright, indeed. As the first two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the national defender of the year in 2008, and the sure shot to become this league's all-time leader in blocked shots, Varnado is all right, all the time on that end of the court. His presence allows Ryan and staff to expend their camp energies looking for the best other parts in all other aspects for a well-rounded college club to take on their world peers.
This honor comes with a modest price, of interrupting his June routine of summer classes, supervised workouts, pick-up play, and even assisting Coach Rick Stansbury and staff at MSU camps. Oh, and a video shoot this week by Mississippi State for us in promoting Varnado for All-American this senior season. That comes too close to showing-off for Jarvis' comfort. "I'm just going to tolerate it," he grinned.
"But it's good for me to get my name out there nationally."
Speaking of name, last month Varnado pulled his out of the early-entry pool for the National Basketball Association draft. He could have waited as late as June 15 but only weeks after filing for early entry Varnado withdrew in favor of a senior season at Mississippi State.
"I just wasn't ready for the draft this year," he said today. "I feel if I just work hard, this coming season and get my body right and skill lever right I feel I could be a top ten pick next year." Which would be major progress considering most analysts pegged his draft prospects mid-second round at best, and some did not even list him as a choice at all. The obvious concern being Varnado's physicality, or more accurately physique. While he did dominate the SEC in blocking shots and raised his rebounding by a whole board last year, to 8.8 (scoring improved five full points to 12.9), at 210 pounds this post player was a long NBA shot.
Varnado was neither surprised nor insulted by that evaluation because it echoed what coaches and peers had said all along. So he is making the most intense and organized effort of his life to find what Mother Nature left off his 6-9 frame. "I mean, it basically came down to gaining weight, beefing up. I've gained ten, twelve pounds since the season was over, I'm at 223 right now. Hopefully by the time the season starts I'll be 240."
That's a, ahem, tall order considering that by the end of the schedule Varnado was practically playing at 205 pounds and showing signs of getting winded late in games. Still the MSU training and strength staff have put together a program to maximize every chance of adding summer calories that will stick to his bones come winter. While obviously this involved "just eating a lot" as Varnado said, it's much more precise than that.
"Not just eating but knowing the right things to eat," he explained. Because if Varnado had gone on this four-meal-a-day regimen earlier in his college life, while still maintaining his admitted "junk food guy" habits, the weight would have been wrong. What he has done now is give up the cookies, cupcakes, all the sweet stuff he loved and settled for classic PB&J as his one snack food…which he says he didn't used to eat. "It's got a lot of protein in it!" he smiles. "And I started reading labels now to see what is good and what is not."
Besides, "I hadn't been gaining weight since I've been here, so I had to change something up! Just eat healthier." In fact he worries that ten days in Serbia, wherever that is, might disrupt his caloric regimen. "I'm kind of scared because I won't be able to eat right, I'm afraid I'll drop a lot of weight!"
Until and after then though he'll keep lifting the weights under the gentle supervision of Coach Richard Akins, then heading to any open gym and honing other aspects of his college and hopefully-pro game. While Varnado did do a lot of summer shooting in 2008, this off-season is absolutely crucial to rounding out his skills to All-American and ultimately NBA status.
"I've been working on my face-up game a lot, trying to use my quickness," he said. "And then as well as my jumpshot, I think I'm going to shot that more this year. We're so talented this year I should be able to show that more." The ‘we' being the projected 2009-10 roster that includes all full-time starters from the SEC Tournament title team, all but one regular backup, and some touted newcomers. Two of the latter, center John Riek and forward-center Wendell Lewis, are in Starkville this summer before their freshman seasons and Varnado has played both this month.
"Riek is long," said Varnado of the 7-1 rookie, quite a comment given the senior's own wingspan and reach. "I think that's going to help me because I don't go against seven-footers every day, it's helping me to prepare for the next level. Wendell is just a strong kid coming in, I like his game a lot, he's just got a lot to learn." Then there is the third big kid signed this spring, the one not in town yet. Varnado said he has been in contact with Renardo Sidney since signing.
"I've talked to him a little bit over the phone, has he been working out and stuff. He's going to be alright." For now though Varnado has to carry the ‘old Dog' role on this summer team as classmate Barry Stewart, juniors Phil Turner and Riley Benock, and soph Twany Beckham are not on campus. One who is, is junior center Elgin Bailey who Varnado reports is rehabbing well and ready to get on the court when OK'd.
For that matter every Dog in town wants to be on the court these days. Never mind that team practices are four months away and the season weeks beyond. Since their upstart SEC tourney run and brief trip to the NCAAs—as well as since Varnado opted to come back for one more shot at greater things in maroon-and-white—there has been a pre-season sort of attitude around Bulldog basketball. One that will only intensify in months to come as Varnado and team look ahead.
"It's different because everybody knows we've got a shot this year. So we don't want to mess it up by not working hard. I think this team has a real good shot at dong something big here at Mississippi State."
First, though, Varnado looks to do some big things with another team. If as expected he makes the 12-man roster he will spend another week in Colorado practicing and preparing for the trip, then leave in late June. Who knows, he might have even taken time to scan a globe for the destination? Though, when told what this neck of the Balkan woods used to be called, he nodded. "Yugoslavia, I've heard of that."