It's also been a while since Jarvis Varnado and the Bulldog basketball press corps had a chance to talk. With the latter assembled for the following formal announcement of the basketball practice gym's naming and construction schedule, Varnado was made available to discuss the summer-past, the August present, and promising season to come.
Make that, the very promising season to come. Which is always close to the forefront of any hoops-Dog thought, including the senior center. Or as Varnado put it, "Only thing right now is everybody trying to work hard to make that run in the NCAA this year."
Of course Varnado has already had a tournament run of his own this off-season. Though, referring to the week spent training in Denver and almost two more July weeks in both transit and five games played at the World University Games in Belgrade as ‘off' is risky. Inaccurate, too, because Varnado put in enough work to lose those aforementioned pounds.
"But I'm gaining them back," he said. "I think I'm at 220 right now so I'm coming back. I want to play at 225, 230." Varnado did bring back at least a couple of extra ounces in his luggage, the bronze medal from Team USA's 4-1 record against international competition. It wasn't everything Varnado had hoped for, nor was somewhat-modest stats and not quite the game minutes he's come to expect. Maybe it was coincidence but the one game Varnado did not play at all was the lone USA defeat.
Instead of being bitter, the big Dog—not to mention record-setting shot blocker and national defensive player of the year—is taking it as a reminder that, as he said, "Nothing is given to you." In fact he says the experience of playing for a different coach, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, in a more set offensive system than the up-and-down style he's used to, is a long-term help. "But when I did get in I mean I contributed. It wasn't about me, it was about Team USA.
"It just made me humble, you know. I wasn't playing a lot of minutes, so it made me humble. You have to work harder to try and achieve your goals. It just makes me want to come back and work harder."
That work resumed upon Varnado's return to campus, after a quick side-trip to his Brownsville, Tenn., home. The whole State varsity was around most of July and now have been joined by the full freshman corps. Naturally what enquiring minds, or at least media, wanted to know most about were the youngest members of the frontcourt roster. It hasn't taken long for frosh Renardo Sidney and John Riek to earn the senior's seal of approval.
"Those two are great additions to our team, but I think it's just going to add to our depth. I'm just glad to have them here and be on campus, going against good competition every day in pick-up games." So, Coach Varnado, how do you evaluate their individual abilities?
"Sidney is a real good player, he's going to be good for us. He can play four, five, he's skilled. He's a real skilled big man. He's going to be real good, when he gets into shape he's going to be real special." Ahhh, yes, the shape; since Sidney's size is reported in the 270-280 pound range. Varnado doesn't have an exact figure either, "but he's a big boy! It's going to be no problem with all the running we do and workouts, it isn't going to take that long to get in shape."
As for the taller, skinnier Riek, "John is looking real good. I think he was out of basketball about a year or so, he's just coming back. He's so long, he plays hard, he tries to go after every rebound, he blocks a lot of shots. I think he's going to be a good addition to this team." And for the record, Jarvis says he has already blocked Riek's shot. Just for the record, again.
All this play has been in the Sanderson Center of course, as Humphrey Coliseum's court has been re-painted with new logos for 2009-10. It won't help Varnado or classmate Barry Stewart either, but the plan is that by next October underclassmen Bulldogs will be working in the practice gym. Varnado can regret not getting the chance to utilize the new facility, but is glad for his successors' good fortune.
"I think it's going to be a huge boost, it's going to get a lot of top recruits in. And just not have to worry about going over there to the Sanderson and worrying if you can get a game or not. You have your own court to go take advantage of."
Meanwhile this Bulldog team has their own opportunities to take advantage of. Varnado more than most as he's a Wooden Award nominee for the nation's top player. "Man, when Gregg (Ellis) told me I was shocked that I was named to the list. That's an honor, what every college basketball player dreams of. It's an honor just to be a candidate." A candidacy that presumably will be reinforced by the release of a promotional video shot by State's TV Center in summer on campus.
"I haven't seen it," Varnado said. "It was fun. It was hot outside but fun."
But of course the real fun would be cutting down more nets next March. Or even in April. Expectations are as high for Bulldogs basketball as in 1996 and 2003 or '04, based on a near-intact roster from the 2009 SEC Tournament champions and the addition of Sidney and Riek…if both are ultimately cleared of amateurism issues by the NCAA. Even without those rookies this is a team with the hosses to make a real charge in 2010.
"Last year we made a good run, everybody came together," Varnado said. But, he adds, all the lofty projections in the pre-season world don't count on any scoreboard. "I mean, it doesn't matter how good you are on paper, you have to work harder.
"We've got a good team on paper, but that doesn't mean nothing because the ball isn't thrown up in the air yet. You have to have a will to win.