"It's extremely impressive anytime anybody is the all-time best at anything at any level," Vol coach Bruce Pearl said recently. "One of the things that makes this particularly impressive is that Jarvis was not a heavily recruited player. We offered him at Tennessee, and I think he chose between us and Mississippi State. He was thought to be a guy that would develop because he was thin and not particularly skilled."
Varnado developed, all right. He swatted away eight shots Feb. 24 against Alabama - the last of which broke the all-time NCAA record of 535 career blocks. He added another rejection Feb. 27 vs. South Carolina and three more Wednesday night at Auburn.
Varnado now has 540 blocks for his career and 146 for the season. To put that last number in perspective, consider this: The 6-9, 230-pounder has one more block this season than Tennessee's 6-9, 245-pound Wayne Chism has in his four-year college career (145).
"Mississippi State has done a great job with him, as far as his development is concerned," Pearl said of Varnado. "He really has a tremendous knack, and they've done a good job of putting him in those (shot-blocking) positions. He's one of the few guys in the country that you absolutely have to game-plan around, and I'm very happy for him."
Basically, Varnado has refined shot-blocking to an art form. He swatted away 67 as a Bulldog freshman, despite starting just 13 games, and added 157 more as a sophomore. Last season he totaled 170, single-handedly recording more blocks than nine of the other 11 SEC teams.
The guy is no one-trick pony, however. He's averaging a double-double in points (13.5 per game) and rebounds (10.6 per game) this season. Still, it's his amazing ability to redirect basket-bound shots that has made him one of college basketball's premier players.
It's fitting that Varnado's competition in his final college home game should be Chism, who played for Bolivar Central High School in Jackson, Tenn. Growing up 25 miles apart, the two big men have been facing one another for a long time.
"About eight years," Chism said, flashing a wry grin.
In spite of Varnado's shot-blocking prowess, Chism insists that facing his long-time adversary is no different than facing any other SEC big man.
"Nothing changes," the Vol standout said. "It's just like playing (Kentucky's DeMarcus) Cousins. He's a shot-blocker but he's not a great shot-blocker. It's another long body down there, so obviously we've got to protect the ball more as we go up to shoot ... go up with two hands instead of one."
Although Chism has no fear of Varnado, he clearly has a grudging respect for Varnado's gift. He says the Bulldog standout has an uncanny knack for blocking shots without committing fouls.
"He stays on the ground and waits till you release the ball," Chism said. "If you throw a pump-fake, he stays on the floor and waits till you go up. He's been doing that since high school, and he's done a great job of that. "