Hoops: Varem has turned into Pac-10 dominator

PULLMAN -- In two seasons at Washington State, senior forward Jeff Varem has made a name for himself as the Cougars' most dynamic and gravity-defying player. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds of what looks to be mostly muscle, the native of Nigeria is the one man on WSU's roster who is a threat to slam dunk on anyone at any time.

But just how high can Varem jump?

In an informal team poll, guard Josh Akognon guessed Varem's vertical leap to be 36 inches. Forward Arlen Plaister offered 32. Guard Kyle Weaver low-balled Varem at 30, but quickly added, "Jeff doesn't jump really high, he just jumps really quick."

Senior guard Thomas Kelati didn't give a number. "I don't know how high, but he can get up there," Kelati said. "I've seen him catch alley-oops at the top of the (backboard) square, so he can fly pretty high."

On his own behalf Varem says he doesn't know how high he can jump.

"I don't keep track of that stuff," he said. "I'm just somebody who dunks on people."

After transferring to WSU from Vincennes University in Indiana, Varem – who played his prep ball in Buffalo -- has grown from part-time starter to prime-time player. Last season he started 14 out of games, averaging 9.8 points and 4.2 rebounds.

This year he is one of just two Cougars with a secure spot in the starting lineup, along with Kelati. Varem's 10.5 points per game is second on the team to Kelati's 11.9, and Varem leads WSU in rebounds (8.3 per game).

Varem, however, has turned his game up a big notch since Pac-10 play began, putting up double-doubles with regularity. In six conference games he's averaged 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds as the Cougars have gone 3-3. He's also hitting 63 percent of his shots – 12 points better than his overall season mark.

Among the highlights:
* 18 points and 12 rebounds against Stanford
* A season-high 21 points vs. USC
* 17 points and 15 rebounds at UCLA, and
* 14 points, 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and four steals vs. Oregon State.

"He's our go-to guy down low. He either gets a bucket or gets fouled," Kelati said. "He can take over games, like he did against USC and Stanford."

Varem credits his improved play to an improved attitude.

"It's a new year, a new state of mind," Varem said. "I'm just trying to stay positive."

Kelati said he could tell Varem had been frustrated as WSU went 5-4 in the nonconference schedule, but once he played good against Stanford has been happier. Varem says he wasn't frustrated, but that he knew the team could do better.

ALL SEASON LONG Varem has been playing out of position. He considers himself a guard, but due to injuries and the team's lack of experience and strength in the post, Varem has found himself at power forward and sometimes center. While it's not a duty he relishes, he's more than held his own.

"He's accepted his role and he's playing really well," WSU head coach Dick Bennett said. "He hasn't been taking any bad shots and he's getting his teammates involved on offense. Also, he's been playing very well on the glass. His decision-making is vastly improved...so has his concentration and focus."

But no player is perfect, and no one who plays under Bennett escapes the veteran coach's critical eye. In Varem's case, defense is his Achilles' heel.

After WSU's only exhibition game this year, in which Varem piled up 17 points and 10 rebounds, Bennett said the senior "played little to no defense" and that ever since he's been on campus, the team has had to "hide" him in their defensive schemes.

To his credit, though, Varem has gradually gotten better on D. He is second on the team in steals (21) and blocks (13).

"An underrated part of Jeff's game is his defensive presence," Kelati said. "He's a shot blocker. He makes 7-foot guys worried about him and he's only 6-6."

Another knock on Varem is the lack of range on his jump shot. Varem said the thing he worked on the most this offseason was his outside shooting.

"I need more confidence in my shot...but one thing I really like to do is challenge myself," Varem said.

"I'm still learning the game," he added. "We're not really playing my style (at WSU), but Coach Bennett is teaching me the game. I've learned a lot. Now I can take over a game any time I need to."

WSU's 55-52 loss to Oregon on Saturday marked the sixth Cougar game this season that wasn't decided until the final shot. The Cougs are 2-4 in those games.

WSU (8-6) has the week off, not resuming play until Sunday (Jan. 23) when they take on Washington (14-2) in Seattle. Tip off is at 1 pm. The game will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Northwest.

The Cougars are No. 1 in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, yielding just 53.8 points per game this season. They're also No. 3 in turnover margin behind Washington and Arizona.

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