Beach's Breakdown - Mississippi State

The Washington Huskies hope to make a triumphant return to the NCAA tournament after a two year absence Thursday afternoon at the Rose Garden in Portland. But facing a Mississippi State squad that won the SEC conference tournament last Sunday isn't your average 4-13 seed gimme game, and Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar is taking nothing for granted.

"There's no doubt we are playing against a tough opponent in the first round," complemented Romar when talking of the Bulldogs. "It's a better team than you'd expect to be playing against as a 13-seed; however, that's who we're playing against so that's who we're going to go play."

Up until late last month, the Bulldogs were a Selection Sunday afterthought until a late surge, which culminated in a conference tournament title, quickly catapulting them into an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

"You prepare all year to play one of the 65 best teams in the country," Romar said. "We can't be too selective, since we weren't in the tournament the last two years. It doesn't matter how tough our opponent is. We're in the NCAA tournament and we're excited about that."

Much has been made of Bulldogs' shot-blocker supreme, Jarvis Varnado - a skinny, freakishly long center. The 6-foot-9 junior is the NCAA leader in blocked shots at 4.7 rejections per game.

"He's very versatile and he's got great timing," said Romar of Varnado. "He's not just a shot-blocker because he can jump. He's got great timing. He's got an uncanny ability to go up and get the shot without leaving his feet. He has great quickness and offensively he has a way of getting to the basket."

Washington captain Jon Brockman was equally complementary. "He's just an unbelievably active, athletic big man in the paint," described the Husky workhorse of Varnado, MSU's own central threat. "He can control a lot on the defensive end because of the way he blocks shots and he does even more because he makes people alter their shots. He's definitely going to be a challenge."

Varnado isn't the prototypical shot-blocker: He's slightly built, checking in at barely 210 pounds, which presents an intriguing match-up against the nation's most physical player in Brockman. The Huskies' 6-foot-7, 255-pound brute has struggled at times against the Pac-10's imposing shot-blockers like Taj Gibson and Jordan Hill, but their dramatic strength advantage at the forward position poses a unique challenge to Mississippi State.

"(Varnado) does do a good job of not letting people body up, and for a shot-blocker he can give space and has great timing on the ball," explained Brockman, hinting at his personal strategy. "Aggressiveness is my game and I don't really do anything other than that. You definitely want to go right at him. Even if you get your shot blocked a couple of times, you can't let that faze you."

One thing is certain – when a premier swat specialist goes up against one of the most relentless posts in the country - something has to give. But the Brockman-Varnado match-up is just one aspect of what promises to be an up-tempo, exciting game.

"They're very quick, very tenacious defensively, very scrappy, can really hit the three," Romar shared when asked about the Bulldogs. "If they get going from three they can present a lot of problems."

The Bulldogs start four guards – four tall, extremely athletic guards. Barry Stewart is the Bulldogs' leading scorer in the back court, averaging 12.3 points a game, and is a dangerous threat from the 3-point line, where he hit 36 percent of his attempts this season. Stewart is flanked by Ravern Johnson and versatile freshman Dee Bost, and can both light it up from outside.

"I would say stylistically they are closer to Oklahoma State than any of the teams in the Pac-10," said Romar when asked for a comparison. "Oklahoma State pretty much played with four guards, but they didn't have the big shot-blocker in the middle."

When Brockman was asked for a comparison, he thought of USC.

"They have aggressive guards that take the ball to the hoop," he said. "I think USC is one of the best comparisons, with Taj Gibson down low and active, athletic guards out front."

The Huskies will certainly have their hands full, but Washington presents the Bulldogs with their own match-up concerns; namely, the Huskies' constant pressure at both ends of the floor.

The Bulldogs turn the ball over a lot, and if there's one thing the Huskies love to do, it's pressuring opponents into making mistakes. Mississippi State doesn't play a particularly smart brand of basketball: Ill-advised passes and poor shot selection can plague MSU, and their clock management is almost nonexistent.

The Huskies also pose a significant advantage on the glass. Mississippi State is an average team when it comes to rebounding the basketball, and they will face one of the top rebounding teams in the country in the Huskies. Washington also has a major advantage in front-court depth. The Bulldogs start four guards and get little post help from their bench, which could put them in some trouble if Washington can pressure Varnado into foul difficulty.

The Huskies have sputtered on offense in recent weeks, and can ill afford a start like they had against Arizona State in the semi-finals of the Pac-10 tournament. At one point in the first half, they were down by as many as 21 points before roaring back to make the game a lot closer.

"I don't think we're clicking offensively right now," said Romar about his team's recent offensive struggles. "Early on we were doing a better job making shots."

Not surprisingly, the Huskies offensive strategy shouldn't deviate much from the formula that helped them win an outright league title; attack, attack, attack.

"I think it's important that we're aggressive," Romar said. "It's important that we aren't tentative. If we are fearful of getting our shot blocked, it'll get blocked more than it would be if we were just aggressive. (Jarvis) Varnado is going to block shots for sure, but it's important for us not to shy away from that."
Additional Notes:
One of the most frequent questions posed to coach Romar was in regard to the mental readiness of his team heading into the tournament, and more specifically, that of Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, Isaiah Thomas.

"A guy like Isaiah, who has such passion for this game, isn't going to be distracted because he's been waiting for this his whole life," explained Romar while addressing the media. "Sometimes freshmen can get distracted, but in his case, I don't think it's going to happen. Our senior leadership is going to make sure it doesn't happen.

"I think this is probably something he's been looking forward to since the day he decided he was going to come to Washington," Romar added. "I would say he's probably going to embrace it pretty well."

As for the rest of the team, apparently, it's the players' friends and family members that often drive the team to distraction.

"As a player, it's really important that your players avoid distractions," Romar said. "Family and friends all want tickets and want to hang out with you at the hotel, but this is serious business here, and you have to keep your players from getting too distracted."


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