Last season, Mississippi State made a late run to capture the SEC tournament title and their 10th NCAA tournament berth in school history.
The 18th-ranked Bulldogs return all five starters from that team heading into their opener Friday against Rider, but it may be the eventual contributions from a pair of highly touted freshmen that determine if they are an elite team in 2009-10.
Inconsistent throughout much of last season, Mississippi State launched a six-game win streak in March, including four wins in four days to earn the school’s third conference tournament crown. The Bulldogs were seeded 13th for the NCAA tournament and lost 71-58 to Washington in the first round.
After that 23-13 finish, Mississippi State was picked to win the SEC West, and senior forward Jarvis Varnado is a big reason why.
“In the past we were always a team having something to prove by chasing the teams like Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama,” Varnado said. “But now we are a team that they are all gunning for. It’s a different feeling, but I like being the team everybody wants to beat.”
The two-time SEC defensive player of the year has a chance to set the NCAA career record for blocked shots and should surpass Shaquille O’Neal’s conference mark early this season.
Varnado, who has led the nation in blocks the past two seasons, set single-season SEC and school records with 170 last season and has 394 in his career, 19 shy of O’Neal’s mark. He also needs 141 to tie Wojciech Mydra’s national mark of 535 with Louisiana-Monroe from 1998-2002.
“I don’t really think about it,” Varnado said. “It’s an honor to be up there with the best blockers in all of college basketball, but I’m just thinking about winning a national championship.”
Varnado also posted team-leading and career-best averages of 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds last season.
Mississippi State’s frontcourt can make it a national contender if highly touted freshmen John Riek and Renardo Sidney can play alongside Varnado.
Riek, a 7-foot-1 center from Sudan, originally committed to Cincinnati but opted to spend last year at IMG Academy in Florida while rehabbing from knee surgery. The NCAA, however, suspended him nine games for amateurism issues.
Sidney’s status is still uncertain as the NCAA continues to investigate his family’s finances after they moved from Mississippi to California for his senior year of high school.
After testing his status for the NBA draft, Varnado gave up his scholarship for this season to help the Bulldogs sign both players.
Even without Riek and Sidney, the Bulldogs have a strong core that includes guards Barry Stewart, Ravern Johnson and Dee Bost, who all scored in double figures last season. Stewart is 57 3-pointers shy of becoming the school’s all-time leader, and Johnson led the team with 83 in 2008-09. Kodi Augustus, Romero Osby and Elgin Bailey are expected to take Riek and Sidney’s playing time early.
Rider returns four starters, but any hopes for the Broncos to reach the NCAA tournament hinge on the play of point guard Ryan Thompson.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s preseason player of the year was second in the conference with 18.0 points per game and finished second on the team in averaging 6.5 rebounds.
Thompson, the brother of Sacramento Kings forward Jason Thompson, also finished among the conference’s leaders in seven other categories. The Broncs were 19-13 in 2008-09 but lost in double overtime in the MAAC tournament semifinals to Niagara.
In Thompson’s three seasons, Rider’s 58 wins are the most over any three-year period in program history.
This is the first meeting between the schools.