PORTLAND, Ore. – They are conspicuous in their size, their gaudy statistics and the many accolades they have earned within their respective conferences and nationally.
Mississippi State's shot-blocking phenom Jarvis Varnado and Washington's relentless rebounder Jon Brockman bring the big show to the Rose Garden on Thursday in an NCAA West Regional first-round game. Everyone agrees the two post players will have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Mississippi State, 23-12 and seeded 13th, is seen as a bit of a party crasher, making the Big Dance after a four-win–in-four-days performance to capture the SEC tournament.
They wouldn't be here without Varnado, the conference's two-time defensive player of the year and the nation's leader in blocked shots for the second consecutive season. The junior swatted 165 shots this season, 157 the year before.
Simply put, he's a game changer, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.
"Many will see the shots that he does block, but you tend to forget about the other shots that he doesn't block but he changes," Romar said. "And on the third tier is the shots he didn't change, but you were looking for him somewhere so you weren't able to focus on making the basket.
"When a guy can block shots like that he can make a tremendous impact on the game."
Varnado's impact was never greater than in last week's SEC tournament, when he was named most valuable player. The 6-foot-9 center sparked wins over Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Tennessee, averaging 13.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and blocking 22 shots.
That effort did not escape that attention of Brockman and the fourth-seeded Huskies (25-8).
"He's a very unique player," Brockman said. "I've played against people who have a lot of the skills he has, but I think he's got pieces of different players all put together.
"Everyone talks about his shot blocking, but watching him on the rebounding aspect of the game, he gets his hands on a lot of balls, keeps things alive. He's going to be a fun person to play against."
Brockman, the Pac-10 rebounding leader the past three seasons, knows a thing or two about shutting down opponents with his physical play. He has been a killer on the boards – particularly on the defensive glass – and has amassed 1,521 rebounds over his career, the most in the Pac-10 since the early 1970s when a fellow named Bill Walton patrolled the paint for indomitable UCLA.
The 6-7 forward is hardly one dimensional, leading the nation in double-doubles this season while averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds for the Pac-10 regular-season champions.
No one had to remind Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury of Brockman's status among the game's elite or his tireless work ethic.
"He leads in the nation in double-doubles over [Tyler] Hansbrough and that kid from Notre Dame [Luke Harangody]. He's a tremendous rebounder. His energy and relentlessness on the boards is different than most players you see. He's been a load for everyone he's played against, and he's going to be a load for us."
Brockman's bruising style has become legendary here in the Pacific Northwest, but Varnado said he will be ready for the storm.
"I'm going to have my work cut out for me," Varnado said.
Varnado and Brockman won't be playing one on one, so it's not as if others won't have a say in the outcome. The Bulldogs feature a four-guard offense that likes to shoot 3-pointers, a great equalizer. The Huskies have an exciting backcourt featuring freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas, who has shown an affinity for dictating tempo and when to drive or dish.
But to be effective, the little guys are going to have to try to get past two of the game's giants.
Romar said the Huskies won't change their approach because of Varnado.
"Not that he's a bully at all, but if you're tentative at all with a bully, he's going to bully you all night, all year," Romar said. "You've got to be the aggressor. You can't back down. You know you are probably going to get hit a couple times, but you have to hang in there and hopefully you will get your share."
Stansbury knows he has to keep his big guy out of foul trouble to have a chance to pull the upset. If Varnado can do that while containing Brockman, the Bulldogs have a chance.
"If you look at the matchups, we have a pretty good guy guarding [Brockman],” Stansbury said. "Jarvis is a pretty good defender and has gone against good players.
"We have to find a way to limit [Brockman]. We know we're not going to shut him out.
"I think every coach that comes to the podium has said that, but no one seems to be able to do that."