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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Auburn seeks answers to Mississippi State's 'Swat'

The Auburn basketball team plays at Mississippi State tonight at 7 p.m. ET. Because of a glitch on our Web site, the text didn't get online. So here's my full story advancing tonight's game:
AUBURN, Ala. — After watching Mississippi State’s Jarvis Varnado for four years, Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo knows well the perils of going up against the shot blocking machine.

“You’ve got to be careful on how you attack him,” Lebo said. “If you try to go around him and not through him, he’ll alter it or block it. It’s amazing what he can do around the basket area.”

The Tigers (12-12, 3-6 SEC) face perhaps their toughest offensive test tonight at Mississippi State (17-7, 5-4), where they’ll have to contend with the outstretched arms of the wiry, 6-foot-9 Varnado, a shot blocking force who is poised to set the NCAA career record in the next few weeks.

Varnado, aptly nicknamed “Swat,” is averaging five blocks a game this season, helping the Bulldogs rank first in the SEC in defensive field goal percentage (.370).

The two-time defending SEC Defensive Player of the Year has 514 career blocks, already eclipsing the SEC record of 412 set by LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal and just 21 shy off the NCAA record set by Louisiana-Monroe’s Wojciech Mydra from 1998-2002.

“He shuts down anything easy around the basket area,” Lebo said. “I’ve never seen a guy even when you get to his chest, he kind of just takes the hit and unfolds and get a piece of a shot. I haven’t seen many people score on him consistently inside.”

Auburn’s Brendon Knox has had some success. The 6-foot-10 forward had his best two games of last season against the Bulldogs, averaging 9 points in 10.5 minutes as the Tigers swept the series with a pair of lopsided wins.

“Brendon’s a little herky-jerky in there at times and that bothers the timing of the shot blocker,” Lebo said. “And he’s strong when he catches it in there. It’s not complicated when he gets it, but he is pretty strong at knocking people back and going to the rim area.”

Varnado had an impact, nonetheless, averaging 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in the two games. But Auburn, which has never been know for its size, didn’t shy away from challenging the forward.

“You got to try to take it straight to him,” Knox said. “You can’t try to go over him, because he’s going to block it. It’s best if you go straight at him — try to go through his body.

“It is kind of tough. But you’ve just got to go at him hard. You’ve just got to play him honest, basically. Since he’s smaller, try to use your body aggressively. But he’s strong — stronger than he looks.”

Knox, who is prone to foul trouble, averages 8.5 points off the bench, but he’s efficient with his shots. He’s shooting 67.8 percent from the field (80-for-118), which would put him atop the SEC leaderboard and among the national leaders if he had enough attempts.

“We need him on the floor,” Lebo said. “You look at the games that we played when he didn’t give us anything and you’ll see that our team struggled. He brings us a low-post threat in there. ... It gives you five guys out there that can score. It makes us much harder to defend.”

Despite scoring a career-high 22 points against South Carolina, Knox struggled against better competition early in SEC play, rendered largely ineffective because of foul problems in losses to Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

But he’s topped 20 minutes in three of Auburn’s last four games, giving the Tigers a shot blocking presence of their own, with 10 in that time, including a career-best four at Arkansas.

“I think he’s continued to build confidence,” Lebo said. “About this time last year was when he really started to show that he had a chance to be a very good player. Maybe he’s a guy that needs to wait until February to do it consistently. I don’t know.”

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