NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP)—Jarvis Varnado won’t block what he can’t reach, which is why Oregon’s 3-point shooting might be the biggest factor in the Ducks’ first-round game against Mississippi State.
“It’s not the best matchup for Jarvis because they’re going to spread the floor,” Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. “They’re going to initiate their offense with him out on the perimeter. Naturally it takes away some of Jarvis’ shot-blocking ability.”
Varnado has blocked 148 shots this season for eighth-seeded Mississippi State, which faces ninth-seeded Oregon (18-13) in the South Regional on Friday night. The 6-foot-9 sophomore blocked 10 shots in a game three times.
It’s no coincidence that opponents are shooting 37 percent against the Bulldogs. The question is whether they’ve met their match.
“We’ve heard all the numbers in terms of the shot blocking and all of that,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. “We’re not necessarily an inside-oriented, post-them-up basketball team. We can put five guys on the floor that can shoot the 3.”
Oregon guard Malik Hairston averages 16.1 points per game and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. Maarty Leunen, a 6-foot-9 forward, shoots 51 percent from long distance. As a team, the Ducks are at 40 percent.
“We shoot a pretty high percentage at it,” guard Bryce Taylor said. “It’s something that we don’t like to rely on too much because if you have an off night, then it can kind of take you out of the game. … We’re still going to go in there and try to challenge the shot blocker and put some pressure on the defense.”
There’s only so much a team can do against Mississippi State’s defense. At Thursday’s news conference, Bulldogs forward Charles Rhodes compared Oregon’s offense to Florida’s because of the spacing the teams use.
Mississippi State beat Florida earlier this month. Varnado blocked seven shots in that game.
The Bulldogs (22-10) don’t rely on Varnado for offense. Jamont Gordon averages 17.3 points, and Rhodes averages 16.9. Stansbury described the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Gordon as “a point guard in a fullback’s body.”
Oregon guard Tajuan Porter is 5-foot-6, but the rest of the Ducks’ likely starters are at least 6-foot-4.
Mississippi State won the SEC West by three games, but lost to Georgia in the conference tournament. Mississippi State was outrebounded 46-33 in that game by a Georgia team that was playing its second game of the day because a tornado had interrupted the schedule.
“We did get a little out-toughed because they beat us on the backboards,” Gordon said. “We still played hard. We’re going to come out and play even harder against Oregon.”
Mississippi State is in the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in Stansbury’s 10 seasons. The Bulldogs haven’t made it out of the second round under him, and their odds aren’t great this year either. The Mississippi State-Oregon winner faces a probable matchup with top-seeded Memphis in round two.
The Bulldogs are confident about the opener against Oregon, though.
“We match up with them very well,” Rhodes said. “We’ve got to bring our `A’ game. We can’t bring the game we brought in the SEC tournament.”
Oregon reached the regional finals last year and in 2002. The Ducks’ path back looks difficult, however. They went .500 during the regular season in Pac-10 play, and although they earned an at-large bid to this NCAA tournament, they had to travel all the way to Arkansas to play.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, was able to stay in Southeastern Conference country.
“I’m sure we’ll have as many Bulldog fans as we can that can buy tickets here,” Stansbury said. “That’s a plus.”