Magnolia state of mind

Mississippi guard Eniel Polynice leads his team with 4.3 assists per game.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.

Quietly, it’s the Magnolia State that’s making moves in the SEC.

Not your traditional conference powers, No. 22 Ole Miss (14-4, 2-2 SEC) and No. 23 Mississippi State (15-3, 3-0 SEC) have climbed to the top of the SEC West and find themselves both ranked for the first time since Ole Miss was 24th in The Associated Press poll and the Bulldogs were ranked 25th in the ESPN/USA Today poll in late January 2008.

Both teams flirted with the top 25 near the beginning of the season, but never together. The Bulldogs began the season ranked 18th, which was MSU’s first preseason ranking since 2004 when it opened at No. 12. However, a loss to unranked Rider dropped them out.

Ole Miss rose as high as No. 14 this season.

A slow conference start aside, the Rebels are a much more determined and healthy team. After watching the majority of his stars miss most of 2008 to injuries, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said his team was more focused and enthusiastic than ever.

“We are excited about seeing a growth in the program with high expectations,” Kennedy said. “When you have what we went through last year with season-ending injuries, it changed our guys’ focus and it really made them focus right where they needed to, so I am excited about the season.”

Ole Miss’ season has been full of offensive excitement. Before their 66-57 win over South Carolina on Wednesday, the Rebels averaged a league-high 82.5 points a game. Guards Chris Warren and Terrico White are top-10 scorers in the SEC, averaging 16.6 and 15.9 points per game, respectively.

Conversely, MSU’s success has hinged on its defensive success. The Bulldogs are first in the SEC, giving up just 61.2 points per game and allowing teams to shoot just under 37 percent.

The Bulldogs also average a league-high 30.8 defensive rebounds a game.

MSU’s game, whether offensively or defensively, goes through senior forward Jarvis Varnado, who is averaging 14.1 points a game and is the only player in the SEC averaging double-figure rebounds (11.2).

Varnado was recently named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 15.5 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.0 blocks in wins over Arkansas and Georgia. Varnado recorded his second-career triple-double — and MSU’s fourth all-time — with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks against Arkansas. He answered with his 10th double-double of the year, getting 14 points and 14 rebounds against Georgia.

But the biggest part of Varnado’s game comes while defending his basket. Varnado is second nationally with 5.3 blocks a game and leads the nation with 96 blocks, which is 46 shy of setting an NCAA career record.

“He has a chance to do something no one else has done,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said of Varnado. “You think about the Bill Russells, Wilt Chamberlains and Shaquille O’Neals, all the great shot blockers that have played this game, and he has the potential to be the best ever. He deserves all the credit he gets.”

For the Rebels Warren is the life force, but at 5-foot-10 and 168 pounds, Kennedy said he’s thriving from the outside (shooting 40 percent from 3-point land) but is being “swallowed by size” inside, making it hard for him to finish at the rim.

The points and competitiveness are there, however, which Kennedy said his team missed a year ago.

“We’re pleased to have him back,” he said. “Last year, at this time, he wasn’t able to play for us. He’s rebounded completely from a very serious ACL injury. He’s a terrific kid, a true solider in his approach.”

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