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Varnado's block party extends to Serbia

Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado had the length, the height, the shot-blocking numbers and the perfect formula to bolt to the NBA draft.

He barely took a sniff.

Varnado made the stunning decision to withdraw weeks before the NBA draft combine in Chicago, causing more than one NBA personnel man to wonder why he even bothered declaring in the first place.

But in a rare moment of common sense during an era of big men who can't wait to get to the league and sign their first contract, Varnado took stock of his own abilities and realized he was hardly ready for the jump.

"I wasn't ready, my body wasn't ready, my skill level wasn't ready," Varnado said during last month's USA Basketball trials in Colorado Springs. "I had to go back to school and gain more weight."

We're in a time when being selected in the first round is the goal, more than being able to actually contribute. Making the jump to get that coveted first contract -- the three-year Monopoly money guaranteed up front -- is the norm, rather than entering the NBA when you're actually ready to for the next level.

There are exceptions. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet could've easily have gone pro after the 2007-08 season, but remained in school. They went 1-2 in the draft last month and will be major contributors from day one for the Clippers and Grizzlies, respectively.

Kansas' Cole Aldrich, like Varnado, made the smart decision and decided to go back to school for another season (his third) to be better prepared for the league and possibly win his second national title in three seasons.

Varnado actually has his eye on the same prize. The Bulldogs, assuming new recruit Renardo Sidney is eligible, have a team that not only could compete for the SEC title with Kentucky and Tennessee, but also could put together a deep run in March.

Varnado, who blocked 22 shots in four games during MSU's unexpected run to the SEC tournament title last season, said he didn't want to give up on those team goals -- and didn't think he was ready anyway.

Varnado's self-assessment isn't a shock to his coaching staff. The Brownsville, Tenn., native was thrust onto the national scene with his shot-blocking ability as a sophomore. He blocked 157 shots in 2007-08, tying an SEC mark set by LSU's Shaquille O'Neal. Varnado blocked 67 shots as a freshman but was limited by foul problems.

He cured most of that as a sophomore and improved more as a junior when he got into double figures in scoring at 12.9 a game, along with 8.8 rebounds. Varnado also led the country in blocks for the second straight season, swatting a league-record 170. UConn's Thabeet was the only other Division I player with more than 115 blocks.

Mississippi State assistant coach Robert Kirby said Varnado couldn't hold his base when he would come into games as a freshman. He had to learn how to hold his position.

"He was so used to dominating in high school because of his size," Kirby said. "But he wasn't used to going against big, heavy guys."

He still doesn't have that down yet. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and Miami coach Frank Haith, two of his coaches on the World University Games team that recently won a bronze medal in Serbia, said Varnado still needs to work on his strength. They said he was effective in games when he faced slender big men like those on the Israeli team, but not as much in the lane against the tougher, rugged big men of Serbia and Russia.

"He's not Bill Russell -- nobody is -- but he has that kind of potential defensively," Ryan said. "I thought he improved from day one."

In six games at the WUG, Varnado averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 10.7 minutes a game. He blocked seven shots, one behind Clemson's Trevor Booker for the team lead. Varnado did get to the free throw line 18 times (made 13), but also committed 18 fouls (tied with West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler for the team high).

Haith said that Varnado flourished on drive-and-dish plays, but that he has to improve his back-to-the-basket game.

"He's got to get stronger, or he'll get buried," Haith said. "You get him two feet from the basket, and you can neutralize the shot-blocking ability. He's got a chance, though, to be really good."

NBA personnel would likely have taken him in the first round because of his upside and ability to be a defensive stopper. But Varnado clearly wants more.

"He's the first guy we've had in a while that was logical about the draft," Kirby said. "Lawrence Roberts was like that, went into the draft and came back, but he went through a lengthier process. Jarvis was much more honest with himself. His goal isn't just be a first-round pick, but to be a top-five pick."

To get stronger, Varnado has to take care of some of the basics. He is listed at 6-9, 210 pounds. It's hard to dispute the latter number. He's thin … extremely thin.

To add weight, Kirby said Varnado had to get down to some nutritional basics, like finishing his meal and eating a square one, too.

"He used to just nibble," Kirby said. "He's eating correctly now. He's doing an outstanding job in the weight room, too."

Sidney has much more girth at 6-9, 265 pounds. He can play next to Varnado, with 7-2 center John Riek as a backup.

"Teams are going to be thinking twice about bringing it inside," Varnado said. "When I'm blocking shots and running the floor, that's when we're at our best. It can give our crowd a boost."

The wiry Varnado does run the floor well. If he can jump-start a break with a block, the Bulldogs can get out with returnees Barry Stewart, Ravern Johnson, Dee Bost or newcomer Shaunessy Smith leading the break to get the ball to Varnado for a flush.

"If [the guards] get beat, they know I've got their back," Varnado said.

Blocking the shot is his rush, much like a shooter nailing a 3-pointer or a high-flying wing soaring for a dunk.

"It's an energy boost, yeah," Varnado said. "I mean, once I block a shot, man -- dang, that's it."

In the upcoming season, Varnado will almost certainly become the SEC's career leader in blocks (he's currently 18 shy of O'Neal) and has a real chance to become the NCAA's all-time leader. If he can swat 142 more as a senior, he will break a record held by former Louisiana-Monroe player Wojciech Mydra (535 from 1998 to 2002). He would pass such legends as O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Duncan on the way to the top.

"I'm not caught up in all the records and stuff," Varnado said. "We have a good shot at winning the national championship. That's what I'm focused on right now."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.