Handicapping the Howell, Gillom Trophies

Tonight, Mississippi’s top college basketball players will be recognized with the presentation of the Howell Trophy (men) and the Gillom Trophy (women). The ceremony begins at 6:30 at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

First, the male finalists: Garrison Johnson, Jackson State; Jarvis Varnado, MSU; Chris Warren, Ole Miss.

The female finalists: Pauline Love, USM; Alexis Rack, MSU; Bianca Thomas, Ole Miss.

Varnado and Rack, both seniors, won the awards last year. Can they repeat? Let’s break it down, starting with the men, and I’ll make predictions on each.

Johnson’s case: The 6-foot-5 senior guard from Smyrna, Ga., led the SWAC in scoring (18.1 ppg) and was named its Player of the Year, and he led the Tigers to a 19-13 record and the SWAC regular season title. JSU lost to MSU in the NIT first round, with Johnson scoring a game-high 32 points.

Johnson also averaged 4.5 rebounds, 1.03 steals, shot 37.0 percent from the field, and made 35.1 percent from 3-point range. He led JSU in scoring 22 times this season.

Varnado’s case: The 6-9 senior center from Brownsville, Tenn., racked up all sorts of postseason awards. In addition to being named first-team All-SEC, he was named the league’s top defender and has been named the nation’s top defender by at least four publications/web sites. Varnado, of course, became the NCAA’s career blocks leader this season, surpassing Wojciech Mydra of Northeast Louisiana and finishing his career with 564 blocks.

In addition to making 4.7 blocks per game, Varnado averaged a team-leading 13.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, and he made 58.2 percent of his field goal attempts. He led MSU to a 24-12 mark, the SEC Western Division title and the second round of the NIT.

Warren’s case: The 5-10 junior point guard from Orlando, Fla., bounced back nicely from his lost 2008-09 season (knee injury) to lead the Rebels in scoring (17.2 ppg), and he didn’t miss a start. Warren was a second-team All-SEC selection, and he also averaged 3.5 assists against 2.3 turnovers per game.

Warren led Ole Miss to a 24-11 record, a share of the Western Division title (although the Rebs lost twice to MSU) and the NIT semifinals, where it lost to eventual champ Dayton.

My prediction: Put it this way – Varnado’s the only one being honored by Mississippi’s Senate this afternoon. Yeah, he’ll take home Howell Trophy No. 2 tonight.

Now, we take a look at the female finalists.

Love’s case: The 6-foot senior forward from Luxora, Ark. (by way of Jones CC) was a very good player on a very bad team. She earned first-team All-Conference USA honors by averaging 18.3 points (second in C-USA) and 12.8 rebounds (first) per game. She shot 44.5 percent from the field.

Despite Love’s efforts – and her blog – USM finished 9-21 this season (5-11 C-USA), including an 0-14 road record.

Rack’s case: The 5-7 senior point guard from Franklin, La., carried MSU to new heights this season. By averaging 17.5 points and 4.7 assists per game, Rack helped MSU reach its first ever Sweet 16, where it lost to Florida State, 74-71. State finished the year 21-13 (9-7 SEC).

Rack struggled in the final nine games leading up to the NCAAs, averaging less than 10 points and shooting 22.9 percent from the floor. But she regained her form in the postseason, where she averaged 21.3 ppg. She was named first-team All-SEC by the coaches, second team by the AP.

Thomas’ case: The 5-10 senior guard from Henderson, Tenn., was the SEC’s top scorer this season, pouring in 20.9 points per game. That earned her not only first-team All-SEC honors, but second-team honors on the Lowe’s Senior CLASS All-America team. She’s just the third Lady Rebel to average 20-plus points in a season, and the first since Jennifer Gillom – after whom the trophy is named – to lead the conference in scoring (1986).

Behind Thomas, who also averaged 5.3 rebounds per game and shot 37.6 percent from the field (33.8 from deep), Ole Miss finished 17-15 overall (7-9 SEC) and fell to Samford in the first round of the WNIT.

My prediction: Hard to pick against the reigning winner, especially given the postseason success by MSU. But there was that aforementioned rough stretch at a critical time of the season, and Thomas had the overall better year, with less talent around her. So I think Thomas will win a close vote.