JACKSON – It was a clean sweep for Mississippi State: Jarvis Varnado and Alexis Rack are Mississippi’s top college basketball players.
Varnado won the Howell Trophy given to the state’s top male basketball player on Monday night during a ceremony at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. And Rack won the Gillom Trophy, given to the top female player. It was a fitting end to a season in which both players led their teams to surprising results.
Varnado, a 6-foot-9 center from Brownsville, Tenn., led the Bulldogs on an unlikely run to the NCAA tournament and a Southeastern Conference title with brilliant play through the league tournament. He finished as the nation’s leading shot blocker with 170, and coach Rick Stansbury pointed out he needs just 141 to catch Louisiana-Monroe’s Wojciech Mydra for the career record.
Varnado is currently 21st nationally and second in the SEC on the career list behind Shaquille O’Neal of LSU with 394.
“And we’re sure looking forward to him coming back and finishing those 141 blocks up,” Stansbury said.
The junior’s return remains in question. One of the first questions from reporters after he won was whether he planned to return for his senior season or enter the NBA draft.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Varnado said. “I’m going to meet with coaches next week, but I haven’t decided.”
Varnado beat out David Huertas and Terrico White, both of Ole Miss, but Rebels coach Andy Kennedy tried to ensure Varnado wouldn’t be around to keep them from winning the award next year while speaking to the crowd of about 150.
“One hundred and forty-one? That’s close enough,” Kennedy joked to Varnado. “I mean you’ve had a heck of a run. I voted for you for player of the year in the league because I thought you were so dominant defensively and it would not hurt my feelings if your jersey was hanging up there without you in it next year.”
Varnado credited his success this year — he was named the SEC’s defensive player of the year for the second straight season, won the tournament MVP and led the Bulldogs in scoring (12.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.8) — not only to his improved offense, but his decision to take a leadership role.
“I’m kind of a shy person,” he said. “I just don’t talk that much.”
Rack, a junior guard from Franklin, La., led the Bulldogs into the second round of the NCAA tournament and beat out Southern Miss’ Pauline Love and Ole Miss’ Bianca Thomas.
She averaged 14.6 points per game last season and was ready for the 2009-10 season after lifting the heavy Gillom Trophy.
“I think I just had my first offseason workout,” Rack said.
Coach Sharon Fanning saluted Rack, noting that she scored in double figures in 26 games this season and helped the Bulldogs upset Texas to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“I have been on her a lot, really, really tough, and there’s always a smile and a hug there,” Fanning said. “She’s very balanced. She keeps things in perspective.
“That’s why our team went as far as it did this year. It’s a reflection of your leadership.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press