Ole Miss, SEC PG Marshall Henderson: Best Thing to Happen to NCAA Tournament

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Ole Miss, SEC PG Marshall Henderson: Best Thing to Happen to NCAA Tournament
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall Henderson, the Ole Miss Rebels and the NCAA tournament are all on one gargantuan collision course for success. Having upset No. 5 seed Wisconsin in the second round, Henderson and Ole Miss can reach the Sweet 16 with a win over LaSalle on Sunday,

Love him or hate him, Henderson is what's called "good TV" for the NCAA tournament, CBS and Turner Sports. Hell, he'd make one heck of reality show all by himself. When was the last time a college basketball player generated as much hype, good or bad, as Ole Miss' Henderson? It's hard to recall such a player, possessing both unparalleled hardwood skills and a cocky, flamboyant attitude on and off the court.

The flashy Rebel guard either is the hero you love to cheer for or the villain you love to hate.

Mac Engel of the Star-Telegram suggested of Henderson's polarizing nature, "There are two camps for Marshall Henderson. Camp one hates Marshall Henderson because of his mouth, his ceaseless trash-talking and what appears to be absolute zero basketball IQ. Camp two loves Marshall Henderson because of his mouth, his ceaseless trash-talking and a fearless attitude toward the game."

Engel's got it exactly right, fans either love or hate Henderson. It's really that simple.

To Ole Miss and the folks in Oxford, MS think the polarizing guard is the greatest thing since QB Eli Manning donned the red and blue a decade ago. Even head coach Andy Kennedy is awe-struck by the magnitude of attention his star receives. USA Today's Steve Weiberg wrote of Kennedy's impression: "The whole Marshall Henderson phenomenon, even I was taken aback by that a little bit. It's like traveling with the Beatles. I mean it's crazy, honestly."

Henderson scrutinized from every angle (courtesy: ESPN)

Kennedy's right, except that the Hurst, Texas native is a one-man show unlike anything in recent college basketball memory. He's the SEC leading scorer (20.1 PPG) who has Ole Miss on the verge of a school-record 28 wins and only their second-ever trip to the Sweet 16. 

While the kid's got a checkered past including being arrested for counterfeit money and also spent 25 days in the slammer for violating probation (testing positive for cocaine, alcohol and marijuana), at least from a legal standpoint he's making good on a second (or third) chance in life.

Nevertheless, Henderson is still judged on a daily basis by media and fans alike. CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd suggested:

So you want to use all of it against Johnny Basketball? It's been done before. Barry Switzer had to wait years before getting into the college football Hall of Fame. Jerry Tarkanian still isn't in the basketball Hall of Fame. It's easy to draw a moral line in the sand until a player like Henderson is knocking down 3s. Then we all want him on our team. If he isn't, cluck our tongues when he gator-chomps Florida fans or smack talks the Auburn crowd. That smacks of our own hypocrisy.

Doing the "gator-chomp" to Florida fans during the SEC tournament championship game?

Making a celebratory jersey taunt immediately in front of the Auburn student section after being taunted himself the entire game?

Going so far as to question Ole Miss students' loyalty on Twitter when the Rebels went on a losing-skid late in the season?

Henderson talks one-on-one (courtesy: LatestSportsTV)

Calling out SEC coaches as "losers" that failed to vote him first-team All-SEC this year?

While any coach in the country would love a player of Henderson's caliber on his team, only a select few would be able to successfully control him the way Ole Miss' Andy Kennedy has done this season.

A recent AP article said of the relationship between coach and player:

Henderson said one reason he came to Ole Miss is because of Kennedy. The 45-year-old played in college at North Carolina State and Alabama-Birmingham in the 1980s, had many of the same skills and even a little bit of added personality. 'My relationship with coach Kennedy is just amazing,' Henderson said before the SEC tournament. 'Literally, he's the same person I am except he's (45) and I'm 22 and he's the coach and I'm the player. It works out in a lot of ways. Some of our little episodes on the bench, people try to blow out of proportion. But that's just us communicating in a different way for a positive goal at the end.'

Kennedy knew he needed Henderson, and Henderson knew he needed Kennedy. Fate definitely had a role in bringing the flashy guard to north Mississippi. Having failed to reach the NCAA tournament in his first six years at Ole Miss, the former Cincinnati assistant under Bob Huggins knew it was time to deliver in Oxford in 2012-2013.

After leading South Plains Junior College to 36-0 record and national championship in 2011-2012, the National Junior College Player of the Year accepted Andy Kennedy's offer to play in the SEC. Kennedy's high-stakes gamble recruiting Henderson has paid off for both men, and it's a story still being written in the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Win or lose against No. 13 seed LaSalle on Sunday, it's been an extremely successful year for Henderson and the 2013 SEC tournament champion Ole Miss Rebels. However, there's ample reason to believe this SEC club has greater expectations than just winning one game in the Big Dance.

If Ole Miss can get past a pesky Explorers squad in the round of 32, Kennedy will have his Rebels in the West Region's Sweet 16. With a win, Henderson would lead his club to the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA for a meeting with the winner of No. 1 seed Gonzaga vs. No. 9 seed Wichita State.

Wait.

Henderson could take his reality show to Hollywood, with a shot at reaching the Final Four?

That's exactly right, and what a stage it would be for college basketball's version of Johnny Football.

It's all a little premature, but interesting to consider. Ole Miss would likely take on the No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Staples Center to try and advance to the Elite Eight. With an upset over the Bulldogs, the Rebels would then most likely battle either No. 2 seed Ohio State or No. 6 seed Arizona for a chance to go to college basketball's holy grail: the Final Four.

Taking it one step further, there's an interesting history between both the Buckeyes and Wildcats and the Ole Miss Rebels. In 2001, it was Arizona that halted Ole Miss' chances of an Elite Eight bid by knocking them off in the Sweet 16. As for Ohio State, the Big Ten club kept Kennedy's squad out of the NIT Championship by beating them in the NIT semifinals.

Ole Miss upsets Wisconsin

While Henderson wasn't a part of either Ole Miss team, you better believe he'd be all over Twitter in the days leading up to the Elite Eight game adding fuel to a fire already lit from the past.

The Ole Miss Rebels won both the SEC tournament and their opening-round game against Wisconsin with come-from-behind performances. As of yet, the team as a whole hasn't played 40 minutes of successful team basketball. Henderson has struggled in the first halves of games before picking up the slack in the second halves. The point is: Ole Miss has yet to play 40 minutes of basketball the way it's capable of doing.

If Henderson and his teammates can become a little more consistent from start to finish in games, then there's no telling how far this No. 12 seed Ole Miss team can go in the Big Dance.

For now though, get your popcorn ready to watch the "Marshall Henderson Show" against LaSalle at 6:40 p.m. CT on Sunday evening. With a trip to the Sweet 16 at stake, it should be entertaining.

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