By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — The talkative and brash Marshall Henderson is the face of Ole Miss basketball program.
Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not so good.
His play and antics have led to plenty of attention for the No. 16 Rebels (17-3, 6-1 Southeastern Conference), who face No. 8 Florida (17-2, 7-0) in Gainesville on Saturday in a matchup of the SEC’s two top-ranked teams.
Henderson has been so good during his first two months in the SEC that the 6-foot-2 junior has brought a rare spotlight to a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2002. He leads the conference in scoring at 19.3 points per game; he’s averaging more than 21 in SEC contests.
Being the SEC scoring leader also brings individual attention.
The scrutiny into Henderson has revealed a player with a dynamic personality and a flair for the dramatic that opposing fans love to hate. In the first 20 games of his Ole Miss career, the fast-talking, emotional Henderson has hit a 35-foot buzzer beater against Vanderbilt to tie a game, celebrated in front of an angry Auburn student section after making two game-clinching free throws and scored a combined 60 points against Tennessee over a two-game period.
Coach Andy Kennedy has had several conversations with Henderson about channeling his emotions, but has stressed he views the exuberance as a good thing.
Opposing coaches — including Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin and Kentucky’s John Calipari — have said they enjoy watching Henderson play.
“I think it’s passion,” Kennedy said of Henderson’s reactions. “We don’t want it to be misconstrued. Everything that he does is sincere. It is team first. We just want to make sure he funnels it in the proper way. He’s a guy that’s certainly going to garner attention.”
But all the attention has also revealed details about Henderson’s checkered past, which includes a stint in jail last year because of a probation violation.
— According to court documents, Henderson was arrested for a 2009 incident in Tarrant County, Texas, and charged with misdemeanor forgery after buying marijuana with counterfeit money. He was eventually sentenced to two years of probation.
— Henderson was arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 2011 in Texas and sentenced to four months in jail during early 2012 for violating his probation — though not all of that time was actually served behind bars because he was on a work release program. Court documents also show that Henderson failed tests for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine while on probation.
Ole Miss officials have said the athletic department was aware of Henderson’s past legal issues when he signed, and that there have been no problems since he arrived on campus.
Kennedy said Henderson’s past might be news for opposing fans, but he doesn’t expect the publicity to rattle his star guard.
“We’ve talked about it,” Kennedy said Thursday. “Marshall’s a free spirit and a different thinker. I don’t know exactly what would upset him one way or the other. These are things that he’s dealt with. This is his reality. All of these things were two, three, some of them four years ago. I don’t think people talking about them will offend him or get him off focus. I’m going to certainly try to make sure that’s the case.”
Henderson was not made available for interviews on Thursday.
It remains to be seen if all the attention will change Henderson’s torrid scoring pace as Ole Miss enters its most crucial stretch of the season. He scored 21 points on Tuesday in the Rebels’ first SEC loss to Kentucky, but shot just 5 of 19 from the field, including only 2 of 11 from 3-point range.
The loss was costly for the Rebels. One of their most important reserves Aaron Jones — a 6-foot-9 sophomore who is the primary backup for both Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner — tore the ACL in his left knee in the second half and is out for the season. Backup guard Nick Williams, who is averaging more than nine points per game, is also out indefinitely after re-aggravating a foot injury against the Wildcats.
So the onus is on Henderson to keep producing for the shorthanded Rebels.
That won’t be easy against Florida, which is on a nine-game winning streak. The Gators have crushed everyone in the SEC so far — the closest game was a 64-47 victory over Georgia.
Florida coach Billy Donovan is wary of Henderson, who is attempting nearly 11 3-pointers per game.
“He’s got really, really good speed to come off screens,” Donovan said. “He’s got the ability to kind of get himself squared up pretty quickly. He can make tough shots. He can make challenged shots.”
As for Henderson’s on-court antics, Florida forward Will Yeguete wasn’t particularly concerned.
“I think players are just different,” Yeguete said. “We play with a lot of energy and a lot of emotion in the game and sometimes you do things that you don’t realize you do until after. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., and Associated Press writer Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to this story.
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