SEC may have a Cinderella in the NCAAs
MAR 19, 2013 5:36p ET
As much as Kentucky fans want to believe their Wildcats deserved the benefit of the doubt on Selection Sunday, the defending national champions simply weren't that good. Neither was Alabama, nor Vanderbilt, or even 20-12 Tennessee.
Only three SEC teams made it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and only one, Florida, is on any learned scholar's Final Four list. The other two, Missouri (23-10) and SEC Tournament champion Ole Miss (26-8), haven't been given much respect, and aren't expected to go much farther than the second round.
But anything is possible once the ball is in the air. That's why we watch.
For example, did anyone think Davidson could beat Georgetown in 2008?
Who had George Mason making to the Final Four in 2006?
Anybody pick N.C. State in 1983?
And what about Villanova over Georgetown in 1985?
Sure, Ole Miss is an underdog against Wisconsin, a team that beat Indiana twice and is 1-1 against SEC teams this season, beating Arkansas and losing early to Florida. On paper, the Rebels don’t have a shot. But they don't play the game on paper.
This Ole Miss team has two things going for it:
1. The Rebels know they aren't supposed to win, which can be liberating. Rather than tie themselves into Gordian knots, they can free-wheel, relax and play with the sort of reckless abandon that so commonly leads to upsets in the first round.
2. They have an unheralded weapon in the form of Marshall Henderson, a 6-foot-2 junior who averages 20.1 points a game and energizes everyone who stands with him. Henderson also enrages his opponents with taunts and jeers and the kinds of antics that would earn him plenty of fines if he was playing in the NBA.
"Obviously, the Marshall Henderson show is like the traveling circus," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy after the Rebels beat Florida in the SEC Championship game, in which Marshall had 21 points and mocked the crowd with a Gator Chomp.
"It's up, it's down," Kennedy said. "We've got the high-wire act over here, the ponies here, we got all kinds of nonsense going on, and he draws a lot of attention. He's a big shot maker."
Henderson also has the Rebels in their first NCAA Tournament since 2002, which has electrified Ole Miss fans. Of course, one player is rarely enough to carry a team throughout the tournament, but Henderson has also shown a knack for making those around him better. If he can keep the magic going for five more games, the Rebs could become this year's Cinderella story.
Missouri would be considered a more likely team to go deep. The Tigers are one of the best rebounding squads in the tournament with the No. 20 scoring offense in the land. Their leader, point guard Phil Pressey, averaged 11.6 points and a whopping 7.1 assists a game. Earlier in the year, Pressey set a single-game NCAA record with 19 assists against UCLA.
Missouri might be underdogs to Colorado State by tipoff, and the Tigers will certainly be underdogs if they advance beyond the second round (against Louisville).
Florida is very good. A lot of well-respected basketball experts have them in the Final Four and some have picked them to go all the way.
But don't count the other SEC teams out just yet. Even in a down year for college sports' biggest conference, once the whistle blows, anything's possible.
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