KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They surged into the Ole Miss locker room like an overflowing riverbank Thursday morning, holding cameras and tape recorders meant specifically for the most entertaining and controversial player in college basketball. He has been called talkative. Cocky. Brash. And surely a few other unprintable words uttered from opposing players on the court.
Dozens of media members jockeying for position in front of his chair wanted to know: Who the heck is Marshall Henderson? And, more important, what would he say next?
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Henderson has brought his traveling roadshow to the NCAA tournament this week. No. 12 Ole Miss (26-8) will play No. 5 Wisconsin (23-11) at 11:40 a.m CT Friday in a round-of-64 game at Sprint Center. But the game is only part of the experience. The game within a game — Henderson’s over-the-top antics — is what has drawn so much attention, wanted or otherwise, to the Rebels’ program.
This season, Henderson has thrown ice at his own student section, been greeted with an obscene gesture by angry Auburn fans for taunting the crowd, “Gator chomped” at Florida’s fan base during the SEC tournament championship and called SEC coaches losers for not naming him tournament MVP. And that’s only in the last two months.
He carries a swagger that can be amusing or annoying depending on your rooting interest.
“He’s been like that ever since he got on campus,” Ole Miss guard Nick Williams said. “He says what he wants to say. He’s a nutcase, but he’s our nutcase and we love him.”
Of course, Henderson’s sometimes-detested persona only works because he can back up his talk on the court. He leads Ole Miss in scoring (20.1 points per game) and has set the school’s single-season 3-point field goal record with 131 this season. He also ranks third in the nation with 3.9 made 3-pointers per game.
His combination of confidence and talent has allowed him to shoot threes at a rate unmatched by anyone in the college game. No player in the country has attempted more threes (367), even though he ranks 170th nationally in accuracy (35.7 percent).
“If he sucked, we’d be like, ‘Dude you suck,’ ” Williams said. “But he doesn’t suck, man. He can go for 40 at any time. We keep feeding him the ball. I hope he’s a nutcase for the rest of his life because that helps him.”
When Henderson makes a key 3-pointer, chances are he’ll pound his chest or drop a “Land Shark” salute, in which he holds his thumb to his forehead with the other four fingers up. It is a tribute to the Ole Miss football team, whose defensive players make the same gesture following a sack, and it rarely goes over well with opposing basketball fans.
Asked if he had come to embrace his role as a so-called villain, Henderson said he didn’t have a choice. But he also admitted he has no problem taking showmanship — and sportsmanship — to its extreme edges.
“You get to mess with people’s minds,” Henderson said. “I’m a manipulator of sorts. That’s really the fun part of it.”
After Ole Miss defeated Florida in the SEC title game to clinch a spot in the big dance, Henderson found controversy again. At 4:22 a.m. Monday, he tweeted he had won “10 in a row in pong,” leading most to believe he meant beer pong instead of ping pong. Henderson left that argument open for interpretation.
“People tell me I need to watch what I say sometimes,” Henderson said. “It’s their choice to follow me.”
That type of behavior is why the Rebels’ basketball sports information director sat next to Henderson on Thursday during his media session — to (hopefully) ensure his comments would be tame. Still, Henderson had no problem speaking his mind, surely to the chagrin of any team handlers.
Most college athletes focus only on the next game and rarely discuss individual success so openly; Henderson is different. He has cited a desire to make money in the NBA on numerous occasions and was at it again Thursday.
“I’m trying to get paid here soon because I’m tired of doing all of this stuff for free,” he said.
He also listed his favorite NBA players as J.R. Smith and JaVale McGee because of their ability to talk trash, put fans in the seats and make money.
Henderson’s style represents a significant contrast to that of Wisconsin, which features a group of players that could hardly be called showboaters under coach Bo Ryan.
“I don’t even know how to trash talk,” Badgers guard Ben Brust said. “I think I’ve learned throughout my years, in one ear out the other. Let my play do the talking.”
Wisconsin players realize they could be in for a scene unlike any they’ve witnessed this season when Henderson takes the floor Friday.
“That’s just the type of player he is,” Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. “Some people might not like it. But it works for him. That’s the type of person he is, and you’ve got to respect him as a player, so whatever makes him successful works for him.”
Henderson, a 6-foot-2 junior from Hurst, Texas, has found a home at Ole Miss after bouncing around three teams in three years. He began his career at Utah and played his freshman season there. He was second on the team in scoring at 11.8 points per game but transferred to Texas Tech, claiming Utah’s style did not fit his individualism. When Texas Tech coach Pat Knight was fired, he enrolled at South Plains College in Texas and led his team to a national championship while winning national junior college player of the year honors.
Some of Henderson’s actions have resulted in serious repercussions. During his freshman season at Utah, he elbowed a player from Brigham Young and received a one-game suspension. And he spent 25 days in jail last spring for a forgery charge related to counterfeit money. USA Today reported his probation was revoked after he tested positive for cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.
Despite those complications, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy saw a player who could immediately make an impact for the Rebels. He told Henderson that with him there, Ole Miss would reach its first NCAA tournament in a decade, and the two made good on that promise this season.
“I thought we had a great opportunity for him,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t know it was going to be the circus it’s turned into. Even I was a little naïve to that, but I knew he was going to have the impact that he did. I really did.
“He’s a tremendous player, and I knew he played for a coach crazy enough to let him shoot crazy shots. So I thought it was the perfect marriage.”
Ole Miss players insist they have embraced Henderson and that his demeanor has rubbed off on them to boost their confidence. Henderson, meanwhile, was asked Thursday whether his behavior served as a calculated maneuver to earn a rise out of others. In typical Henderson fashion, he offered up another memorable quote for those carrying cameras and tape recorders to lap up.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not real good at math. Plus three. I know that one well.”
As Henderson prepares for the biggest stage of his basketball career, it sure sounds as though he knows exactly what he’s doing.