KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Marshall Henderson stops in the middle of practice at Sprint Center on Thursday, grabs a basketball, and hoists it toward the basket from beyond half-court.
A modest crowd of 200 or so fans erupts, and Henderson shrugs his shoulders, smiles and hustles back to the laid-back drills his Mississippi teammates are engaged in.
He got what he wanted: Attention.
That’s the thing most people miss about Henderson, a 6-foot-2 junior guard: He’s not bad news. He is the news. And that’s the way he prefers it.
Henderson’s bizarre and positively entertaining antics will grab even more attention now that Mississippi is in the NCAA tourney, waiting to match up with Wisconsin at 11:40 p.m. (Central) on Friday.
Henderson incenses opposing fans, riles opponents, and leaves even his own teammates and coaches covering their eyes at times.
He mocked Florida Gators’ fans last week by doing the “Gator chomp” aimed directly at their student section, he sometimes celebrates three-pointers with the “Land Shark” (placing his hand at his forehead like a dorsal fin), and he called the other SEC coaches “losers” after he was voted the SEC tournament’s most valuable player, just a week after those coaches voted him only second-team all-conference.
Truthfully, Henderson loves having the bulls-eye on his chest.
“My favorite thing is when the other team’s fans come out an hour and a half before the game,” he said, “just to get on me.”
Actually, Henderson gets it from all angles, even on his own Twitter account, where he recently incensed Kentucky fans by suggesting that the Wildcats were playing like they didn’t even want to be in the NIT tournament.
“I wouldn’t want to be playing in the NIT, either,” he said.
He also recently boasted on Twitter that he won 10 straight games of “Pong,” a possible reference to a beer-drinking game. The Tweet was posted at 4 a.m.
Henderson can often be just as much of a head-scratcher on the court, too. He plays at break-neck speed, and rapidly fires up shots as if the basketball was lined with electrical wire.
Asked how he would counter any defensive strategy Wisconsin might have to contain him, Henderson thought for a moment, then said, “I’ll shoot faster.”
But make no mistake, he is the engine that fuels Mississippi, averaging 20.1 points a game.
Teammate Nick Williams said, “We feed off that energy. When he hits a three, it gives us a jolt of energy.”
And Henderson’s teammates and coaches have become accustomed, if that’s possible, to his antics.
“He’s such the center of attention,” coach Andy Kennedy said, “it’s like traveling with the Beatles. But people have to know it comes from a love for the game. His whole life is basketball. He was the son of a coach and spent his life in a gym. It’s all genuine.”
Henderson insists he needs his “crazy” act to help his game.
“I’m a 6-feet-2 white guy,” he said. “I need an edge. A serious edge.”
Just getting this far has been a remarkable achievement for Henderson, who is from Hurst, Texas. He began his career at Utah and started 30 games as a freshman, but decided to transfer to Texas Tech because of frustrations with Utah’s “system.”
During that time, though, in 2009, Henderson also was arrested and charged with misdemeanor forgery in Texas for trying to buy marijuana with $800 of counterfeit money. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
He violated his probation when he was arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in 2011 — he also reportedly violated his probation for testing positive for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine — and was sentenced to four months of jail. He served his time in early 2012.
Before his legal troubles, his transfer to Texas Tech fizzled out. After sitting out a year because of transfer rules, he decided to transfer again when Texas Tech coach Pat Knight was fired. Henderson wound up at South Plains College, a JUCO in Texas where he led to the team to a 36-0 record and a national championship.
“There were times during all of that when I got discouraged, a little,” Henderson said. “But I kept thinking, ‘This might make a pretty good story someday.’ ‘’
Henderson’s dazzling year (19.6 points per game) at South Plains didn’t go unnoticed. Kennedy seemed ready to take a chance on Henderson.
“Coach just basically told me I’d be an idiot not to transfer to Mississippi,” Henderson said. “That was really it. I looked at the team and I thought they were pretty good. I thought there was only one thing missing — me.”
With the Rebels, Henderson has energized one of the hottest teams in the country entering the tournament.
The Rebels have won eight of their last 10, including five straight, three of those coming in their stunning run to the SEC tournament title.
“I don’t know if there’s a hotter team right now,” Henderson said. “Maybe the Miami Heat.”
But the matchup with Wisconsin figures to test the patience of Mississippi, especially Henderson. Wisconsin’s deliberate half-court style is in stark contrast to that of the runnin’ Rebels.
“Are we worried about them and their style?” Henderson said, repeating the question. “Maybe they should be worried about us and our style.”
Henderson, though, admits he is a fan of the Badgers, who he has seen on TV. He’s also a fan of Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz, the senior with the unmistakable moppy, frizzy hair.
“I love that guy,” Henderson said. “I love his hair. I wish I could grow it. Man, I wish I could buy it — I’d wear it on Halloween.”