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Hate the player? OK, but don't hate Marshall Henderson's game

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Marshall Henderson can play.

Any opinion formed about Ole Miss' rambunctious guard has to take into consideration those four words. That's what makes his coach tolerate his sometimes outrageous antics. That's what has Ole Miss in the tournament for the first time in 11 years. That's what makes a scruffy, gum-flapping guard from Hurst, Texas, matter.

“If he sucked, it would be like, ‘Dude, you suck,' teammate Nick Williams said. “But he doesn't suck. He can go for 40 at anytime.”

Henderson averages 20.1 points. He leads the SEC in both scoring and 3-pointers made (131). The kid can shoot the Rebels out of a game or -- lately -- become the talk of the tournament because he can flat-out shoot. And in a sport that has devolved into Greco-Roman wrestling, that has to be refreshing.

Hot off becoming the SEC tournament MVP Henderson has become the overarching story in an opening-round site that features a combined eight national championships (North Carolina and Kansas), Big Ten coach of the year Bo Ryan and Villanova, which has beaten three top-five teams.

All anyone wants to talk about is the player Williams has listed in his phone as, “Slim Shady.”

“I hope he's a nut case for the rest of his life because it helps him …,” Williams said. “He's a nut case, man. But he's our nut case. We love him.”

Henderson is a study in 3-point accuracy (35.7 percent), guard play (the key to the tournament) as well as basketball and political correctness. Are we better than Marshall Henderson, who has violated probation before age 23? This is about basketball, but it's being made to be about something else.

Henderson hasn't appeared in a postgame news conference since Friday at the SEC tournament won Sunday by the Rebels. That included Thursday here when he was absent from his first NCAA tournament presser. (He has been available to media in the locker room.)

“I think sometimes a lot of the other stuff takes away from the fact that he's a very, very good basketball player …,” coach Andy Kennedy said. “It's like watching NASCAR, waiting for the wreck.”

That is why the SEC office has been leaning on Ole Miss to lean on Henderson to tone down his antics. That is why the SEC coaches come off as somewhat hypocritical, leaving the league's top scorer off the all-conference first team.

They obviously took into account his trash-talking, his school count (Ole Miss is his fourth team since high school) and his legal problems. Oh yes, the legal problems. Henderson has spent 25 days in jail for violating probation. According to court records, he tested positive for cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. In 2009, he used $800 in counterfeit money to buy marijuana, according to a statement he gave the Secret Service.

“I don't know,” Henderson said Thursday of being left off that first team, “but that was pretty dumb.”

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.

At least Kennedy has been honest. This being Ole Miss, he had to take a chance on Henderson out of juco South Plains College. Kennedy's job was at stake as late as a month ago, until the Rebels made a late run to their first tournament berth since 2002.

Kennedy himself transferred from North Carolina State to UAB as a player. A police stop that resulted in a misdemeanor charge in 2008 remains out there on YouTube for everyone to see.

“I wasn't as crazy as him,” Kennedy said of his time as a player. “I did some crazy things but he's taken it to another level. At the end of the day I allow a lot of it because I know it comes from a good place.”

“Here's the way I look at it,” said Ryan, the Wisconsin coach who will try to stop the Rebels in Friday's opening-round game. “I'm looking for the guy in the locker room that the players are listening to.”

Clearly, at Ole Miss that player is Henderson.

“People didn't get to see it. Halftime of the Florida game we were down 12,” Williams said of Sunday's SEC tournament championship game. “He [Henderson] came in the locker room, sat down, put his hands behind his head, crossed his feet and said, ‘Guys we're going to be OK.'”

Ole Miss rallied to win by three, its first SEC tournament title in 32 years. Henderson had 18 of his 21 points in the second half. In the postgame, Henderson went on to call SEC coaches “losers.”

“That wasn't just for me,” Henderson said. “That was for (teammate) Murphy Holloway, too. Is (LSU's) Johnny O'Bryant better than Murphy Holloway? No way.”

It's that kind of conduct that endears him to teammates. LSU's O'Bryant was on the first team ahead of the second-team Holloway. By his own admission, Henderson doesn't engage opponents or game officials. He's a hard worker. He's a good teammate. Williams saw the moment Henderson played in the first open gym and started gunning 3s.

In basketball culture -- in the NCAA tournament -- if you can play it makes up for a lot of shortcomings. Will Ole Miss' Slim Shady consider embracing the role of villain on the court on Friday?

“I guess so,” Henderson said. “I don't have a choice, do I?”

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