KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy compares watching Marshall Henderson to watching NASCAR.
The wrecks are both unpredictable and inevitable.
The Rebels’ colorful, polarizing guard led the SEC in scoring this season, helping them win the SEC tournament and earn an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2002. That thrust him into the national spotlight, where he’s become the guy opposing fans love to hate.
Hit a 3-pointer to help bury Florida? Throw down a mocking “gator chomp.”
Watching Kentucky lose in the NIT? Tell the world via Twitter that you think the Wildcats “don’t wanna be there,” and then point out, “I know I wouldn’t wanna be playin in the NIT.”
Kennedy has called the much-traveled junior guard’s antics a “traveling circus,” and then used another analogy Thursday, before the No. 12 seed Rebels hit the floor in the Sprint Center for their final practice before playing fifth-seeded Wisconsin in the West Region on Friday.
“It’s like watching NASCAR, waiting for the wreck,” Kennedy said. “He’s going real fast, oops, he didn’t wreck there, another turn.”
There have been plenty of wrecks in Henderson’s checkered past.
He began his career at Utah, transferred to a junior college in Texas, and ultimately landed at Ole Miss after Kennedy assured him that the Rebels were primed to make the NCAA tournament.
Along the way, Henderson was arrested for a 2009 incident and charged with misdemeanor forgery after buying marijuana with counterfeit money. He was arrested again in 2011 and charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, even though he was already on probation at the time.
Court documents also show that Henderson failed tests for alcohol, marijuana and cocaine while on probation, though school officials said he’s not had any problems at Ole Miss.
“Where I’ve been, it’s been tough,” Henderson said.
Does he relish being the villain?
“I guess so,” he replied. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
Henderson points out that he doesn’t spend much time talking trash on the floor, not with opposing players or the referees. But fans? They’re fair game.
“My favorite players in the NBA all do that stuff,” he said. “J.R. Smith and JaVale McGee, I love those kinds of players. They can put a crowd in the arena, sell some tickets, get the money for those people. That’s what it’s all about.”
Henderson may be reviled by opposing fans, but he’s beloved by the Rebels’ — most of them, anyway. And he certainly has the support of his teammates, who appreciate his gamesmanship.
“When the crowds are talking trash to him, it helps him. So please, do it,” said Ole Miss guard Nick Williams. “Everybody in the crowd, please, talk to Marshall. ... I beg you. That’s when he goes out and gets 30. Please, keep doing this.”
Senior forward Reginald Buckner said there’s no jealousy among the Rebels that Henderson is prone to stealing the show. He understands that the 20 points he pours in every game are perhaps the biggest single reason his team is playing in the NCAA tournament.
“That’s my guy, man. Ever since I’ve been here, one of my good friends,” Buckner said. “But it’s all love. I don’t feel there’s no jealousy.”
Buckner also said it was a crime Henderson was left off the All-SEC first team.
“Maybe some coaches are like, ‘He beat us, and he talked trash,’” Buckner said. “He led the SEC in scoring, he led his team to the NCAA tournament. ... He cared at first (about being left off), but after we won the championship, he was like, ‘Yeah, I just proved myself.’”
That victory over Florida in the SEC title game only grew Henderson’s lore.
“People didn’t get to see it,” Williams said, “but halftime, we’re down 12, he just came into the locker room, sat down and put his hands behind his head, crossed his feet and said, ‘Guys, we’ll be OK.’ He’s usually like that. We’re down, we feel like we can come back from any deficit.”
Kennedy said that he’s grown accustomed to Henderson’s behavior this season, and the key is to find a happy balance between reining him in and letting him gallop.
And being constantly on the look-out for the next wreck.
“He’s a tremendous player, a tremendous teammate,” Kennedy said. “It’s my job to help put him in a place to be successful and stay focused.”