By LARRY VAUGHT
Not only will Kentucky face the Southeastern Conference’s best perimeter scorer tonight in Marshall Henderson, but the Cats will also be facing the league’s most controversial/entertaining player.
He’s averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range and 86.7 percent at the foul line. But he’s just as apt to taunt fans as he did at the end of Saturday’s win at Auburn after making two clutch free throws or pound his chest after a big play.
Kentucky coach John Calipari says Henderson, a junior college transfer, has the “ultimate green light” to shoot.
“This kid’s got a green light and he’ll go on a streak of baskets. He’s tough. Henderson gives them a different flavor, that he can go on a roll and whatever the score of the game, he can make three straight shots,” Calipari said.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has seen his Vols burned twice by Henderson — 32 points on Jan. 9 when the Rebels won in Knoxville for the first time since 1991 and 28 points in a home win last week — this season but says he is a player he believes he would have liked to play with.
“I used to do a little trash talking. Not at his level. I think he is an entertainer, enjoys basketball and is a guy that plays with passion,” Martin said. “That has been his MO for a long time. I think he is a good shooter. I think he is a big-time basketball player with a strong mentality. He can miss 10 shots and is ready to take the next shot. He is a guy who makes them when you need them.”
“Henderson has given them different dynamic. The guy plays with confidence and the team feeds off that. You just can’t let your team be affected by it,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy says Henderson’s “passion is coming from a good place” and teammates understand he has a team-first mentality.
“They accept him for what he brings to our program. He’s a guy that loves basketball and plays with an edge. I think he’s been readily open with the fact that if he didn’t play with that edge, he wouldn’t be a guy that could lead the SEC in scoring. As his coach, I’m probably more concerned with his shot selection than maybe him popping him shirt here and there,” Kennedy said. “He’s a kid that’s been put in a situation where there’s a lot of attention drawn to him from the minute he walks in the building, and I think for the most part he’s handled it well.”
Kennedy admitted he would have preferred not to have the postgame antics at Auburn, but also defended his star guard.
“He’s caught up in the emotion of a highly charged game, a one-possession game, in front of a sellout crowd. It was a very physical, hard-fought game between two good teams. We’re trying to make sure he channels it towards his teammates and towards us as opposed to the opposing fans,” Kennedy said.
Freshman Archie Goodwin has been UK’s best perimeter defender and would have the size to match up with Henderson, who has already made 74 3-pointers. However, Calipari said Monday he wasn’t sure if he would put Goodwin on the Ole Miss scorer.
“We’re trying to figure out how we’ll play it. We did some stuff yesterday at practice, but he’s going to take 13 3’s. Whether you’re on him, you’re not on him, he’s taking 13 3’s,” Calipari said. “I love his energy and excitement about playing, he loves the game.”
Calipari said UK, or any opponent, has to pay special attention to Henderson.
“If you pay too much attention to him, all of the sudden two big guys get 20 and 20 and then you got no chance of beating them. A lot of times you want one guy to get 30 and let the other guys not get an.” Calipari said. “There are many times I’ve coached a game where I said, ‘We’re letting him get his 30, 35. Let him try. And if he’s on fire, OK, we got problems… .’ And sometimes we do it with big guys. Why trap him? Let him try to get 40. He’ll take out this guy, that guy, that guy.”
Elston Turner of Texas A&M had a career-game with 40 points against the Cats in a Rupp Arena win earlier this month. Calipari said Ole Miss has probably watched that game tape. “Us falling into screens, hands down, beat on the dribble, beat on curl cuts, stopping, acting exhausted, just wailing, no bones in your body. I imagine they watched it, though,” the UK coach said.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress says the Cats know plenty about Henderson. “He’s got a nice little stroke so we will have to contain him and put a hand up on his shots,” Poythress said. “We have seen and heard some stuff (about his antics), but I guess that’s just part of his game.”
Henderson has helped Ole Miss average 80.3 points per game to go along with a defense that has opponents averaging just 38.6 percent from the field. The Rebels also average 9.1 steals per game along with 5.7 blocks