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Monday, November 24, 2014

OM fans would hate Henderson if he wasn’t their player, but he is

COLUMN: Saturday night’s often ugly, ultimately triumphant trip to Auburn — a place where so many Ole Miss basketball seasons past had hit a pot hole with a definitive “bad loss” in conference play — was marked more for Henderson’s postgame jersey-popping display to Tiger fans than anything on the court.

That’s sort of why he’s perfect for this fan Rebel base. He’s brash, cocky and embraceable for home fans, and his game (the manic free-shooting 3-pointer part) requires little-to-no hard basketball knowledge. This is a little-to-no basketball knowledge fan base.

Smart player

Henderson is basketball smart: He found his way to the line in the waning seconds of a tied game to sink home two free throws for the win. But to a conference of rival fans, a majority of old guard media members and a lot of grumpy farts of all ages (some in red and blue) he’s basketball stupid, acting “like a thug.”

He’s not really a thug (whatever that actually means anymore). You could consider him a slightly louder, often times sloppier version of so many loathed Duke shooting guards of years past. If he was J.J. Reddick, there’s a strong chance that some of Henderson’s loudest detractors wouldn’t be so angry about his existence.

But this isn’t Duke, this is Ole Miss, a decade-plus removed from their last NCAA Tournament appearance. There’s a great sense of dislike surrounding Henderson because his actions convey a certain sense of entitlement — “You ragged me all game and I beat you, now I’m going to tell you I’m better” — that just doesn’t match up with the humility and blandness outsider believe Ole Miss hoops should have.

In a way, Henderson’s bravado is an encapsulation of what Andy Kennedy was long-promised to bring to Oxford: defiance, aggression on the court and a winner’s attitude. For season after season, AK’s tried to build Ole Miss into a long and fast up-tempo offense from his days as a Cincinnati assistant,

except with meager means in recruiting, facilities and a budget.

Ole Miss basketball under Kennedy found the identity it was never looking for in the closing weeks of last season: ugly but aggressive post play on both sides of the court. They just needed a shooter, which is why Henderson was plucked from junior college.

His game is as advertised, but no one really knew about his mouth. Are there aspects of his demeanor that could potentially backfire? Absolutely. He’s already got a good portion of the SEC actively rooting against him — I sat in a Nashville bar Saturday night and watched Tennessee and Mississippi State fans join up to cheer loudly against the Rebels in the closing minutes of the Auburn game.

But Auburn also sold out, something they had yet to do in conference play, but something that’s become a new normal (again) at Tad Smith Coliseum. People are noticing Ole Miss basketball, and Henderson is the biggest reason why.

That’s why so many Rebel fans are quick to defend his swagger without admitting how much they’d despise the guy if he was in maroon or purple or Kentucky blue.

But he isn’t.

—sgodjr@gmail.com (January 29, 2013, Page 7)

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