The Ole Miss Rebels never have won a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship in men's basketball, and their six NCAA tournament appearances are the fewest of any league member.
Those facts don't seem to matter these days, as Ole Miss is off to the best start in school history and boasts the league's most talked-about player -- junior guard Marshall Henderson. The cardiac Rebels are 17-2 overall and 6-0 in league play for the first time, having rallied for victories over Vanderbilt and Tennessee and surviving a 63-61 decision this past Saturday at Auburn.
"Sometimes you have those years where the close games seem to go your way," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said Monday. "We had a chance. Tennessee certainly had a chance, and Auburn had a chance for sure. Yet they keep coming up victorious. I think some of that is experience, because experienced teams tend to win more of those games, generally.
"I also think they've just got a feeling or vibe going that they believe they're going to win."
Stallings' Commodores led the Rebels by 13 with 8:39 remaining Jan. 15 in Nashville, but a Henderson 3-pointer at the buzzer sent the game into overtime, and Ole Miss pulled away for an 89-79 win. The Rebels trailed Tennessee 46-40 with 8:51 left last Thursday in Oxford before Henderson rallied them to a 62-56 triumph, and his two free throws with 6.4 seconds to play were the difference at Auburn.
Even in a 76-64 win over visiting Arkansas on Jan. 19, the Rebels bolted from a 50-50 deadlock midway through the second half.
"I like the fact our guys are finding ways to win in a variety of ways," seventh-year coach Andy Kennedy said, "whether it was scoring more than 90 points at Thompson-Boling or coming up with key defensive stops that allowed us to squeak one out at Auburn. I'm just proud of the guys being resilient and tough-minded.
"We've had challenges at home and on the road throughout the course of our league schedule, and there has not been a time out where I've had the sense that our guys felt like they were going to lose."
Senior forwards Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner comprise the league's most effective inside tandem to this point. Holloway leads the SEC with 10.4 rebounds a game, while Buckner is first in shooting percentage (.633) and second in blocks (2.8).
Yet every discussion of Ole Miss begins with Henderson, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound transfer whose league-leading 19.2 points per game are topped only by his brash antics on the floor.
"I would have liked to have played with him," Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin said. "I used to do a little trash-talking myself, but not at the level of Marshall. It's part of the game. I think he's an entertainer, and I love watching him play.
"In hostile environments, he brings it to the table, so you've got to respect a guy at the end of the day who can do that every night."
Henderson held up his jersey to ignite an irate Auburn student section once the horn sounded, which has since become a popular video online. Kennedy said Monday he "would have preferred him not doing that," but he believes Henderson's passion comes from a good place.
"Obviously we want to make sure it doesn't affect his focus nor the team's focus," Kennedy said. "Our guys understand that he's about team first, and they accept him for what he brings to our program. He's a guy who loves basketball and plays with an edge, and 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 who could lead the SEC in scoring.
"As his coach, I'm probably more concerned with his shot selection than maybe him popping his shirt here and there."
Henderson and the Rebels host Kentucky tonight on ESPN, and they travel to No. 4 Florida on Saturday night.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.