In 2008, Jim Boylen built what he thought was a formidable recruiting class for the Utah Utes. Coming off a 24-10 year that included a trip to the NCAA tournament, Boylen went into Texas and plucked three talented players, with a cocky, rail-thin gunner named Marshall Henderson as the centerpiece.
“We thought he was the best pure scorer in the State of Texas as a senior,” Boylen, an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers, told me today. “We thought he was going to be Mr. Basketball. But he missed part of his senior year because he got caught with an open container at a party. We were told it was his first beer, and he hadn’t sipped it yet. Kids make mistakes.”
Mistakes have come as frequently as success has for Henderson, who is the most polarizing player in college basketball this year – and also perhaps the most compelling. He’s equal parts Eric Devendorf (will shoot from anywhere), Jimmer Fredette (scoring machine) and Jason Williams (confidence).
He’s also the leading scorer in the SEC (19.2 ppg), and a jersey-popping, buzzer-beating, Coors Light-drinkin‘ savior to the Ole Miss basketball program. The Rebels are 17-2, and unbeaten in the SEC (6-0). Riding a 9-game winning streak, mighty Kentucky comes to town tonight in a heavily-anticipated matchup that will be on ESPN at 9 pm.
Henderson – only 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds – has been the talk of college hoops since beating Auburn Saturday night, and then jawing with Tigers’ fans courtside. Few have actually talked about his skill set – which Boylen thinks is NBA-worthy.
“Absolutely he’s an NBA player,” Boylen said. “He can make shots, he can score. He’s the same size as Fredette, maybe a little taller, more athletic … and he can handle success … if he can keep moving in the right direction with criticism …” and Boylen’s voice trailed off, as if perhaps recalling Henderson’s departure from Utah.
Henderson lit up the MWC as a freshman, scoring 11 ppg and closing games for the Utes. Boylen defended Henderson’s antics, too. “He’s a polarizing guy. You hate or love him,” said Boylen, now in his second year with the Pacers. “Did he cross the line? Did he come at the officials in an appropriate way? Heck yeah. He was a fan favorite and brought energy into the building. He could play; he could back it all up.”
The turning point was a much-written about incident against BYU in 2010 when Henderson appeared to punch BYU’s Jackson Emery (if you watch this video, it looks more like a flop than anything).
“I thought the BYU incident took a little steam out of him,” Boylen said. “I think he was treated unfairly.” One paper declared Henderson the Villain of the Mountain West Conference.
After returning from suspension, Henderson torched TCU and New Mexico, but appeared to hit a freshman wall, shooting 8-for-29 in his last four games of the season, scoring single digits in three of those games.
“I did feel like as the season wore on, he got worn down, mentally and physically,” said Boylen, who added that the Utes ran a tight ship – there was a curfew – and encouraged players to “do the right things … I don’t know if [Marshall] liked that much oversight in his life.”
Henderson transferred at season’s end, and released a statement about the program’s strict rules not meshing with his “individualism.”
Said Boylen, who didn’t want to get into details about Henderson’s departure: “As the season went on, he became unhappy. He felt his best option was to leave … I think socially it didn’t work out the way he wanted.”
After leaving Salt Lake City, a grievous mistake in high school came back to haunt Henderson:
According to a statement he gave to the Secret Service, in 2009 as a high school senior, Henderson used $800 of counterfeit money given to him by a friend to buy 59 grams of marijuana in two separate transactions.
Henderson was a freshman at Utah when the Secret Service first contacted him about it.
“I’m like, ‘What? Why are they calling me?’” Henderson said. “They came to Utah and were like, ‘Blah and blah and we got this and surveillance camera,’ and I threw up. That was my first thing, because I thought I was done for. It was scary as hell. But coach (Jim) Boylen helped me. My dad helped me to get through it.”
Henderson was charged with forgery, and was eventually sentenced to probation. A violation of that probation after his transfer from Utah to Texas Tech (which was unrelated) caused Henderson to serve 25 days in jail — plus seven weekends of work release — last spring.
Henderson didn’t stick in Lubbock, and ended up going to Junior College for a year, where he stayed clean and led South Plains College to an undefeated season, scoring 32 points in the title game. Then he landed at Ole Miss – essentially replacing their leading scorer from last year, whose dismissal from the team was epic – where he has two years of eligibility left.
Now, Henderson is tormenting the SEC, and this is his biggest week of the season – after Kentucky, the Rebels travel to Gainesville Saturday for a night game against Florida, the No. 1 team according to Ken Pomeroy.
As for that ballyhooed recruiting class Boylen built? Henderson started a mass exodus (Shawn Glover went to Oral Roberts, and is having a strong season) and Boylen was fired in 2011. As much as he spoke to me glowingly about the wiry chucker from Texas, I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he talked about Henderson leaving. If Henderson stays, is Boylen still coaching at Utah? Boylen said he hadn’t spoke to him since he left, but he had spoken to Henderson’s parents.
“It hurt – it hurt our program,” he said. “We had invested so much in recruiting him and getting him and then to not have him … it was a letdown. But nobody’s bigger than the program.” I mentioned that Henderson wasn’t arrested during his time at Utah. “Just because they’re not arrested doesn’t mean there aren’t other issues.”