Florida vs. Mississippi, Game Thread: Gators looking for No. 1 in Oxford

USA TODAY Sports

Florida took one of its most painful losses last year to Mississippi, and it was exacerbated by the cartoonish villainy of Marshall Henderson. To prevent their most painful loss of 2014 — their first — the Gators must stop Henderson's Rebels, not just him.

Let's be clear about one thing: Marshall Henderson was better in the first game Florida and Mississippi played in 2013 than in the one the Rebels actually won.

For all the fretting that has been done over the last few days in the Gators' basketball fortress and in conversations between Florida fans, that fact — the one that reminds that Henderson was beyond a revelation in Gainesville in January 2013, pouring in 25 points and sinking seven threes, each more improbable than the last, though Mississippi lost by 14, while he had "just" 21 points and just three triples against the Gators in Mississippi's SEC Tournament final upset — has been lost in advance of the Gators' high noon showdown with the Rebels in Oxford this Saturday (CBS or CBS online).

I's easy to lose it, really, because Henderson's rep, like that of Johnny Manziel — another SEC stallion that Florida broke before its most legendary rides — got its biggest boost based on him chomping the Gators and Gator Chomping in that game, and boosting his Rebels to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Never mind that Murphy Holloway led Ole Miss with 23 points on that afternoon, bullying the Gators inside, or that Holloway's Offensive Rating, a titanic 145, dwarfed Henderson's 98 despite Marshall making all six of his free throws, or that Henderson had seven turnovers while being hounded by Scottie Wilbekin, giving him 11 in two games against the Gators. The narrative of Mississippi in 2013 was FEAR MARSHALL, and it has persisted into 2014.

It's wrong, even if Henderson is more important to this year's team than last year's. Henderson might not even be the Rebels' best player.

Henderson's still a unique and indomitable talent, certainly. He makes 37.1 percent of his threes, up from 35.0 percent last season, and has largely weaned himself off less efficient two-pointers, a fine decision given the wretched 36.6 percent of twos he's made this year. He is once again making above 80 percent of his free throws, even though he's shot far fewer (96 through 23 games in 2013-14, 188 in 36 contests in 2012-13) than he did.

And Henderson is even more trigger-happy than he was, shooting on 34.7 percent of his possessions, good for 11th in the country. Nine of the nation's top 10 in that category are small-school stars who soak up all of their team's possessions for good reason; the 10th is T.J. Warren, who may as well be for his N.C. State Wolfpack. This is Marshall Henderson as Chuck Person, even more than he was in 2012-13.

But Mississippi is not as good as it was, and there is less reason to fear the Rebels than there was, because Henderson lacks the supporting cast he had last season, and Mississippi plays slightly differently. Henderson can't dish it to Holloway or Reginald Buckner, the frontcourt players who balanced the Rebels' heave-heavy backcourt attack, and Demarco Cox, Sebastian Saiz, and Aaron Jones are inferior substitutes in every respect but rim protection. LaDarius White is little improved from the ancillary option he was in 2012-13; Derrick Millinghaus has regressed.

The Rebels might be better served if Jarvis Summers, who makes 46.3 percent of his threes and boasts a better Offensive Rating than Henderson, or Anthony Perez, a matchup nightmare of a tweener forward whose shot and spins are equally dangerous, got a greater share of the shots, but that might interfere with Marshall being Marshall, and Henderson draws enough attention that it's likely facilitating Summers and Perez, among others. Instead, Henderson takes more shots, and the efficiency of Summers and Perez gets matched by his hot nights or married and marred by his cold ones.

And yet Mississippi is slower, largely because yielding offensive rebounds on a staggering 37.2 percent of its possessions forces the Rebels to defend again instead of running. Mississippi's allowed opponents to board 35 percent of their misses or better during a 2-5 stretch over its last seven games, and the Rebels only saw Kentucky, the nation's best offensive rebounding team, once over those contests.

Mississippi is The Marshall Henderson LP again, but this is more like The Marshall Henderson LP 2, an ill-advised attempt to recapture past glory. M

eanwhile, Florida is recapturing past glory, and rising to new heights.

Florida is not Kentucky, but the Gators rebound ferociously, ranking 28th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and have used that edge on the boards to keep them in games when their shots haven't fallen. It may be the difference this afternoon in Oxford — or Michael Frazier II, due for a big game, might match or eclipse Henderson's sniping.

Or Patric Young might beast the undersized Rebels up front. Or Casey Prather might slither by an Ole Miss defense that doesn't seem to have a player that can quite match his size, athleticism, and savvy. Wilbekin, quiet in both meetings with Mississippi last year, might go off, especially given his fine form of late; Dorian Finney-Smith might rebound from a poor spate of play against a team that definitely doesn't have an athlete of his caliber.

Florida has a team again, a year after the Gators' balance and versatility made that SEC Tournament final a clash of team constructions, and that team is again among the nation's best, poised to take the No. 1 spot in the polls from Syracuse after the Orange's loss to Boston College earlier this week. That team will surely be challenged by the Rebels before a raucous crowd in the Tad Smith Coliseum on this Saturday, especially given how leaky its perimeter defense can be, and how eager Henderson and the Rebels are to launch bombs.

But that team probably won't lose, despite the program's history with heights. It hasn't lost in 2014, after all — and that, not fear based on flinches from years and years ago, seems like the thing to remember about this squad.

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