KNOXVILLE – As a player at Purdue (1991-95), Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin always guarded the opponents’ best scorer.
He never had to ask to do it. It was understood that he would.
Martin is still trying to install that defense-first mentality in his second year of leading the Vols. It was particularly tough for him to see Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson go off on his team in a 92-74 victory for the Rebels over the Vols on Jan. 9 of this year.
Marshall let the Vols, and their fans, hear about it too. The 6-2 junior guard pranced around the court as the Rebels pulled away at the end, letting the fans know that he intended to score 30 points. He finished with 32.
"I hope so,” Martin said when asked if he thinks the Vols will respond to Henderson’s performance and antics when the Vols travel to play Ole Miss on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). “The guy was scoring the basketball – he was making plays. … I hate being on the other side, but he is a competitive basketball player. You have to step up to the plate."
Thus far, no player has stepped up and volunteered to guard the SEC’s leading scorer (18.9 ppg) and the reigning SEC Player of the Week. Martin said he would like to see one player take on that challenge, but also plans to use at least three players – Skylar McBee, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson, who might be the Vols’ best perimeter defender, to help neutralize the sharp-shooting Henderson.
“I thought he was more of a catch-and-shoot guy watching him on film because on the games that we saw he is the guy that does a good job of shot faking,” Martin said of Henderson. “He makes his free throws, he knows how to get you on his hip and shoot. He makes good decisions with the basketball. He is a very crafty ball player. He is 6-2 and slight frame, but he knows how to get shot fakes and get fouled.”
He knows how to get under opponents’ skin as well. Dubbed as the “Mountain West’s newest villain” in 2010 by a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun while playing at Utah, Henderson has a brashness about him that can be irritating to those trying to guard him.
Freshman Derek Reese thinks the best way to avoid Henderson’s antics is to play sound defense that will prevent him from piling up gaudy numbers like he did in the last outing.
“The team was really embarrassed by that and the situation that happened,” he said. “We knew we didn’t come out and do what we were supposed to do as a team. That’s what we need to focus on next time.”
Scheduling quirk forces quick rematch: Martin isn’t a huge fan of the fact that the Vols and Rebels are meeting again just a couple of weeks after facing off in Knoxville.
“I like to mix it up, play different teams, and then it comes around,” he said. “That is what I am used to. It is part of it. You have to make adjustments and deal with it."
The Vols will also host a rematch against Alabama on Saturday exactly two weeks after travelling to Tuscaloosa to face the Tide on Jan. 12.
Reese bulking back up: Reese’s injured shoulder is back to 100 percent, but Martin said he lost at least 15 pounds of muscle during his rehabilitation, which took place in the fall.
The 6-8 combo guard/forward is currently at 212 pounds and hopes to bulk up to 220 after falling closer to 200 during his rehab.
“I haven’t been too confident about battling inside because I lost a lot of strength,” Reese said. “That’s what I need to do. I need to be physical. I’m working on it each day.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga