Garrett: Players and coaches knew what was at stake. Yes, the Rebels were optimistic, but that optimism was grounded in a harsh reality: Ole Miss, with its mediocre resume, had a lot of work to do as it landed in Nashville for the SEC tournament. Firmly on the bubble, most bracketologists had the Rebels right on the cutline, or among the "last four out," meaning they not only needed to make a deep run in the tournament, but add quality wins to their resume along the way. The general thinking was they had to get to Sunday. In such a scenario, they would have beaten a least one team in the NCAA tournament field, which was needed considering their resume boasted only two top-50 wins prior to the tournament. Of course, they went on to secure the automatic bid, including top-50 wins over Missouri and Florida, taking the decision out of the committee's hands.
2) Marshall Henderson is certainly a polarizing figure. How has he developed at Ole Miss since he transferred? What are his biggest strengths?
Garrett: Marshall Henderson is Marshall Henderson. There is no player like him, on and off the court, in college basketball. Ask head coach Andy Kennedy and he'll tell you the same: as thrilling a player as he can be, he can be equally as frustrating. He is who he is - a gunner with no conscious when on the floor. He'll shoot from anywhere, oftentimes to the dismay of his head coach. Much has been made of his on-the-court theatrics, and understandably so, but his teammates love him and Kennedy has found a nice balance in how far he allows Henderson to go, both with his mouth and his shot selection.
When he's on, he's one of the more prolific scorers in the country. When he's off, he can shoot his team out of a game. Which Henderson shows up Friday will go a long way in determining whether Ole Miss pulls off the upset. But don't for a second think Henderson, who led the SEC in scoring, is only a 3-point shooter. As teams began to key in on him in league play, doubling him or even tripling him at every turn, he adjusted his game and became more of a slasher and passer, all the while keeping with his 3-point stroke. When he sticks to that formula, he's a nightmare for opposing teams.
3) Henderson gets a lot of headlines for his play and antics. How do his teammates enjoy him getting the brunt of the attention and taking the spotlight off them?
Garrett: See above. His teammates love him. Senior leaders Murphy Holloway and Nick Williams encourage Henderson to be Henderson and senior forward Reginald Buckner, not much of a talker, gladly defers to Henderson to act as the unofficial mascot for the team. Henderson loves to play the heel; his teammates support him completely.
4) Murphy Holloway averages nearly a double-double and is one of the best post players in the conference. How has he grown into the player he has despite not playing two seasons ago?
Garrett: Holloway, the SEC's active leader in double-doubles, has been a walking double-double since the minute he stepped foot on campus in 2008-09. He posted six in 17 starts as a freshman, eight in 30 starts as a sophomore and 11 in 30 starts as a junior following a transfer season in 2010-11. His game's never really changed: proficient rebounder, limited offensively. Where he's grown and what has elevated his game from above-average to one of the better players in the SEC is in his efficiency around the basket, as evidenced by the increase in his scoring output year by year.
He's not going to step out and shoot; that's not his game. Rather Holloway will play within 10 feet, as offense for the 6-7 Holloway is derived around the rim - drives to the basket, put-backs, etc. There's been no better season for Holloway than this one. His 56 percent field-goal percentage is tied with his sophomore season for his career best, but the difference is he's taken 100 more shots, and only eight of those were 3s. In short, he's a handful in the block.
5) Ole Miss is seventh in the country in points per game. How much does the Rebels needing to play their style impact whether they win or lose (i.e. can they win without playing fast?)
Garrett: Ole Miss doesn't necessarily need to play fast to win. Really, and this is one writer's opinion, the Rebels are at their best when they're running offense through Holloway and Buckner, arguably the best front-court duo in the SEC. However, Kennedy has long preached an up-tempo style, the same style that served Ole Miss well in overcoming late deficits against Missouri and Florida.
6) What was the season's turning point for the Rebels and how have they changed since then?
Garrett: Without question, a "humiliating" loss, as guard Ladarius White put it, at Mississippi State almost three weeks ago was the turning point for this team. The Bulldogs entered the game having lost 13 games in a row. They were one of, if not the worst, team in the conference. Ole Miss, at the time, was playing for its NCAA tournament life. The Rebels fell flat on their face, suffering their second sub-200 RPI loss of the season, seemingly damaging their resume beyond repair. But what on the surface appeared as the death blow to the Rebels' season turned out to be a galvanizing moment. "The Mississippi State game was an eye-opener for us," Buckner told me Sunday. They reeled off five straight wins to end the season. "We woke up to reality," White would say. Disappointment to confetti. Dashed hopes to an automatic NCAA tournament berth all because of the nightmare in Starkville.
7) What is one area that Ole Miss needs to improve on when it gets into the NCAA tournament?
Garrett: Easy. How the Rebels start games. Throughout the year, Ole Miss has traditionally started slow, only to come roaring back to win. I could list game after game this season, but let's simply recall back to Nashville. Ole Miss trailed by double-digit points at halftime in each of its three games. It took dominant second-half performances for the Rebels to get to where they are now, in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Henderson is a big reason for the slow starts; he takes some time to get going. They won't be afforded that luxury if they expect to beat a quality team in Wisconsin.
8) Where is the one area - besides tempo - that Ole Miss has an advantage over Wisconsin when they meet Friday morning?
Garrett: Wisconsin plays such a methodical brand of basketball. The Badgers, as your readers well know, force opposing teams to play their style. Where Ole Miss has an advantage, and this might be a simplistic view, is in Marshall Henderson. But it's more than just his ability to make 3s or create for his teammates. In those sequences that Wisconsin forces Ole Miss to play its tempo, Henderson is going to take a bad shot. He's taken bad shots all year. But it's when a majority of those bad shots are going in that Henderson, and this Ole Miss offense, becomes next to impossible to defend. Henderson is the wildcard, because on paper, the Badgers have a significant advantage.
9) Prediction for Friday and if you have Ole Miss winning, how far do you have them going in your bracket?
Garrett: A cop-out, sure, but having covered this Jekyll and Hyde team all season, I give up trying to predict the outcome of games. It's a fascinating matchup, especially considering the contrasting styles. All the credit to Ole Miss for finally breaking through the ceiling. Just as easily as the Rebels could be a one-and-done, they could make a deep run. No matter what, it will certainly be a thrilling ride for Ole Miss fans, who've waited a decade to dust off their dancing shoes.