BLOOMINGTON — Indiana might have the most celebrated player in college basketball in 7-footer Cody Zeller.
The Hoosiers have a possible NBA lottery pick in forward Victor Oladipo.
Yet, tonight, when Wisconsin (12-4 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) visits Assembly Hall for a 9 p.m. tipoff between the remaining teams unbeaten in Big Ten play, the focus might be on freshman point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell.
Ferrell’s impact in his first season of college basketball after arriving from Indianapolis’ Park Tudor High School is undeniable. When Indiana (15-1, 3-0) appeared to be running No. 8-ranked Minnesota out of the arena in the first half Saturday, the 6-foot Ferrell was at his best.
The Ferrell file
Name: Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell
Position: Point guard
Size: 6 foot, 178 pounds
High School: Park Tudor, Indianapolis
Statistics: 16 starts, 6.6 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 27.3 minutes per game, 84 assists, 33 turnovers
He had seven assists in that first half, eight points, no turnovers and a steal. Even more important, his penetration with the dribble left the Gophers’ defense vulnerable and set up all of Indiana’s scoring weapons. Indiana was seven of 11 from the 3-point arc, and the Hoosiers shot 65.6 percent from the floor.
“He’s just such a tough guy to guard,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said of Ferrell. “His penetration and kick like that (is so good), when you’ve got a guy like Jordan Hulls who can really stroke it. ... We had some breakdowns, but he’s so quick he can make you think he is going that way and get a guy
off balance. That was huge for them to be able to penetrate and kick the ball.”
Wisconsin, which has won six consecutive games, is certain to be studying tape of Indiana’s second half against Minnesota. In those 20 minutes, Ferrell had one assist, two turnovers and five points. Indiana’s scoring went from 52 points in the first half to 36 in the second half.
Ferrell still was playing well, but Smith changed his team’s focus. Instead of allowing Ferrell to pick the Gophers apart defensively, they went on the attack.
“We didn’t attack it correctly,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said of the Gophers’ pressure. “We got caught up in getting it down the court rather than how we were going to get it down the court. We didn’t do a great job with our spacing. We didn’t do a good job with the inbounds. I’ll blame myself for not having enough screening, because they were physical.”
No matter how Wisconsin decides to defend Indiana tonight, Bo Ryan’s team will see a lot of Ferrell. Against Minnesota, Ferrell played a game-high 37 minutes, five minutes more than Zeller and seven minutes more than Oladipo.
Crean’s confidence in his freshman is apparent.
“We knew he was extremely well coached (in high school),” Crean said. “Just a huge winner. I think the biggest thing is his defense. He played so much zone in high school, and they were very good at it. That’s why you rarely have to remind him of anything when we play zone. His on-ball defense, his ability to attack those things have really transferred to the collegiate level. The speed of the game never has been an issue with him. Now he is getting more confidence, and it makes him that much better.
“He is going to get nothing but better. His jumper is going to get more consistent. He has great vision. But his biggest steps are like any young player. There has got to be more vocal leadership. He leads by example, and he leads with his defense; but he has to get more verbal. That’s the next step for him.”
Although Ferrell gives Indiana a new dimension with his quickness at point guard, Crean said Indiana’s better ball movement and flow on offense this season is a team accomplishment.
“I think there is balance for a reason,” Crean said. “Our guys aren’t dominating the Big Ten Player of the Week, Big Ten Freshman of the Week mantels, because it is going to be rare that it is one guy with major points. We have got a lot of balance scoring. I think we are understanding two things. Everybody is going to score the more points that we score. But it doesn’t happen if we don’t defend and score off our defense, and it doesn’t happen if we don’t rebound.
“Yogi has got a lot to do with how the ball moves. Jordan (Hulls) does. There might be somebody as good passing the ball from the forward position, but I’ve never seen anybody pass it better than Cody (Zeller).”
Tonight, the Hoosiers face a team that also prides itself on offensive balance. Wisconsin forward/center Jared Berggren leads the team at 13.4 points per game and 6.4 rebounds a game. Forward Ryan Evans averages 11.4 points and 7.8 rebounds, and guard Ben Brust averages 11.1 points and 6.3 rebounds.
The Badgers have beaten Penn State, Nebraska and Illinois to start conference action and now play their second road game at Indiana. The win against Nebraska was on the road.
The match-up offers a contrast of sorts. Indiana averages 87.1 points a game offensively, while Wisconsin gives up 54.7 points per game.