By CLIFF BRUNT
I have been eagerly anticipating tonight’s matchup of Indianapolis point guards all season: Purdue’s Ronnie Johnson vs. Indiana’s Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell.
Both Ferrell and Johnson were on the AP’s all-state first team last year and have been pushed into the starting lineups for their college teams as freshmen. Both are having success, yet they get out of control sometimes because they haven’t fully gained control of their gifts. Both are limited only by their heights – both are listed at 6-foot. Yogi is a better shooter and he’s stronger. Ronnie might be quicker and I think he’s a slightly better defender. This will be our first chance to see who is better overall.
Johnson jumped out at me early on because he was so fast that I could barely catch his jersey number. Apparently, there is a No. 3 attached to that streak of black and gold. Ferrell caught my attention with his maturity and his physical readiness for the college level. It didn’t take long for this old-school fan of John Stockton and Magic Johnson to realize Jan. 30 would be a fun night. The team that gets the best of this matchup could well win the game.
Let’s start with a statistical comparison of what each has done so far:
PPG 7.3 9.2
FG pct. .385 .353
3-pt pct. .286 .138
FT pct. .780 .602
Rebounds 2.9 3.8
Assists 4.6 3.6
Turnovers 2.0 2.5
Steals 0.9 1.1
Now, let’s break each individual’s season down.
Ferrell immediately moved into Indiana’s starting lineup, a big deal when you play for the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Early on, he made some mistakes, but his talent outweighed them. He showed up big late in regulation against Butler, hitting the jumper that forced overtime and hit a three at the end of the first half against Michigan State last Sunday. He likes big moments and doesn’t shy away from big shots. He has supreme confidence in his ability to make shots and beat opponents off the dribble. He’s relatively short, but his physical strength and ability to make plays while airborne make him a tough player to guard both inside and outside. He forces things just a bit too much sometimes, but again, he’s good enough to get away with it, and his teammates are good enough to bail him out.
Johnson got off to a rough start this season. He entered the season as a starter but was benched after the third game of the season against Villanova. He averaged nearly four turnovers in his first three games. He came off the bench the next six games and was a better player when he returned to the starting lineup. Purdue is 7-3 since he rejoined the starting lineup.
Johnson’s shot selection continues to be a bit of an issue. He also isn’t a pure shooter, but rather a scorer who is used to being able to beat people off the dribble, so he sometimes takes bad shots that he made in high school but don’t work against bigger, quicker college defenders. Perhaps Johnson’s biggest problem is that he wants to get out and run on a team that needs to control the tempo to win. Johnson can succeed at a slower pace, but he will need to be willing to give up some of his game to do it. With a post as talented as A.J. Hammons, a controlled tempo is a must. If he’s smart, he’ll feed Hammons often because those NBA scouts who look at Hammons will see the man setting him up, too.
Johnson is showing his upside lately. He’s taking fewer threes, his defense is improving and he does a better job of keeping the ball moving than he did earlier in the season. In the past five games, he has averaged 10.2 points per game, and he’s averaging 4.4 assists to 2.6 turnovers per contest.
Johnson’s free throw shooting could be a problem if the game is close. The Boilermakers will need him to be on the floor, and the Hoosiers know he is a 60 percent free-throw shooter, and just 48 percent in the month of January.
Tonight will be the first time I see Ferrell matched up with someone who can keep up with him. I’m interested to see how he handles that.
I would say at this point that it’s a dead heat. Ferrell was better early, but that was in part because the team around him was better, affording him the luxury to fit in while figuring it out. As Purdue has progressed, Johnson has too.
Tonight will tell a lot about Johnson’s maturity. He will need to be aggressive without forcing things, the same way Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson was when the Badgers upset the Hoosiers in Bloomington. If he can bother Ferrell, he can disrupt Indiana’s offensive flow and Purdue can pull the upset.
I don’t know which one is better. It’s too close to call. I can’t wait to see it play out.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl