During a break in Kentucky’s romp over Stony Brook on Thursday, the video boards in Wells Fargo Arena showed the TNT studio show. Charles Barkley was already enthused about two elite point guards going head to head.
“That is going to be must-see TV,” Barkley said.
Grant Hill, an analyst for Turner who will work the CBS telecast, said that Ulis vs. Ferrell adds something special to this marquee competition between two of college basketball’s royalty programs.
“That’s one of those matchups you look forward to as a fan,” Hill said Friday. “As a fan of good basketball.”
Ulis, the rare player to win the Southeastern Conference’s Player and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season, broke the school record for assists in a season Thursday.
Teammate Isaiah Briscoe summed up Ulis’ do-it-all importance well. “More than anything, he’s dragging us across the finish line,” he said.
Ferrell, who became the first Indiana player since Calbert Cheaney in the early 1990s to be named first-team all-Big Ten two straight seasons, holds similar sway for his team.
It’s not street ball, so you can’t get caught up in a duel. It’s not what we’re out there thinking. I’m trying to win the game for my team.
“We basically follow his lead with everything we do,” teammate Robert Johnson said. “He sets the tone for us and he sets the table.”
While the mind conjures basketball’s version of the new movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, neither superhero embraced the idea of a duel.
“It’s not street ball, so you can’t get caught up in a duel,” Ulis said. “It’s not what we’re out there thinking. I’m trying to win the game for my team.”
Ferrell recoiled from even the suggestion of getting inspiration from the matchup.
“Not at all,” he said. “They’ve got five guys. If coach wants to put me on the five-man, I’ll guard him. That’s basically it. I’m not looking for any type of matchup.”
That would make Ferrell, a senior who has been highly touted since a recruiting service named him the nation’s best fourth-grade player in 2004, a minority of one.
Even Ulis conceded that the matchup excites him.
“It does make me focus a little more defensively,” he said. “I understand he’s a good player. He’s a big part of their team, so I have to be able to stop him.”
They’ve got five guys. If coach wants to put me on the five-man, I’ll guard him. That’s basically it. I’m not looking for any type of matchup.
Kentucky’s game with Ole Miss on Jan. 2 showed how a matchup can inspire Ulis. Stefan Moody was the red towel waving in the UK point guard’s face. Moody had one assist and five turnovers in the game, while Ulis flirted with a triple double (20 points, 10 assists, six steals) as the Wildcats won easily.
“Tyler loves taking on challenges like that,” teammate Dominique Hawkins said. “It’s going to be a great game because of those two. Everybody is hyping it up because it’s two great point guards going against each other.”
Hill said he faced a similar scenario when he starred for Duke in the early 1990s.
“I went through it with ‘Big Dog,’” he said, meaning Glenn Robinson of Purdue. “The lead-up was all about the matchup. I tried to guard against it. And I think these guys will as well in not making it a personal battle.
“There is such a thing as win the battle, and lose the war. It’s ultimately about winning and advancing.”
Grant saw neither Ulis nor Ferrell succumbing to human nature and trying to top each other.
“They’re winners,” he said. “When you’re a winner, it’s about winning. I don’t think I’d be too worried about that.”
This was on display in Thursday’s first-round games.
Ulis steadied Kentucky early against Stony Brook. He finished with 10 points and seven assists, and keyed a defensive hounding that caused the Seawolves’ Carson Puriefoy to make only three of 17 shots.
Afterward, Stony Brook Coach Steve Pikiell echoed a sentiment voiced by opposing coaches all season when he said, “Tyler Ulis is a one-man wrecking crew.”
Ferrell, who will break Jordan Hulls’ Indiana record of 135 starts, has scored 1,943 points. His first name is Kevin. His mother, Libby, gave him the nickname because his appetite was like the cartoon character, Yogi Bear.
Ferrell’s 20-point, 10-assist, four-treys performance against Chattanooga on Thursday commanded Hawkins’ attention.
“He looked terrific when he was pushing the break and pulling up for threes as well,” Hawkins said. “Hopefully, they don’t have it going when they’re in transition against us.”
Ferrell returned to Indiana for his senior season to, as he put it, “bring it back to its greater glory days.”
Maybe not so coincidentally, Ferrell wears the same No. 11 that Isiah Thomas wore in leading Indiana to the 1981 national championship.
“He’s a competitor … ,” teammate Collin Hartman said. “He showed that tonight, just being a leader and making other guys better. I think that’s what’s going to carry us in this tournament.”
Much the same is said of Ulis. Each will have a say Saturday in how far the other carries his team.
Kentucky vs. Indiana
What: NCAA Tournament East Regional second-round game
Where: Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa
When: 5:15 p.m. EDT
At stake: Winner plays either North Carolina or Providence in the NCAA Sweet 16 on Friday night in Philadelphia.
Records: No. 3 seed Kentucky 27-8, No. 5 seed Indiana 26-7
Series: Kentucky leads 32-24
Last meeting: Kentucky beat Indiana 102-90 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 on March 23, 2012, in Atlanta