PHILADELPHIA — Great point guard play is critical to success in the NCAA Tournament, and that means North Carolina versus Indiana on Friday night in the Sweet 16 round of the East Regional should be like watching a fast-paced basketball symphony conducted by a pair of senior maestros — Marcus Paige of the Tar Heels and Yogi Ferrell of the Hoosiers.
Ferrell was the catalyst when fifth-seeded Indiana (27-7) took out Kentucky and point guard Tyler Ulis in the second round. Paige has shown signs of recovering from a shooting slump and has top-seeded North Carolina (30-4) rolling. What makes it even more intriguing is that Ferrell and Paige have faced each other in AAU ball since they were in ninth grade.
“Can’t let him catch the ball,” Ferrell said yesterday. “When he catches the ball, anything can happen. He can dish it off to anybody, score at will, can shoot it from NBA range. So the main thing with him is you limit a guy’s touches, you limit his attempts.”
Paige said he expects backcourt partner Joel Berry to be matched against Ferrell at the outset, but he knows he and Ferrell will cross paths plenty during the game. “He’s really explosive and quick and he can also shoot a pretty nice pull-up jumper,” Paige said of Ferrell. “He’s the guy that’s talented enough to get his over the course of the game, but you’ve got to contest everything and keep him out of the paint because he’s so good at getting shots for other guys as well.
“This year, he’s become a really good scorer. He’s become a complete guard. That’s why he’s having an All-American season.”
The two faced each other once previously in college as freshmen when the Tar Heels visited Indiana and got thumped, 83-59, but that was long ago. Indiana coach Tom Crean and UNC coach Roy Williams said their point guards have grown most as leaders since then.
“Yogi has been a known player in the Midwest since probably fifth grade,” Crean said. “He’s done whatever it takes for his team to be successful, and this year, he’s at a high.”
Williams recounted how Paige, who is an academic All-American, has evolved over the years from being thrust into the starting lineup as a freshman to becoming a big-time scorer as a sophomore and playing through an injury as a junior while also being the defensive stopper on the perimeter. This season, Williams said, “The ball just hasn’t gone in the basket for him, but he’s been fantastic defensively and still continued to be a great leader.”
Williams said Paige’s reputation as an offensive threat alone creates openings for teammates. “He does so many things for us,” he said, “and I can’t put a value on it by looking at his points or his steals or his assists or anything because he’s the leader of the team.”
With Paige and Ferrell running the show, excitement is guaranteed. “Not a lot of teams like to run with us,” Paige said. “So we’ll look forward to a team that’s not afraid to push the tempo.”