Yogi Ferrell returns to spotlight

A role player last season, the sophomore point guard will look to lead for Indiana

Updated: November 5, 2013, 1:52 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It won't make a highlight montage, because it happened in the anonymity of practice.

There was no dunk or no-look pass, nothing to make anyone's jaw drop. Just a routine jumper at the top of the key, simple and clean. Yet Tom Crean and the rest of his Indiana staff reacted as if Yogi Ferrell just won the national championship.

And he didn't even take the jumper.

"It was a 1-second, short-clock situation, and we haven't really put in any plays yet,'' Crean said. "[Assistant coach] Tim Buckley is coaching one team and [assistant coach] Steve McClain the other. Yogi takes the clipboard from Tim and he draws up the winning play.''

[+] EnlargeYogi Ferrell
AP Photo/Bruce SchwartzmanYogi Ferrell is the only starter to return from Indiana's 2012-13 team.

Floor general, extension of the coach, quarterback -- pick your clichéd descriptor of a point guard and it's bound to infer the responsibility inherent in the job.

From Derron Hobbs at winless Grambling State to Chris Jones at defending national champion Louisville, you won't find a guy running the point who doesn't have a lot riding on his shoulders this season.

In a handful of places, the pressure is even greater.

Count Bloomington, Ind., among those stops.

The trials and toils of rebirthing Indiana basketball officially ended last season when the Hoosiers started the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, won 29 games and went to the Sweet 16. The candy-striped pants have their swagger back, the dark days appear to be forever banished.

But that only begets a new challenge. The Hoosiers open this season without four of last season's starters (including two who became lottery picks), without more than 3,000 career points, with eight freshmen and yet with the same expectations. The Indiana fan base, so patient while Crean went about rebuilding the program, is back in full-throated force. This can't be a rebuilding year for the Hoosiers; it has to be reloading.

Which takes us back to Ferrell. A year ago he was the maestro of a well-strung orchestra. With Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls to surround him, directing traffic was easy, his own leadership unnecessary.

Now Ferrell, only a sophomore himself, is the man in charge.

"He has to be absolutely the best in the country at making his teammates better if he's going to make this team great,'' Crean said. "He's young, but he's been in the limelight a long time and he's played a lot of basketball. But now the limelight isn't just about 'how do I get better?' That's the challenge for Yogi.''

Crean isn't exaggerating when he says Ferrell has been in the limelight a long time. Back in 2004, a recruiting publication tabbed Ferrell the No. 1 player in the country … among fifth graders. That's really more of a condemnation on the ridiculousness of such lists than a reflection of Ferrell's elementary school skills, but once the tag was made, it was hard to reconcile, especially for a 10-year-old.

The sudden notoriety, not surprisingly, turned Ferrell's head, twisted it enough that his dad decided the only way to curb the instant celebrity and his ego was to pull him off the stage.

[+] EnlargeYogi Ferrell
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCoach Tom Crean needs Ferrell to take the lead this season.

"He took me out of AAU in seventh and eighth grade,'' Ferrell said. "I didn't like it one bit. I fought him on it, complained, but he didn't care. I didn't understand it. Now I do.''

Kevin Ferrell Sr. remains the toughest coach his son ever had. Tougher than Ed Schilling at Park Tudor in high school, tougher even than Crean. In the summers, the two would hit the gym for hours, starting in the evening, not leaving sometimes until the middle of the night.

From all of that tutelage emerged a kid who, amazingly, lived up to his advanced hype. The top-ranked fifth-grader became the 24th-best high school senior and the third-ranked point guard prospect. Ferrell's commitment to Indiana wasn't quite on par with Zeller's, viewed more as a divine intervention, but it was nonetheless big thanks to his in-state roots.

Still, he had the luxury of flying under the radar as a freshman. He was good, averaging 7.6 points and 4.1 assists per game, but now with the lights directly on him again, is he ready for his close-up?

What made last year's team so special is that Crean didn't have to do all of the talking. The Hoosiers were a combination of their older players – with Oladipo providing the personality, Hulls the blue-collar work ethic and Watford and Zeller the quiet leadership.

Now, Crean has a team in search not just of an identity, but also for a player to provide it. Ferrell is more Zeller than Oladipo, quiet and steady, not flashy and brazen. His new teammates didn't even know his real name.

"Jeremy [Hollowell] was in the hot tub and he's calling, 'Hey Kevin, Kevin,' because Yogi wasn't answering,'' freshman Stan Robinson said. "I was like, 'Oh, he's Kevin.'

"Yeah, I got schooled on it maybe just a few weeks ago,'' freshman Troy Williams said. "Somebody off campus, a fan said, 'Hey, how's Kevin?' I'm like, 'Who's Kevin?'"

Crean knows he can't make Ferrell into something he's not, but he figures he can nudge him. Consequently, when the Hoosiers first gathered for practice, he asked Ferrell and Will Sheehey to explain and demonstrate the drills, and then to make sure they were executed properly.

"When you don't have a force-of-nature leader, you have to build it,'' Crean said. "There are things he just has to be able to do. Your point guard has to have a different checklist than everyone else, so my expectations are higher for Yogi, yes.''

Which is why Crean was downright giddy when Ferrell, unprompted, swiped the clipboard from Buckley and got to drawing. Here was what a point guard should do: take charge, command attention, be decisive, be selfless and lead.

The play, it should be noted, had three different options, including the winner – sophomore Hanner Mosquera-Perea bouncing off a screen to score.

Chances are between now and the end of the season, Yogi Ferrell will put together some highlight plays that make "SportsCenter" or make the Assembly Hall faithful go crazy.

The most important play, though, might end up being the one that no one saw.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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