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Once A Prodigy, Indiana's Yogi Ferrell Is Looking To Build A March Madness Legacy

Yogi Ferrell has been touted as a basketball prodigy since he was in fourth grade. After four years of progress at Indiana, he's aiming to secure his legacy.

by Tim Casey
Mar 25 2016, 2:14pm

Photo by Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

Early in the 2008-09 college basketball season, then-Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens took time out of his busy schedule to attend a nearby high school game. Darnell Archey, a former Butler guard, was coaching at the Park Tudor School in Indianapolis and had told Stevens about a small-but-talented freshman named Yogi Ferrell, who Archey thought would be a perfect fit at Butler. There was a catch, though. Ferrell had been receiving an enormous amount of local attention. Since elementary school.

Stevens, who is now coaching the Boston Celtics, couldn't convince Ferrell to play for Butler. Instead, Ferrell wound up at Indiana, which is always the destiny of the Hoosier state's best prep players. For all the hype, Ferrell has delivered, become one of the best players in school history during his four years in Bloomington. That likely doesn't surprise Stevens, and it sure doesn't surprise Archey.

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"The first time [Stevens] watched him, I remember him telling me, 'That kid's got something about him,'" Archey told VICE Sports. "He wasn't an extremely vocal kid on the court that early, but when you're around the game as much as Brad Stevens and all these college coaches are, there's an 'It' factor. Even though Yogi was 5-foot-8, he had 'It,' whatever that might be. You could just tell that if this kid keeps loving the game like he does, he's gonna be a special player."

He has, and he has. Ferrell has played in an Indiana-record 136 games, all of them starts, during his four years in Bloomington. He ranks first in career assists (629), second in three-pointers made (268) and seventh in points (1,961). He can add to those totals on Friday night, when No. 5 seed Indiana faces No. 1 seed North Carolina in a Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia. If the Hoosiers can pull off the upset, it would be the furthest they've advanced in the NCAA Tournament since Ferrell arrived. It would also be another memorable moment for someone who has been around basketball almost since birth.

As a toddler, Ferrell sat in a crib in the corner of gyms while his father, Kevin, played in games at the YMCA or in Gus Macker tournaments. When he was five years old, he joined a YMCA team that his father coached. Before one game, Kevin Ferrell and his friend whose son was on an opposing team were jawing about whose child was a better player.

And a child-sized person shall lead them. — Photo by Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

"I told Yogi the kid's name and I pointed out to him and I said, 'That kid said he's better than you,'" Kevin Ferrell told VICE Sports. "He just kind of looked at me and said, 'I got him, Dad.' I'm not gonna say he was out there (being) Dennis Rodman or anything like that. But the amount of effort that he put in, the tenacity, the way that he really wanted to shut that kid down, I knew at that point that he had something already inside of him."

Soon, others noticed. Hoop Scoop, a recruiting website, named Ferrell as the best fourth grader in the country in March 2004. A year later, the Indianapolis Star ran a long story about Ferrell and the pitfalls of ranking kids at such a young age.

During those years, Ferrell's AAU team dominated local competition and never finished outside the top four of national tournaments. He was almost always the top player on the floor, but by the time Ferrell was in seventh grade, his father had seen his son became complacent and overconfident, and so had him quit AAU ball. Instead, the Ferrells played pickup ball together and worked on skills. "I sensed a little arrogance in him that needed to be checked," Kevin Ferrell said. "He didn't want to work as hard. His head was getting a little bit swollen."

The break ended up being a positive for Ferrell. After starting at point guard during his first two years at Park Tudor School, he returned to the traveling circuit during the spring of his sophomore year when he joined the prestigious Indiana Elite AAU team. By then, Kevin Ferrell thought his son had matured and could handle the spotlight again. "You hear of so many kids that are good at an early age that they just don't pan out," Ferrell said. "A lot of it is more mental than anything. He didn't like it, but I think he believed in his father."

Ferrell verbally committed to Indiana as a junior in high school in November 2010 in an on-court announcement before Park Tudor's season opener. He then led the school to consecutive state titles as a junior and senior, became a McDonald's All-American and was considered among the top 25 national recruits in his class. It was where he was always supposed to be, but Ferrell took the scenic route.

When Victor Oladipo congratulates you by shoving you. It's good. — Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoosiers entered Ferrell's freshman season ranked first in the nation and inserted him as the starting point guard from the first day of practice. "By his sophomore year (at Park Tudor), we were pretty sure he was the kind of guy that we really wanted to run our team," Indiana associate head coach Tim Buckley said. "He has a powerful mind. When he puts his mind to something, he can do it. He doesn't play like he's small. He plays big, he battles, he fights. He's a winner above everything else."

During Ferrell's first year in college, he was a pass-first point guard on a team that featured future NBA lottery picks Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. Indiana spent the entire season in the top 10 and entered the NCAA tournament as the top seed in the East before losing in the Sweet 16. With Oladipo and Zeller gone the next season, Ferrell became the focal point of the offense, but the Hoosiers went 17-15, finished eighth in the Big 10, and didn't qualify for the postseason.

After losing in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, the Hoosiers were ranked No. 15 in this year's preseason AP poll. They then lost two of three games in the Maui Invitational in late November and got blown out by Duke 94-74 on December 2. Still, they regrouped, captured the Big Ten regular season championship and won their first two NCAA tournament games.

Ferrell had 20 points, 10 assists and two turnovers against Chattanooga in the first round and 18 points, four assists and just one turnover in an impressive second round victory over Kentucky. For the third consecutive season, Ferrell is leading the team in scoring, at 17.1-points-per-game, and assists-per-game, at 5.6. He is also more of a vocal leader on the court than he was in his early days.

He only looks worried. — Photo by Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

"Yogi is a very, very smart player—a smart person, but he's a very, very smart player," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "And sometimes when guys are really smart they don't always understand how much you have to share your knowledge with your teammates. And he does an excellent job of that, and I think in turn he's been impacted so much by them not only because the other guys are talented, but because he feels that confidence back from them, because he sees it come out on the floor."

To become a true Indiana legend, Ferrell will need to lead the Hoosiers deep into the NCAA tournament. This is not news to him: a copy of the April 6, 1981 Sports Illustrated cover hangs on a wall in Indiana's locker room. It shows then-sophomore Isaiah Thomas cutting down the net in Philadelphia's Spectrum after Indiana's national title victory over North Carolina.

On Friday night, in the same city, another Indiana point guard wearing Thomas's 11 on his jersey hopes to lead the Hoosiers to a victory over the Tar Heels. The stakes are lower than they were 35 years ago; after all, a win would only get the Hoosiers to the Elite Eight. Still, having grown up in Indiana, and having been compared to the state's greats since he was in elementary school, Ferrell understands the history of the program.

"I know all about that significance," Ferrell said of wearing number 11 and playing in Philadelphia. "I know Isiah Thomas did the same thing I'm trying to do now—win a national championship. I'm just trying to instill the will into my team just like the way he did back in '81 and just try to push our team to win." It's all a lot easier said than done, but after spending much of his life chasing this moment, Ferrell is as ready as anyone could be.