Somewhere in the NCAA tournament's video vaults is grainy footage, more than 30 years old, of an undersized guard wearing a No. 11 on his back, his red shorts impossibly short. Isiah Thomas was a once-in-a-generation talent, the kind that longtime Indiana Hoosiers fans thought they’d never see again.
Yogi Ferrell is just 19 years old — too young to have seen Thomas play — but around Bloomington, Ind., he's certainly heard Thomas’s name more than a few times these past few months.
“They say, do you realize what number you’re wearing?” Ferrell said. “Of course I do.”
This weekend, the Hoosiers will once again enter the Sweet 16 with a small, fiery point guard wearing No. 11. Just a freshman, Ferrell could be Indiana’s best point guard since Thomas, an oft-made comparison that has set a high bar for a young talent.
“He’s far and away one of the best players I’ve ever been around, especially at his age,” said Indiana senior Jordan Hulls, who’s played in more games than any Hoosier in school history. “He doesn’t play like a freshman.”
Last week in his tournament debut, Ferrell was undaunted by March’s big stage. He posted 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists in an opening-round win over James Madison. (In 1981, Thomas notched 17 points and seven assists in his tourney debut.)
Two nights later against Temple, Ferrell was held scoreless for the first time this year. He didn’t even attempt a shot in the second half and finished the game with three assists. (In Thomas’s second game, he put up 30 points.)
Sunday’s rough outing? Coaches figure Ferrell has already forgotten it. They’ll look for a sharper performance Thursday when the Hoosiers face No. 4 Syracuse at the Verizon Center.
“He’s just a very mature young man that’s got an extremely short memory,” said Hoosiers Coach Tom Crean. “He just plays, and he moves on.”
Indiana hasn’t played in a national title game since 2002, the year a pint-sized Ferrell was ranked as the nation’s top fourth-grader. He grew up working with private trainers, playing — and living — basketball at all hours, year-round. Ed Schilling, who coached on John Calipari’s staff at Memphis and Massachusetts, began working with Ferrell in middle school, meeting the young teen early in the morning, long before the school bell rang.
“He was real little but, boy, he had a fierce determination and a tremendous attention to detail,” Schilling said, “even at a young age.”
But Ferrell’s family became worried that the young player’s perspective was becoming warped. Kevin Ferrell Sr., who had coached his son’s summer-league teams, decided to pull Yogi off the AAU circuit for two summers, unconcerned about how the move would affect his status in the nebulous recruiting world.
“At the time, I didn’t really want that,” the younger Ferrell said last week. “I was a kid — I wanted to go and play basketball. Now that I look at it, I know he made the right choice.”
Though Ferrell says he “kind of went back to being a normal kid,” he still played a lot of basketball, focusing his efforts more on improving his game and not impressing the coaches or scouting services sitting in the bleachers.
“Sometimes these kids get that early success and they’re spoiled by it,” Schilling said. “They get lazy. They think everyone owes them something. What it really did for Yogi, it gave him a taste of what it is to be the best, and it whetted his appetite for more success.”
In high school, Ferrell resumed playing AAU ball and ran the offense at Park Tudor in Indianapolis, where Schilling had become head coach. Ferrell wasn’t even the leading scorer his senior year — he didn’t need to be — but blossomed into a McDonald’s all-American. A five-star prospect, he became one of Indiana’s most anticipated recruits. Crean says Ferrell reported to Bloomington eager but not entitled.
“I like that he’s always learning,” the Hoosiers coach said. “I think it’s real easy, when you’ve had a lot of the success at the age that he’s had, to really become locked into this-is-how-it-is, and he’s not like that.”
Though he’s wearing Thomas’s old number and there’s no shortage of expectations among Hoosier fans, Ferrell’s role is a bit different. As a freshman, Thomas averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists on 51 percent shooting. In Ferrell’s first season, playing with at least a couple of potential NBA lottery picks, he averaged 7.8 points, 4.2 assists and shot 40 percent from the field.
For the Hoosiers to continue their run in the tournament, Ferrell doesn’t need to score as much as Thomas did three decades earlier. The young guard is surrounded by scorers, and his job is to run the offense — set the pace, control the ball, make sure the team gets into its sets.
“He just does so many different things better now,” said Hoosier sophomore Cody Zeller, who previously played with Ferrell on Indiana’s AAU circuit. “He runs our team. The biggest thing is just throughout the season he’s continued to improve. It’s tough to kind of avoid hitting the freshman wall there that people talk about.”