ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The seeds of Yogi Ferrell's motivation were planted on March 28, 2013, inside the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. Four seed Syracuse smothered one seed Indiana with coach Jim Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone defense in a 61-50 victory in the Sweet 16. It was the fewest points the high-powered Hoosiers had scored all season and Ferrell, bothered by the Orange's long, rangy perimeter defenders, was effectively neutralized. The then-freshman point guard was held scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting in 23 minutes.
The loss stung, but Ferrell's disappointment quickly turned into motivation. Ferrell knew he needed to become a better shooter over the offseason and, more important, knew he was willing to put in the time and effort required to do so.
"I don't think there's any question that the way the season ended at Syracuse, and the way that they played him -- especially off ball screens and in the zone -- has helped propel him to making points," said Indiana head coach Tom Crean Thursday at the Big Ten's basketball media day. "In the sense of: he's going to become a better shooter off the dribble, he's going to become a better shooter off the catch, he's going to become even better off the ball screen."
After shooting just 40.3 percent from the field last season and 30.3 percent on threes, the lowest mark among teammates with at least 68 attempts, Ferrell identified a flaw in his shooting stroke while watching film. He said he often released the ball too early on jump shots, which threw off his timing. Once he corrected the problem, Ferrell did what all great shooters do: practice.
Ferrell packed in plenty of repetitions throughout the offseason, and while he won't be able to showcase his improved shooting ability in a regular season game until Friday, when Indiana hosts Chicago State in the Hoosiers' season-opener, Ferrell gave IU fans a taste of how far he's come since last season when he sank six threes and scored 20 points in an Oct. 26 exhibition against Southern Indiana.
Some of Ferrell's teammates can't help but be impressed with the way Ferrell improved his shooting in the offseason. "He's shooting the ball with a lot more confidence," said senior forward Will Sheehey, one of two returners, along with Ferrell, who averaged at least 20 minutes per game last season. "I think his scoring will increase from last year. He really thinks that every shot he takes is going to go in."
Said senior Evan Gordon, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, "He's gotten a lot better. I saw him play last year. I didn't really see him much as a scorer. I think his game has improved a lot."
Crean was more specific, saying Ferrell has been "our most consistent and highest percentage three-point shooter in practice."
Many observers took note of Ferrell's improvement long before the Hoosiers played their first exhibition of the 2013-14 season. Ferrell, who averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 assists per game for Indiana while taking on more of a facilitator-type role and deferring to top scorers Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford last season, scored at a 10.3 ppg-clip in eight games for USA's World University Games team this summer -- more than Colorado's Spencer Dinwiddie (who averaged 15.3 ppg for the Buffaloes last season), VCU's Treveon Graham (15.1) and Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (17.0), among other teammates. Though Ferrell's 36.4 field goal percentage was less than ideal, the sophomore led team USA with 20 points and hit four threes in an 85-63 win over Sweden and dropped 15 points and dished out a U.S.-record 13 assists in a win over the United Arab Emirates.
"It allowed me to play with a lot of high-level players throughout the world," Ferrell said of his experience this summer in Kazan, Russia.
Becoming a better shooter -- especially from behind the three-point line -- might have been Ferrell's biggest goal over the summer, but it's not the only change you can expect from the Indianapolis native in 2013-14. Ferrell also thinks he can be more effective with dribble penetration -- including in pick-and-roll situations, an important part of Indiana's offense (according to Synergy Sports, Ferrell scored just 0.75 points per possession when he was the ball handler on pick-and-rolls last season). He also hopes to get to the free throw line more often.
The rule changes implemented this offseason, which seek to eliminate excessive contact such as hand-checking and arm bars, should benefit Ferrell, a 79.8 percent free throw shooter who drew an average 3.1 fouls per 40 minutes last season, good for seventh among Indiana players who used at least 17 percent of available possessions, according to Kenpom.com.
"I feel like we can use these new rules to our advantage," Ferrell said. "Get into the bonus quicker during the game. Driving the ball is definitely going to help us get some free points."
With an improved jumper and an attacking mindset, how good can Ferrell be? Consider that Michigan State sophomore guard and Big Ten preseason player of the year Gary Harris, who has known Ferrell since the fourth-grade and played against him in the 2012 McDonald's All-America game, already considers him an elite offensive player. "He's probably one of the strongest, quickest people in the Big Ten," Harris said of Ferrell. "He can knock down an open shot, get others open, draw fouls. He can do it all."
The good news for Ferrell is that he won't have to wait much longer to get another crack at Syracuse. Indiana is scheduled to play preseason AP No. 8 Syracuse on Dec. 3 in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, and Ferrell can't wait.
"I like that," Ferrell said when asked what he thought about the Hoosiers playing at the Carrier Dome this season. "Going back and playing them again is going to be fun."
It's not surprising to learn Ferrell, after being locked down in last year's matchup with Syracuse, is eager for a rematch. But that game, while important for the Hoosiers' chances of returning to the NCAA tournament, will have no bearing on what should be another heated Big Ten championship race.
Indiana won the league's regular season crown outright last season for the first time since 1993. And despite the fact the Hoosiers lose four career 1,000-point scorers, including top-five NBA draft picks Zeller and Oladipo, Indiana is one of the few programs in the country whose expectations don't wax and wane. Fans expect championships. Notching another one this season could be tough if Ferrell doesn't increase his scoring.
"He has a big role this year," Indiana sophomore forward Jeremy Hollowell, another player expected to become a bigger contributor to Indiana's point production, said of Ferrell. "He knows we lost a lot last year, and he knows he has to step up the scoring, which he's very capable of."
In a league populated by the likes of preseason No. 2 Michigan State, No. 7 Michigan and No. 11 Ohio State, along with several other likely NCAA tournament teams, the consensus seems to be that Indiana will not be able to defend its regular season championship. Big Ten writers picked the Hoosiers to finish sixth in a media poll released last week.
That would go against Ferrell's recent winning track record. Over the past four years, the sophomore has won two Class 2A state championships and reached one state final with Park Tudor High School and won a conference championship with the Hoosiers. "That's a lot of winning," Crean said.
Whether Ferrell can add another championship to his resumé this season -- even if he blossoms into one of the league's top offensive players -- is up for debate. The Hoosiers, who welcome in the nation's sixth-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals, are talented but inexperienced, promising but unseasoned. There's little doubt they should be able to finish higher than sixth, however, if Ferrell can take what he's worked on over the past few months and use it to help offset the scoring firepower Indiana lost after a successful 2012-13 season.
"There's no question," Crean said. "He's going to be the focal point."
So the Syracuse loss, devastating though it was for Indiana fans, could yield at least one positive takeaway: helping motivate Ferrell to become a more complete offensive player.
"I just want to get out here and show people what I've been working on this past summer," Ferrell said.
Against Syracuse, Big Ten opponents, and everyone in between, the Hoosiers will look for Ferrell to score more often than he did last season. If he's not up to the task, a sixth-place finish in the Big Ten might end up being an accurate projection.