Unquestioned leader Yogi Ferrell is bestowing his wisdom on Indiana’s younger players—and it’s paying off
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DES MOINES — Not everyone listens to Yogi Ferrell. There are those immune to his commands, and they occupied two first-row seats at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday evening. Their names are Khloe and Kelsey Ferrell, and they are Yogi’s little sisters. And before big brother began his final NCAA tournament run with Indiana, they drove to the Greenwood Mall outside of Indianapolis and commissioned T-shirts especially for this occasion. Normally, they wear gear that simply identifies them as Yogi’s siblings. But his final run in this event required special messages, delivered with deep, abiding affection.
who is yogi? read the back of one shirt. yogi isn’t famous, he’s just my annoying brother, read the other.
After this was brought to Yogi’s attention—“I guess they think it’s a comedy show for them,” he said—he instructed his sisters not to wear those shirts again when Indiana played Kentucky, with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line, in a renewal of one of college basketball’s most venomous rivalries that also doubled as one of the most consequential basketball moments of his life. And they didn’t. His sisters didn’t wear those shirts again.
They wore other shirts.
yogi’s a bear to have as a brother, read one. i can beat yogi 1-on-1, read the other.
So not everyone listens to Yogi Ferrell. But that list isn’t long. In fact, the reason his sisters could even make the shirts, the reason that everyone gathered in the arena, was because the other most important people in Yogi’s life listen to his every last syllable. They listen to him talk defending a screen-and-roll. They listen to him talk about plays before they happen, one or two steps ahead all the time. They lose a game in early December, their third of a young but despairing season, and they listen to him talk about personal accountability, about having the pride to make sure you’re doing the right thing.
And that brings them all the way to a regular-season Big Ten title. That brings their embattled coach reprieve. That brings them all the way to one of the most indelible victories in the history of a program teeming with them, a cathartic 73–67 win over fourth-seeded Kentucky, delivering fifth-seeded Indiana to the East regional semifinals in Philadelphia next weekend. In this win, the Hoosiers broke open a tie game and took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish with Ferrell resting on the bench. A freshman center became the offensive focal point and hit the clinching free throws down the stretch. A freshman guard made enormous shots and enormous blocks. In the final minute of the biggest game of his career, in fact, Ferrell barely had the ball in his hands.
That was the whole idea of it, really. That was the idea behind the prodding and demanding. Ferrell, the one player Indiana can’t do without, had to push this team to the point where it didn’t need him to win a game. That’s how the Hoosiers would get to where they wanted to go. The who is yogi? notion made for a funny T-shirt, yes. It was also kind of the point.
In an almost palpably happy locker room Saturday, Tom Crean was even more kinetic than usual. He wiped some fog from his glasses and shook everyone’s hands and generally acted like someone with active defibrillator pads strapped to his chest. He only paused to hug his athletic director, Fred Glass, and snap a group picture with Glass and other Indiana officials.
“I love coaching these guys,” Crean told Glass. “I love it.”
On Dec. 2, Indiana visited Duke and flat-lined, losing 94–74. That dropped the Hoosiers to 5–3 on the season and a not-so-subtle discontent bubbled up once more, mostly directed at the head coach. Indiana missed the NCAA tournament in 2013–14, lost in the round of 64 in 2014–15 and had gone a combined 16–20 in Big Ten conference games in those two seasons. The 2015–16 season looked like another brewing disappointment, and that was increasingly unforgivable.
It was maybe easy to say amid the satisfaction of Saturday’s result, but Glass insisted that there was no panic internally.
“He’s got a sign in his office that says, ‘Just coach the team,’” Glass said of Crean. “I think almost the louder it got, the easier it was for him to hone in and close ranks and generate belief with the guys. There was almost an inverse relationship: the worse it got out there, the calmer and more focused it got in here. That’s a great tribute to Tom.”
It’s also a tribute to Ferrell, the 6-foot senior from Indianapolis, who as of Saturday has started an Indiana-record 136 games and has played in an Indiana-record 137, because he essentially served as Crean’s collaborator. He was the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game during the season, but he was more significantly the dominant personality in the room, whether it was during a players-only film session after the Maui Invitational in which the Hoosiers kicked around ideas on how to defend better, or when he reminded everyone after the Duke loss to focus on doing their jobs and nothing more. If he wasn’t exactly setting game plans, Ferrell was nevertheless managing his team’s approach and demeanor while imparting all the knowledge he’d accrued over the years.
“The main thing with me is, I have to stay on these guys,” Ferrell said.
If freshman walk-on guard Harrison Niego didn’t realize that reading an offensive player on the weak side could help him better diagnose how to defend a screen-and-roll, Ferrell took time to explain that, in detail, to a guy who averaged 4.7 minutes per game. His word was gospel. The Book of Yogi.
“He’s taken ownership of this team,” said senior forward Max Bielfeldt, who transferred to Indiana this year from Big Ten rival Michigan. “He should. He’s that guy we definitely trust with our lives.”
No one could know in early December what it all pointed toward, but it pointed toward this. It pointed toward a time when Ferrell would be an important part of a win but not necessarily the only way Indiana could win.
“Yogi makes it go, but the way he shares his knowledge, shares the ball, shares the game, is just incredible,” Glass said. “Yogi is great and he’s going to walk out with most of the records, but at Indiana, we celebrate winners. If he’s going to be a winner, he’s going to have to share and make the other guys better. That’s what he did.”
The transformative moment against Kentucky, and one that augured well for Indiana from here out, arrived with 8:40 to play. Crean subbed for Ferrell after he committed his second foul, looking to steal some rest for his indispensable leader during the imminent under-eight-minute media timeout. When that break arrived, the score was tied 50–50. The first team to stop crawling across broken glass to find anything resembling one or two decent offensive looks was probably going to take firm control.
And when the huddle broke, and Indiana’s five players took the floor, Ferrell was still on the bench.
On the first Indiana possession following the break, the Hoosiers fed 6'10" freshman Thomas Bryant, who converted a three-point play. On the next trip, freshman OG Anunoby drained a three-pointer from the wing. Kentucky coach John Calipari sensed the seismic momentum shift and called a timeout with Indiana suddenly surging and the Hoosiers fans in full throat. While his teammates celebrated the spurt, Ferrell trotted stone-faced to the scorer’s table to check back in.
Seconds later, he’d hit a pull-up jumper, and Indiana had an 8–0 run that effectively decided the game. And it all started without him.
“They probably could do without me,” Ferrell said. “I feel like we know ourselves so well, know exactly what we want to do on the court, that we could do it almost blind. We prepared very well for this.”
As the Hoosiers sought to finish the game, Ferrell offered Crean a suggestion: Feed the post. Get the ball to Bryant, a hyper but hyper-efficient scorer; while prone to overexcitedly dribble around the perimeter and get his pocket picked by Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, as happened in the second half Saturday, the freshman center also finished his first two NCAA tournament games shooting 11 for 15 from the floor, upping his season-long rate to 68.9%. Instead of looking to secure the result on his own, as one might expect from a player who has appeared in more games than anyone else in Indiana history, Ferrell delegated to a teenager.
“I feel like Thomas can close out a game for us,” Ferrell said.
He did. Bryant drained four free throws in the final minute to keep the Wildcats at bay, including two with 10.4 seconds left to make it a four-point game. That finished a 19-point performance in which Bryant recovered from early foul trouble to outduel and outfox Kentucky’s entire legion of big men. Indeed, when the game ended, Bryant uncaged his emotions: He took a detour past the Indiana fan section and pounded his chest.
“This is why I’m here! This is why I’m here!” he shouted.
“What was mostly going through my mind was staying calm, breathing and then not letting my adrenaline pump so much where it was too much for me,” Bryant said of his final-minute poise. “We go through this in practice all the time. So I was just lucky to make them.”
The Hoosiers do actually go through this in practice all the time. Though Ferrell averaged 34.6 minutes per game during the regular season, Crean deliberately set lineups during certain practice periods where his services and leadership were not available on the floor. Indiana had to learn to live without him. Those lessons were especially helpful early Saturday, when Kentucky used two defenders to deny Ferrell the ball even on routine inbounds plays after baskets. It took Ferrell almost eight minutes to take a shot and almost 12 to score. By then, his opposite number, the Wildcats’ Ulis, had his fingerprints all over the action. The SEC Player of the Year had 10 points by the time Ferrell got on the board, and after a deep three-pointer midway through the first half, Ulis backpedaled, shook his head and murmured, “I’m a bad mother------.”
And Ulis nearly willed Kentucky all the way back, finishing with 27 points. But he would foul out with two seconds left, somewhat fittingly hacking Ferrell after the Wildcats’ last-gasp shot from Jamal Murray wildly missed the mark. Ulis took a seat, finally helpless, as Ferrell marched to the line. Long after the game, Ulis shuffled down a Wells Fargo hallway in black jeans and a black hoodie, wearing a red sneaker on his right foot and a bag of ice on his left, carrying his other shoe in his right hand. There were two irrepressible point guards in this game. Only one was left standing. The other limped out.
“I turned to my wife with about three minutes left and I said, ‘Yogi is going to will us to win. He’s not going to be denied,’” said Glass. “There were a lot of guys contributing. But Yogi made it go.”
There is a very specific inspiration for the T-shirts that Yogi Ferrell’s sisters wear. Libby Ferrell, the family matriarch, explained that her son is actually a pretty funny guy, even if people don’t get to see that side of him much. And, as you’d expect, Yogi gives his sisters a hard time. But by putting the zingers on the back of shirts for the world to see, it ensures that there is no way Yogi can get the last word in.
“He can’t say anything back,” Libby said. “It’s too late.”
They remain the only people uninterested in what Yogi has to say, not least because they already have T-shirt ideas for the Sweet 16 games. Everyone else is certainly paying rapt attention, as Indiana emerged from a college basketball apocalypse with one of its most memorable victories. In it, Ferrell essentially cemented his legacy. There is more to do and more to achieve, but no one will forget how he drove this team out of the dark of winter and into the bliss of spring.
“I just wanted my mark to be me as a winner and to try to put up another banner,” Yogi said. “That’s the main goal, ever since summer workouts, when we’re out there dying, doing what were doing trying to get better. That’s been the main thing. That’s what we’re pushing for.”
That the Hoosiers vanquished a most despised rival along the way is a notable bonus.
“I’m 1–0 against Kentucky,” Ferrell noted with a wide smile Saturday night.
He said this just after he arrived in the locker room to a horde of cameras curled around an empty folding chair, a seat meant for Indiana’s star guard, conscience and unquestioned voice. The chair was positioned in front of an NCAA tournament banner, which was shifted in front of a white dry-erase board to make for a nicer backdrop.
And while the dry-erase board was all but clean, that event banner did not obscure the single word left on it. It hovered over Ferrell’s right shoulder, in blue ink of all colors, after a moment he spent an entire season pushing for: Recognize.