BLOOMINGTON – In the media room at Assembly Hall on Selection Sunday, Indiana’s NCAA tournament run started with one steely declaration.
The words belonged to Yogi Ferrell, and what the senior point guard said should stir even the most ardent fans of these fifth-seeded Hoosiers.
"I’m going to be playing as hard as I’ve ever played in these games," Ferrell said. "I feel our team deserves (a long run). Everything we have been through, we work so hard. My feelings are especially high. Emotions are very high."
And with that, Ferrell rose from his chair, the interview session done, and left the podium. The tournament opener against Chattanooga isn’t until Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa, but to Ferrell, the Big Dance had already started.
This is the final chapter in his Hoosiers legacy, the final challenge of a storied career.
Ferrell has won two outright Big Ten regular-season titles, and this will be his third NCAA tourney appearance, distinctions that speak to his impact on the program. And as its all-time assists leader and No. 7 scorer, it is already assured that tales of Ferrell will be around long after he is gone.
But now he can attempt to do in the coming weeks what Calbert Cheaney, Cody Zeller and A.J. Guyton could not – deliver Indiana’s first national championship since Keith Smart was the hero in 1987.
Just a Final Four would be swell, too – Indiana hasn’t been to one since 2002.
No, the Hoosiers are not a one-man team. They went 25-6 in the regular season because of a versatile roster. But Ferrell clearly has the largest on-court load to carry, along with the effect he’s had as a leader.
Plus, this NCAA tourney is a very different one for Ferrell.
As a freshman on the 2012-13 team, he was the fifth wheel in a starting lineup with Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. And last year, although Ferrell had become a leading man, IU came into the Dance with low expectations as a No. 10 seed.
This is the first time he has been the head of the snake for a legitimate contending squad.
Many have argued Indiana is underseeded in this year’s field based on a strong résumé.
The No. 14 Hoosiers have three losses to teams outside the top 100 of the Rating Percentage Index – but only one came after Thanksgiving.
And critically, Indiana was 6-3 against the RPI top 50, featuring wins over Maryland, Purdue, Iowa (twice), Notre Dame and Wisconsin.
"You’re going to have to play all the same teams to go where you want to anyway," IU center Max Bielfeldt said. "So whether your seed is a 3, 4, 5, 10, 16, doesn’t matter to us, we’re just going to try to beat whoever’s in front of us."
At Wells Fargo Arena, that is No. 12 seed Chattanooga first, then if the Hoosiers win, either No. 4 seed Kentucky or No. 13 seed Stony Brook.
Ferrell, a two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer, has had his best season with averages of 17 points and 5.5 assists, and he has made at least 40 percent of his 3-pointers for a third straight year. Indiana coach Tom Crean needs Ferrell at his best to make real noise.
"He’s one of the best defensive players I’ve watched as a college coach," Crean said. "He’s always set a tone with work ethic here. You can look at a guy like Yogi and honestly tell him that he’s getting better every week."
When asked how he wants to be remembered in Bloomington, he replied, "As a winner."