Mark Bennett: Graves in as next coach? As reports emerge of deal, Schertz backs him to lead program

Apr. 10—Just a few weeks ago, the future of Indiana State men's basketball looked so bright it had to wear shades — those shaped like rec-goggles, that is.

Then, college sports circa-2024 moved in front of the glow like the moon did on Monday afternoon.

Piecing together what comes next involves a lot of speculation. Who will coach the Sycamores? How many players from last season's team will suit up next season? Will the new coach start from scratch with portal transfers and incoming freshmen?

The next-coach question could be nearing an answer, which is crucial to resolving the other two questions. Reports emerged that ISU is negotiating a contract to make interim head coach Matthew Graves the full title, but a university athletics official offered no comment.

The certainties are that the architect of the NIT runner-up team that finished 32-7 and won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title — Josh Schertz — is now the head coach at Saint Louis University. SLU competes in the Atlantic 10, which was rated eighth strongest in the NCAA Division I power rankings for conferences, just one notch ahead of the MVC. But that private Jesuit university had the resources to offer Schertz a reported $2-million-a-season, multiyear contract. A significant fundraising effort in Terre Haute enabled ISU to offer Schertz an enhancement of his $365,000 annual salary that would've made him the highest-paid Sycamore coach ever.

Schertz announced on Saturday he was choosing the Billikens job and the "life-changing" SLU offer, as he put it.

That same day, ISU named Schertz's associate head coach, Graves, the interim Sycamore head coach.

Two days later, the bulk of the ISU roster began entering the NCAA transfer portal — the system enabling college athletes to move to other schools, without sitting out a redshirt season like the old days. By Tuesday evening, starters Robbie Avila, Ryan Conwell, Julian Larry, Jayson Kent and Isaiah Swope had put their names into the portal, joined by reserves Aaron Gray, Masen Miller, Eli Shetlar and Augustinas Kiudulas. And, Schertz former ISU assistant Antone Gray and special assistant Rob Gardiner appear likely to join his SLU staff, along with former ISU assistant Zak Boisvert.

Each ISU player entering the portal could find at some other schools more lucrative offers of NIL funds — yet another new twist in college athletics that allows student-athletes to be compensated for uses of their name, image and likeness. But it should be noted that significant fundraising efforts have boosted ISU's Crossroad of Champions NIL initiative as the basketball team ascended this season.

To be sure, players who enter the portal could end up staying at ISU. Also, players can withdraw from the portal at any time. Still, it hints at an empty cupboard for Graves, if he becomes the permanent head coach, or whomever is chosen.

Think of it this way, if all of the potential returnees indeed wore Sycamore uniforms again when the 2024-25 season tips off this November, ISU would have back the producers of 2,882 of the team's 3,309 total points in the recently completed season. (Xavier Bledson and Jake Wolfe scored a combined 335 points, but have exhausted their eligibility.) Instead, if portal entries depart, the Sycamores will have back only the players who accounted for 92 of those 3,309 points.

Those aren't the only variables. ISU will officially announce its new president on Friday morning, so that person must at least oversee the selection of next season's basketball coach, or place that choice in the capable hands of Angie Lansing, who's served since New Year's Day as interim athletic director since ISU and former AD Sherard Clinkscales parted ways.

Schertz reflected on the choice of his replacement on Monday, when he was formally introduced as SLU head coach at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.

He's backing Graves.

"He certainly deserves it," Schertz said after Monday's introduction during an interview streamed on YouTube by longtime MVC chronicler Harry Schroeder. "[Graves] gives Indiana State the best chance for continuity, to capitalize and not take massive steps backwards. I think Matthew's ready for the job. He did a great job as my associate head coach there for three years."

Schertz likened the situation to 2021, when he left Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, where he'd turned that program into a NCAA Division II powerhouse through 13 seasons before coming to ISU. Jeremiah Samarrippas had been Schertz's assistant. Samarrippas has coached the Railsplitters to records of 24-9, 30-5 and 26-5 since.

"You look at LMU, when I left they promoted from within, and [now] those people don't remember me anymore — they've won three straight championships and been to three straight NCAA Tournaments since I left, so it's going great there," Schertz said. "Matthew understands the system, he's got the relationships. I think there's some guys that'll stay if he's there. I think he gives Indiana State the best chance to build on the foundation laid this year and move it forward."

Graves is most familiar to Wabash Valley hoops fans as the former star of White River Valley, just as his brothers were. Graves later played at Butler and led the Bulldogs to the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 35 years in 1997. Graves became a Butler assistant afterward, climbing to associate head coach under Brad Stevens when the Bulldogs reached the NCAA Final in 2010 and 2011.

Graves also has Division I head coaching experience, having guided South Alabama's program for five seasons. Graves ended a tough run in 2018 with cumulative records of 65-96 overall and 36-58 in the Sun Belt Conference.

ISU isn't granting interviews with Graves, players or staff, for now, but Schertz expressed confidence that Graves is the right choice.

"It's not just the right thing, but really the most logical thing," Schertz said. "I hope that happens sooner rather than later. I know he's ready, and he'll do an unbelievable job if he's given the opportunity to do that."

The permanent ISU coaching spot is now vacant because Schertz succeeded so well, so quickly here — putting him on the radar of larger programs. On Monday, Schertz said he'd gotten four or five other prime offers, besides SLU. The 10-day gap between ISU's loss to Drake in the MVC Tournament title game and the start of the National Invitation Tournament gave Schertz extra time to assess SLU's pursuit of him, he said.

"It was incredibly easy to come to Saint Louis. It was remarkably hard to leave Indiana State. Both of those things are accurate," Schertz said. "It was a gut-wrenching decision."

The sellout crowds at Hulman Center — a first since the Larry Bird era — were fresh in his mind.

"The real conflict was how I felt about the community and the team and the people of Terre Haute and at Indiana State. That's the hardest part, leaving that," he said. "So we're excited about this opportunity and what's to come, but the bittersweet, heartbreaking part is what you leave behind. I know what this season, this past team and our success, the impact it had, not just on the school but the area and selling [Hulman Center] out, and all the things that we had going. There was a lot to consider, but at the end of the day I did what I thought was best for my family and my career. You can't be two places at once, but I'll always love Terre Haute and Indiana State."

—Billikens vs. Sycamores? — At Monday's recorded introduction, Schertz said he'd welcome putting MVC opponents on his Billikens' schedule, just not ISU.

It's too soon, he hinted.

"I'm definitely open and amenable to continuing some of those [Missouri] Valley games — anybody but Indiana State," Schertz said. "We'll give that some time and distance before we schedule them."

—Advice for his 2023-24 players — Schertz said he met individually with each ISU player before he left. He encouraged them to meet with Graves "and figure out what they want to do."

"My goal for them is they do what's best for them," Schertz said. "They're in a great situation at Indiana State. They certainly have the full backing of that community, the school. They're a 32-win team."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or