Mark Bennett: Graves says past head-coaching role will 'serve me well' at ISU

Apr. 16—Hoosier roots and deep connections to Indiana basketball initially brought Matthew Graves to the Indiana State coaching staff as its associate head coach.

Now that he's ascended into ISU's head-coaching role, those ties will continue to pay off for Graves and the Sycamores, he believes.

In Graves' previous head-coaching stint, from 2013-18 at South Alabama, he learned the value of home-state connections.

Former coach Josh Schertz left ISU on April 6 to lead the Saint Louis program. Six days later, ISU chose Schertz's top assistant — Graves, a former White River Valley High School and Butler standout — to become its 27th head coach.

In his introduction ceremony Friday in Hulman Center, Graves recalled his initial hiring at ISU. Schertz sought out Graves "because of my connection to the great state of Indiana and being able to introduce [Schertz] to coaches and players, and really give him a jumpstart on this program."

It worked. Under Schertz, the Sycamores climbed from a rocky 11-20 record in 2021-22 to 23-13 the next year, and then last season's incredible 32-7 run to the NIT runner-up spot.

Graves' résumé was packed with successful Indiana and Midwestern experiences. The 49-year-old Switz City native starred for White River Valley and played for regional titles in Hulman Center, including a David-and-Goliath clash with Brian Evans, Steve Hart and the Terre Haute South Braves during Graves' sophomore year.

"The place was rockin' and packed," Graves recalled of that game, won by South on its way to the 1991 IHSAA Final Four. "That's one of the things Josh always asked, 'What's this place [Hulman Center] like full?' I was the only one in the room that could answer that question."

Schertz found out firsthand last season, as his Sycamores drew sellout audiences, including the early NIT games.

Graves also had assistant coaching success at Butler, including as former Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens' associate head coach on BU's NCAA runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011 as well as eight straight 20-plus-win seasons. Before coaching at Butler, Graves played on the Bulldogs team that reached the program's first NCAA tournament in 35 years. He also served on the coaching staffs at Xavier and Evansville.

As Graves' name emerged as a prime candidate to replace Schertz at ISU, Graves' five-season win-loss record at South Alabama got scrutiny. His Jaguars compiled cumulative records of 65 wins and 96 losses overall, and went 36-58 in the Sun Belt Conference before the university in Mobile, Ala., changed coaches. His Jaguars' best finish was a tie for sixth place in the Sun Belt in his second season.

Graves acknowledges that run didn't go as he'd hoped, but believes the groundwork was laid to help the next coach to succeed.

"A lot's been made about my time there as head coach and rightfully so," Graves said Friday. "But the one thing I can tell you is, at South Alabama, I learned how to fail. I learned how to fail forward. I got out of my comfort zone and I went down there with no relationships, no connections and took a leap of faith. And ultimately in this business, you're judged by wins and losses. And I completely understand that. But in those five years, the relationships I made, the mistakes I made — both good and bad — are going to really serve me better going forward in this program."

He needed better connections to basketball in Alabama and the South. Initially, Graves aligned a source for such a connection.

Graves hired for his first staff one of the former Butler players he'd coached — Ron Nored, who's an Alabama native and former high school basketball star in that state. Nored's time as Graves' assistant proved brief, though. Four months after joining, Brad Stevens — then the Boston Celtics' coach — hired Nored to the NBA team's staff. Graves completely understands Nored's decision.

"How can you blame a guy for that opportunity? But that was my connection [with the Alabama community]," Graves said of Nored, who is now an Atlanta Hawks assistant.

When asked what he would've changed about his South Alabama experience, Graves acknowledged the need for ties to the home state. "The one thing I would've done a much better job of early in my career was constructing an appropriate staff," Graves said.

By contrast, as Schertz's associate head coach at ISU, Graves' Indiana knowledge helped the Sycamores recruit standout guard Ryan Conwell. ISU didn't get Conwell straight out of Indianapolis Pike High School.

But after playing one year at South Florida, Conwell entered the NCAA transfer portal and chose ISU. He became last season's cool-handed No. 2 scorer.

"Having that [kind of] connector at South Alabama was huge and I just didn't have that," Graves said.

"I'm really proud of that time down there, but what I ultimately learned was, it's really about the fit. That was a good job down there, but I was a bad fit — fish out of water, if you will. Indiana State is a good job and I'm a great fit here."

Graves will be reassembling the team that gave ISU its first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in 24 years, after Schertz, two 2023-24 Sycamore assistants and a former assistant left for Saint Louis, and all but two potential returning players entered the NCAA transfer portal. As of Tuesday, two players had committed elsewhere — starters Jayson Kent and Julian Larry, both to the University of Texas.

Also entering the portal were fellow starters Robbie Avila, Conwell and Isaiah Swope, as well as reserves Eli Shetlar, Aaron Gray, Masen Miller and Augustinas Kiudulas.

Players can withdraw from the portal at any time, and could stay at their current school.

Graves also hopes to retain at least one or two of the high school players that had committed to ISU in November — 6-foot-7 Merritt Alderink of Michigan, 6-8 Iceland forward Robert "Sean" Birmingham and 6-11 Canadian forward Christian Nitu.

Graves believes he's ready for this role and moment, and his time at South Alabama a decade ago bolsters his readiness.

"That five years of on-the-job training is going to certainly serve me well as your next head coach at Indiana State University," he told the audience at his introduction.

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