Mark Bennett: ISU's Avila, Kent give high school coach double the reasons to smile

Jan. 17—Sometimes, Matt Manzke catches the Indiana State men's basketball games via a livestream on his TV screen.

Other times, he makes the 170-mile drive from Oak Forest, Ill., to Terre Haute to watch in person.

Either way, Manzke is thoroughly enjoying the Sycamores' 2023-24 season. He watched the livestream of ISU's convincing 88-66 victory over visiting Missouri State in Hulman Center. It might've been the best, so far, for Manzke.

The Sycamores' starting five features two of his former Oak Forest (Illinois) High School players — 6-foot-10 center Robbie Avila and 6-8 swingman Jayson Kent. On Tuesday, Avila and Kent recorded statistical double-doubles. Avila finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes of play. Kent scored 15 points, grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and never left the court for ISU.

It was ISU's 15th victory in 18 games this season, including the Sycamores' 6-1 record in Missouri Valley Conference games. Avila and Kent play in third-year coach Josh Schertz's unique basketball scheme, which relies on good first shots by multiple players on offense, and beating opponents down the floor defensively. Together with their teammates, Avila, Kent and Co. go into Sunday's 5 p.m. game at MVC foe Murray State in first place.

"Those two guys were winners [in high school], and they found the perfect school for them [in Indiana State]," Manzke said Wednesday afternoon by phone from Oak Forest. "With that unselfish mentality coach Schertz uses, it's a perfect fit for them."

Just four years ago, Avila and Kent were high school teammates for the Oak Forest Bengals, coached by Manzke, in Cook County, Ill., outside of Chicago. Avila was a sophomore and Kent a senior in the 2019-2020 season. They won the South Suburban Blue Conference championship and the Class 3A regional title — a feat Oak Forest hadn't accomplished since 1987.

The conference champions trophy sits inside Manzke's office at the school. The Bengals' 2019-2020 regional championship team picture hangs on the wall.

"That was a pretty special time for all of us," Manzke said.

Indeed, it was. In fact, Manzke retired from coaching after Avila graduated in 2022. He's now the athletic director.

"When Robbie left, I figured it was probably a good time to get out of coaching," Manzke said. "I had two [NCAA] Division I players in 20 years, and they were on the same team."

Avila went directly to ISU following high school, joining a program guided by Schertz, who'd built a NCAA Division II powerhouse at Lincoln Memorial University before taking over his first Division I program with the Sycamores. Avila turned heads last season with his unique versatility, given his size. Avila averaged 10.7 points and 4 rebounds per game last season, and has improved to 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds a night this season. He's a true sophomore at ISU.

Kent started his college career at Bradley with averages of 3.6 points and 1.1 rebounds as a freshman, then 6.9 points and 2.9 rebounds as a sophomore. He transferred to ISU prior to the 2022-23 season, joining Avila under Schertz. Kent averaged 5.1 points and 2.1 rebounds a game last season, but has significantly increased those numbers to 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds a game this season. He's a fifth-year junior, with the NCAA's extra season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Together at ISU, Avila and Kent helped the Sycamores finish with records of 23-13 overall and 13-7 in the MVC last season.

Now, the Sycamores are in first place in the Valley, have received votes in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll, and will have played on ESPN five times by the end of January.

On Tuesday, both Oak Forest alums had double-doubles alongside teammate guards Ryan Conwell (with a game-high 25 points), Isaiah Swope (13 points) and Julian Larry (defensively containing Missouri State's Alston Mason).

Afterward, Avila joked about Kent snatching rebounds he could've gotten. They laughed in that postgame exchange.

Are they competing with each other? "Nah, I don't feel like it's really a competition," Kent said. "I'm happy when Robbie gets his double-doubles, because he deserves it. He plays his heart out. And when he does it, it's just another exciting thing."

Avila said the same. "Everybody's just doing their part, putting together what they can do," Avila said. "It just helps us win."

Actually, Kent has become the Sycamores' most likely double-double man. He's registered double-digit point and rebound totals in five games this season, the most by any MVC player. Kent also ranks second in the conference in field goal percentage, hitting 63.6% of his shots. Avila is fifth at 58.4%.

Avila is delivering with a healthy dose of national attention, while Kent is quietly climbing into a possible All-MVC First Team status.

"They're both playing like all-league guys. They really are," Schertz said Tuesday night. "People probably don't put Jayson in that category, but he's playing like an all-league guy." Schertz also praised Kent's defensive performance on Bears big man Donovan Clay, holding the MSU standout to 12 points and three rebounds.

He likes Avila's "ability to stretch the floor as a pick-and-pop 5-man" who can shoot 3-pointers, shot-fake and drive. Likewise, Schertz likes Kent's "ability to cut, move without the ball, space the floor and make open 3s."

Kent did that in ISU's Jan. 7 win at Northern Iowa. The Panthers backed off Kent defensively, daring him to shoot from outside. The result — he scored a career-high 24 points.

Their former coach is pretty satisfied.

"It's so much fun to watch," Manzke said of the Sycamores' games. "Robbie's always been what you guys have been seeing at ISU. But seeing Jayson embrace his role and kind of changing his game to do what he needs to do, and watching him evolve as a player has been beautiful to see."

Kent particularly has improved defensively since high school. "In a lot of ways, that's what makes him so valuable on the ISU team," Manzke said.

Their teamwork, as a duo, caught Manzke's attention in the Missouri State game. It was an assist from Avila leading to Kent's dunk.

"Whenever Robbie hits Jayson on a back-door cut, that always brings back memories," Manzke said.

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