Derek Schultz: Scintillating Sycamores could be next Cinderella

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The nation’s most efficient offense was on display in front of the entire state last Saturday afternoon in the Indy Classic at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Fans who made the short drive to Indianapolis were treated to an impressive performance—five players had nine points or more, dishing out 17 assists on 28 made baskets—and even though the lead got down to just four in the second half, the outcome never felt in doubt. The final horn signaled a 10th victory in 11 games to start the young basketball season, which is quite the start for a program like Indiana State.

What, you thought I was talking about Purdue?

While the No. 3 Boilermakers taking down top-ranked Arizona later might have been the main event in last weekend’s Indy hoops doubleheader, hopefully the sold-out crowd arrived early to witness the next March mid-major darling in the Sycamores, who downed Ball State in the undercard. Indiana State head coach Josh Schertz joked before the game that their game was the “main course” and not the dessert, but regardless of course, Schertz’s Sycamores are looking pretty savory.

Indiana State is off to a 10-1 start and entered this week riding its longest winning streak (nine games) since the halcyon days of the legendary Larry Bird. That’s been enough to grab the attention of hoop heads nationwide, and even though the secret is out about the Sycamores, the 47-year old Schertz isn’t ducking the spotlight.

“Putting Indiana State on the radar is great for marketing our program,” Schertz said. “It’s a very crowded sports space here in Indiana, basketball and otherwise, with the Colts, Fever, Purdue, IU. … It’s a chance to garner some attention in a space that’s hard to get it.”

The newfound attention is quite the contrast from Schertz’s previous stop. While he won at an incredibly high level during his time at Lincoln Memorial University, he admitted he did so in near anonymity in tiny Harrogate, Tennessee. Nestled beside the Cumberland Gap of the Appalachian Mountains, the Railsplitters were a Division II powerhouse under Schertz, ripping off a 198-24 conference mark over his final 11 seasons. They captured the league title nine times and made three separate trips to the Division II Final Four, including a runner-up finish in 2016. Schertz’s 2019-2020 squad, perhaps his best of the bunch, had won 31 straight games before the pandemic wiped out their tournament and national championship aspirations.

Taking the job at Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference, consistently regarded as one of the nation’s top mid-major leagues in Division I, was supposed to be a whole different animal, but Schertz has tamed that lion while keeping to his core offensive tenets.

“His success translates to this level because his players are so interchangeable and skilled that it turns everyone into a playmaker,” said Jordan Majewski, longtime college basketball writer and contributor to Mid-Major Madness, news website. “From one through five, everyone is a passer, shooter, dribbler, cutter, and that makes them difficult to guard, but extremely fun to watch.”

Finding the fits

ISU’s lethal offensive efficiency doesn’t just come out of thin air; it requires the correct pieces. The team’s foundation is built upon big man Robbie Avila, who has become a bit of a college basketball cult figure thanks to his goggles, tattoos and unassuming build—however, underestimate Avila at your own peril. The 6-foot 10-inch former Illinois All-Star stuffs the stat sheet each night with 16.3 points and 5.8 rebounds, but his most lethal skill might actually be his passing ability, as he averages a team-high 4.1 assists.

“He has a very unique look and swagger to him, but then you watch him play, and he’s got this rare combination of skill, intelligence, unselfishness and confidence,” Schertz said about his center. “He’s a guy we built the offense around, but honestly, he’s also a guy that you can build an entire program around.”

Indiana State University coach Josh Schertz and the Sycamores started the season with 10 victories in 11 games. (Photo courtesy of Indiana State University)

It’s not just Avila shepherding in this wave of success for Indiana State, as other key cogs have contributed to the terrific start. Former Pike standout Ryan Conwell came back to his home state after a year with South Florida and immediately became the team’s second-leading scorer, having just dropped a season-high 27 points in Saturday’s showcase. Isaiah Swope, a fellow Indiana native, was also a big transfer portal addition for Schertz, migrating over from USI to become ISU’s go-to guy. Julian Larry, the lone remaining holdover from the previous staff, and fellow upperclassmen like Jayson Kent, Xavier Bledson and Jake Wolfe also fill critical roles.

The 2020s world of NET rankings, effective field-goal percentage, and points per possession (PPP) might make your head spin, but here’s something easy to understand: The numbers absolutely love Indiana State.

The Sycamores are in the top 10 in scoring offense (88.0 points per game)—easy to understand, right? But they also lead the nation in effective field-goal percentage (eFG%)—which is a stat that adjusts traditional field goal percentage to account for three-point shots having a higher value than two-point shots—and own a top-40 mark in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Majewski, an early analytics adopter, helped put it in layman’s terms: “Indiana State is in the upper 90th percentile in shots taken at the rim and from 3-point range, so they not only take the best shots—they make them, too.”

Overall, ISU checks in No. 18in the NET Rankings, ahead ofprograms like Duke (24th), Kentucky (27th), Gonzaga (36th) and North Carolina (37th). They’re 53rd in the KenPom ratings, nearly 30 spots in front of Indiana (80th) and above ranked mid-major James Madison (68th). The Sycamores received Top 25 votes in the latest Coaches Poll and are listed as a 12-seed as the presumed Missouri Valley Conference automatic qualifier in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology on ESPN.com.

Next mid-major Cinderella?

Schertz isn’t focusing on the numbers or early-season praise, but both undoubtedly speak to the culture he’s built during his short time in Terre Haute. He credits a team-building mantra that is based on kaizen, the Japanese word for uncompromising commitment to continuous improvement.

“I’m very much an extremist when it comes to the day-to-day mindset,” Schertz said. “So, the best thing I can do as a coach is, take the focus off the rankings and the noise and lock into getting better today.”

In his frequent talks with close friend and Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May, the two discuss blocking out the praise and focusing on the task at hand. May, a Hoosier native and Indiana University graduate, took the Owls to last year’s Final Four, a destination Schertz is hoping he can reach.

“If we’re the best team in the Valley right now, that’s great, but it’s December,” he said. “We’re not going to focus on the end result—only the daily process—so we can be at our very best when it matters most.”•

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From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.

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