TODD AARON GOLDEN: ISU’s future is on the court in Evansville … and it’s going to be fast

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

Fast: Josh Schertz describes the type of fast-paced basketball he wants to incorporate into the men's program at Indiana State during the press conference to introduce him as the new coach last Thursday in Hulman Center.

Most of the time when a basketball coach is hired, you don’t get the chance to see them in-action in their previous position. When you can? It’s a rare treat.

New Indiana State coach Josh Schertz, introduced to the ISU public last Thursday, still has unfinished business at his current job, Lincoln Memorial. So that unusual opportunity to see a coach in action at his previous stop was there for Sycamores fans to see on Wednesday.

Schertz’s Railsplitters are among the Division II Elite Eight and LMU played its first game of the Elite Eight on Wednesday at Evansville’s Ford Center.

So what does the future holds for Indiana State’s men’s basketball program? I can tell that whatever it is, it won’t be slow.

One disclaimer before you see a ball tipped? What is on display from the Railsplitters at the Division II Elite Eight is the culmination of 13 years of work Schertz has put in at the small Tennessee school.

To the degree anything is, this is the finished product for LMU and Schertz’s time there as coach.

It won’t be that smooth for ISU to start with, so understand that going in. Or will it? We’ll get to that a bit later.

This is also a team on a mission. Schertz’s 336-68 career record at LMU is extremely impressive, but the one thing LMU hasn’t done is win a Division II national championship.

Add in the emotional factor from LMU’s players to win one for themselves and their coach? It just adds a bit of spice.

“We’re coming out with a big chip on our shoulder to prove to everyone we can win a national championship this year,” LMU guard Cameron Henry said.

The first thing you notice even before the game begins? There are no plough horses among the Railsplitters. Everyone is built to run.

Body-wise, LMU’s post player, 6-foot-9 Jordan Guest, is a lithe version of Jake LaRavia and plays all over the floor just as LaRavia did. He’s as big as the Railsplitters get.

Past that? It’s a cavalcade of dribble-penetrators and shooters in the 6-foot to 6-foot-6 range. No one is there to stand around. Everyone moves.

That’s borne out in the gaudy offensive stats we knew about LMU going into its game. Four of LMU’s starters average at least 10 points per game.

How do they go about their business? Spreading the floor is paramount. The Railsplitters will usually start with everyone spread to the arc. There is almost always someone cutting through the paint, often on a diagonal cut off the wing.

What LMU does next is varied, but the key player, for me, was guard Devin Whitfield. He is LMU’s leading scorer at 19 points per game, and though he was held to eight points by the Orediggers, he is the straw that stirs the drink.

Whitfield is LMU’s primary penetrator. Sometimes he cut off a screen at the top of the arc. Sometimes he cut on his own.

Everything LMU does is predicated on attacking the rim. CSM’s defense has to spread out to guard against the 3-point shot, leaving room for someone like Whitfield to attack. He can finish well at the rim, and to counter that, CSM has to collapse in the paint.

That plays right into LMU’s hands. Whitfield simply dishes to an open man stationed beyond the arc. CSM wasn’t athletic enough to recover and LMU picked them apart from 3-point range.

The Railsplitters drained 6 of 11 from 3-point in the first half.

Whitfield is LMU’s best dribble-penetrator, but hardly their only. Henry and Julius Brown were also proficient.

“There’s four ways to pressure the rim: off the dribble, off a roll, off a post-up, or off cutting. Everything starts collapsing the shell of a defense, attacking the rim, and making reads behind that,” Schertz explained.

That penetration is the baseline for LMU’s offense, but once teams start to counter that, they expand it.

Maybe it’s a two-dribble mini-drive inside the arc that doubles as a screen with a hand-off to a shooter? Maybe it’s doing the same, only with a pass to a cutter along the baseline? Perhaps a cutter trails the initial penetrator? 

Whatever the option is? You can bet it won’t take long to pull it off.

In the first half – when LMU pulled away in the final 10 minutes to take a 45-30 halftime lead the Orediggers never recovered from in what would become a 90-76 win for the Railsplitters – LMU had 35 possessions.

Only eight of them lasted longer than 20 seconds. Only two of them went down to the end of the shot clock, and one of those was a planned clock-bleed possession at the end of the half.

The average time of each LMU possession in the first half? Using the imperfect game play-by-play, it was 19.4 seconds. By my own count, 24 possessions were 15 seconds or less. This in a half where LMU shot 55.2%.

Henry rated the first-half LMU offense as a “10 out of 10” in terms of their optimum. Schertz was closer to the vest.

“I thought it was 27 to 28 minutes of really good basketball. We had a dunk we missed when we were up 25 or 26. It seemed like it took the steam out of us a bit. We lost our focus,” said Schertz, as most other college basketball coaches wished they had a similar “problem”.

What about defense? LMU plays man defense in a half-court set. I didn’t see a press look at all, but then, with the lead for the majority of the game, LMU didn’t need to.

The Railsplitters are opportunistic to try to force turnovers to kick-start their offense when the opportunity presents itself, but LMU isn’t reckless about it.

There was usually a pair of defensive rebounders, at least, on CSM’s shots. The quicker the ball gets in LMU’s hands, the quicker it can get going on the other end. Rebound and release.

It’s fun to watch and the Railsplitters have fun playing it. The Railsplitters weren’t afraid to express themselves and play to the fans a bit.

As for Schertz himself? The most obvious thing was that he didn’t waste much energy jawing with the officials. In fact, he was hyper-focused on talking to his own team, cajoling them to be in the right position, encouraging them to keep working.

So how would this style translate to the current Sycamores? Most of the team would do well in it. It’s perfect for Cooper Neese. Julian Larry’s penetration would be valuable. Tre Williams is a good fit for it, especially with the way he expanded his game in 2021. Based on what I saw of Kailex Stephens before he got hurt, he’d be fine.

The one recent ISU player who would truly thrive would be Tyreke Key, given his ability to penetrate and shoot. Key, along with Stephens and some of ISU’s student managers, were at Ford Center to take the game in. If Key doesn’t go pro, it would be fascinating to watch him play this style.

It would have been fun to watch Jake LaRavia in this system too. It’s tailor-made for his skill set.

Can Schertz’s style win in the Missouri Valley Conference? Of course it can.

Long before analytics were cool, Drake used a system very similar to this to win the MVC in 2008 when Keno Davis was the Bulldogs’ coach. Drake won the league with a bevy of shooters, but didn’t have the across-board athleticism LMU unleashed on CSM. Schertz will undoubtedly try to find Division I players that fit his version of this offense.

And that leads to the biggest question, how soon can ISU win? Normally, patience is the mantra when a new coach is starting out. That still holds true, but only to a point.

The number of players in the NCAA transfer portal passed 800 on Thursday. The ability to mold your roster how you want it has never been able to be done quicker than it is right now. The days of the four-year rebuild are behind us.

So if Schertz and his staff can hit on the Division I transfers that fit his system and convince some of ISU’s current players to stick around? Perhaps ISU fans won’t have to wait too long to see the fruits of Schertz’s system?

Just don’t blink when you try to see it. The future is going to be fast for the Sycamores.

Todd Aaron Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272  or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.

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