Mark Bennett: Rough as it looks, ISU can succeed in NIL/transfer-portal world

Apr. 18—The circumstances surrounding Indiana State basketball indeed seem bleak, on the surface.

In a matter of days, a gust of 2024 college sports realities swept through the program like a hurricane. On April 4, the Sycamores ended a head-turning 2023-24 season with a 32-7 record, an impressive runner-up finish in the National Invitation Tournament, mid-major basketball's coach of the year Josh Schertz, and a roster full of potential returnees, including all five starters.

Since then, Saint Louis University landed Schertz's services as head coach with a multiyear, $2-million-plus annual contract, and all but two Sycamore players have entered the NCAA transfer portal. The portal has eased college athletes' ability to go from one school to another. And, the potential to receive increased compensation for use of their name, image and likeness (known as NIL), has given programs from big conferences — with more and wealthier donors — an advantage in attracting players from more humble colleges.

Just weeks ago, next season looked like it would be one for the ages, even better than last season's AP Top 25 appearance, ISU's first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in 24 years and more wins than any Sycamore team except Larry Bird and Co. in 1978-79.

Now, it looks like a total rebuilding job faces newly promoted head coach Matthew Graves, who was Schertz's top assistant for three seasons.

There is good news, though.

ISU proved a powerful team can be built in a short time period, thanks to — yes — the transfer portal and NIL funding. If a mid-major like ISU offers student-athletes NIL compensation at a competitive level with other mid-majors, and has a coach who can recruit players to match an effective offensive and defense scheme, success can happen.

Such a quick-built success story may only last a couple seasons, but it can be a special couple of seasons.

"Indiana State can be successful next season," said David Pierce, director of the Sports Innovation Institute at Indiana University's Indianapolis campus.

Pierce wasn't speaking as a optimistic ISU fan. In addition to leading the institute, Pierce also serves as a professor of sports analytics. His graduate students have completed an intriguing study of the NCAA transfer portal situation in the past two seasons.

ISU's rise-to-reconstruction journey exemplifies what's possible.

"I think it's a pretty good glimpse of what life in the mid-major realm is going to look like," Pierce said.

At least for the next five seasons or so. Pierce believes college sports in the early part of the current decade will be termed "a transition period" in 20 years. The legal challenges to the NCAA that led to looser transfer rules and athlete compensation will likely result in players being part of a collective bargaining group, like an NBA or NFL players union.

In the meantime, "every year is going to look a little bit different in terms of what you can and what you can't do," Pierce said.

His IU student researchers found success stories in this present portal era, beyond ISU, such as the basketball teams at Grand Canyon and Utah State.

As for the transferring athletes themselves, those moving to bigger programs experienced a slight decrease in their box-score statistics, but an increase in the value they provide to their teams.

The researchers categorized the 362 teams at the NCAA Division I level into six tiers. ISU fell into Tier 3. Tier 1 included power-conference teams like Texas, which just gained two former Sycamores — forward Jayson Kent and guard Julian Larry — via the transfer portal. Prior to the 2023-24 season, 75 Tier 3 players transferred to higher-tiered programs. Those 75 players averaged 2 fewer minutes per game, 1 fewer points per game, and 0.5 fewer assists per game.

But the transfer players' value to their teams — measured in the study by the Evan Miyakawa's Bayesian Performance Rating (or BPR) of their offensive and defensive impact — increased significantly. The study used an example of Lance Jones, who transferred from MVC team Southern Illinois to Big Ten program Purdue. Jones' BPR score rose from 1.7 as a Saluki to 6.2 as a Boilermaker. Part of that jump can be attributed to playing for a stronger team, Pierce pointed out.

The upshot — players transferring up could see their stats drop, but their impact rise.

The mid-major and smaller DI programs they leave behind can succeed in their absence, nonetheless, the study shows, if they use the portal wisely.

Teams from levels below the "Power-6" conferences with portal-transfer players comprising at least 40% of their rosters improved by 2.4 wins per season, the IU study found. Ironically, the opposite was true for the Power-6 Conference teams. Those big-time teams with 40% transfer players or more got 2.5 fewer wins per season than Power-6 teams with fewer transfer players.

"Teams in ISU's position are put in a tough position, as non-Power 6 teams are consistently losing coaches and players that overperform each season," Pierce explained. "The good news for Sycamore fans is that non-Power 6 teams that have rosters comprised of more than 40% transfers won an average of 20 games in 2024, compared to 16 games for those rosters that had less than 40% transfers."

Utah State and Grand Canyon rode transfer players to last season's NCAA Tournament final 32, according to the IU researchers. Grand Canyon's roster was 46% transfers, and the Antelopes finished 24-12 in 2022-23 and then 30-5 last season. Utah State's roster was 53% transfers as the Aggies went 26-9 in 2022-23, changed coaches, then went 28-7 last season, and last month changed coaches again.

Portal transfers were the building blocks of last season's Sycamore team. Kent came to ISU from Bradley, Ryan Conwell from South Florida, Isaiah Swope from Southern Indiana, Jake Wolfe from Morehead State, Xavier Bledson from Lincoln Memorial. Sycamore backers got to enjoy the result of their decisions to leave those colleges for ISU.

ISU can go back to the portal now under coach Matthew Graves to restock.

Missouri Valley Commissioner Jeff Jackson is confident ISU, Drake and other MVC programs that lost coaches and players can return to a high level.

"The Missouri Valley's a great conference. We're going to have great coaches come in, and they're going to find success, and they're going to have an opportunity to move," Jackson said at Graves' introduction ceremony in Hulman Center. "And we're going to have great players come in, and they're going to find success and have an opportunity to move. But because of what our institutions are, because of the investment we make in our student-athletes, we will always be in a strong position to replenish."

Increased NIL funds can attract and retain players, and the NIL collective supporting Sycamore athletes — Crossroad of Champions — has seen a marked response to efforts to boost that athlete compensation, said twice-retired longtime ISU alumni administrator John Newton. Even the departure of Schertz to SLU and players through the portal didn't diminish interest supporting the NIL, he said.

Newton said a total of $92,500 was distributed to Schertz's players last season, and he expects the total Crossroad of Champions funds to reach $600,000 by April 2025. Fans and donors have realized that assembling a successful program under the current NCAA standards necessitates community contributions to NIL player funds and to the university foundation to supplement coaches' incomes.

"We're not competing with IU or Purdue or Notre Dame," Newton said, "but we are competing with the Missouri Valley schools."

Mike Alley and his wife Amy are among those donors. Alley, a former ISU Board of Trustees president, believes the NIL and transfer rules are beneficial to the student-athletes but not college athletics overall. That said, Alley sees strong positives emerging from the rise of Sycamore basketball, which included large crowds in Hulman Center and on the road.

A program like ISU "can excel within your parameters," Alley said, and "the community will support a good program, a winning program."

A lot has happened in the three years of the Schertz era.

"I think we have stepped up our game," he added, "and we have more resources to compete than we did three years ago, and that's a positive."

Graves displayed poise and enthusiasm as he stepped into Schertz's former role, and is ready to recruit new players, work to retain as many returnees as possible and keep his predecessor's offensive strategy intact.

It will be a constant cycle for ISU and similar schools. The IU Sports Innovation Institute's David Pierce summed up the fleeting nature of the teams that fans follow in this climate.

"You've got to live for the season in front of you," Pierce said.

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