When the Loyola Chicago Ramblers miss a shot, Porter Moser applauds. Not all the time, but most of the time.
And when Moser applauds a miss, so do his assistant coaches and the players on the bench. He starts a chain reaction of seemingly incongruous positive reinforcement.
This is a small snapshot of the Loyola mindset: good shots should be recognized and supported, whether they go in or miss. The goal is to have a possession that generates a makable shot, with that process more important than the result. If you miss a good one, don’t worry about it; just keep playing.
Keep in mind, Loyola doesn’t miss a lot of shots compared to its brethren. Only one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament makes a higher percentage from two-point range than the Ramblers’ 57.7, and that’s Gonzaga. Their 36% shooting from three-point range is good, but their postseason percentage beyond the arc is great (45.8).
On the occasions Loyola does miss, it has what Ken Pomeroy’s metrics rate as the best defense in the nation to fall back on. So the Moser mantra is to reinforce good offense while relying on great defense. And everyone has bought in.
The communal clapping for missed shots is part of the beautiful culture cocoon Moser has built at Loyola, a school with modest resources and spotty tradition. They approach things a bit differently—and it works.
The multimillion-dollar question is whether that approach would work somewhere else. Somewhere like, say, Indiana.
I believe it would. If Moser can go 99–35 the last four seasons, the best record in school history across four years, it would translate anywhere. If he can go 6–1 in the NCAA tournament during that time, with victories over teams seeded No. 1 (Illinois), No. 3 (Tennessee), No. 6 (Miami), No. 7 (Nevada) and No. 9 (Kansas State and Georgia Tech), he can beat anyone in March. If he can win while playing only 56% of his non-conference games at home in those four seasons, imagine what he’d do with the standard, power-conference setup of 70-80% home games.
The number of coaches who have taken mid-major schools to a Final Four this century is five: Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, Jim Larranaga at George Mason, Brad Stevens at Butler, Shaka Smart at VCU and Moser at Loyola. The number of coaches who have taken mid-major schools to a Final Four and a Sweet 16 is two: Stevens and Moser. We’ll see if Moser can equal Stevens’s two Final Fours, which remains the 21st century gold standard coaching job at the mid-major level.
(Gonzaga hasn’t fit the definition of a mid-major for at least 15 years, so the Zags are excluded from the conversation.)
But not even Stevens could do what Moser did Sunday, which was to absolutely beat down a No. 1 seed. Loyola’s 13-point margin of victory over Illinois is the largest second-round win over a No. 1 seed in 35 years, since an Auburn team with two first-round draft picks beat St. John’s by 16 in 1986. There have been plenty of 8/9 upsets of top seeds over the years but almost nothing like what the Ramblers did to the Illini, who never led in the game.
Were you watching, Indiana administrators?
My ideal candidate for the Indiana job was Baylor’s Scott Drew, but thus far he doesn’t appear to be part of the search. The Brad Stevens fantasy is over. If neither of those is going to happen, court Moser with all you’ve got, Hoosiers.
Send a staffer to stand outside Loyola’s hotel in Indianapolis with a boombox over his head, John Cusack style, and play the fight song over and over. Let Moser know that the love is real. They shouldn’t let him leave the state when the Ramblers are eliminated. If the Ramblers are eliminated.
Then Porter Moser would be faced with a decision: take the leap and all that comes with it, or continue building Butler By Lake Michigan in Chicago.
Indiana offers the most powerful of all advantages—membership in the power-conference club. The Big Ten is always going to be flush with NCAA tournament bids, which alleviates the terrible pressure of one-bid conference tourneys. It also offers way more money, better facilities, scheduling clout, name recognition and access to the best recruits.
Even with all the progress at Loyola, trying to win a national title is far easier at Indiana. Some people have made a living-in-the-past comparison of Indiana basketball to Nebraska football, but it’s a bad one—Nebraska football has no reliable homegrown recruiting territory, whereas Indiana hoops sits on a perpetual hotbed of talent. Combine that with the facilities, tradition and fan imperative to be good, and Indiana remains a great job in the right hands.
But do Moser’s hands wrap more comfortably around a Loyola-type program? Is his program-building philosophy better suited for the Cameron Krutwigs than the high-end recruits who see college as a stopover? As stated above, I believe he could do the job at Indiana and win big—but can’t he already do that at Loyola and stay true to his vision?
More than once in the last four years, Moser has referenced coming to peace with leading a mid-major program as opposed to pressing his nose against the window and pining for something bigger. He did it again Sunday.
“Whatever field you're in, when you're young, you're so much about the trajectory,” Moser said. “You're focusing on, ‘I've got to win, I've got to get to this level, I've got to make this much money, I've got to get here.’ And you're never happy and you don't enjoy the journey. I just was so in the moment of enjoying the journey the last five, six years, the people I'm with and being happy, and the success comes then.”
Loyola was willing to let Moser grow through that trajectory-fixated phase of his career while his teams were treading water on the court. The former Rick Majerus assistant coach started his tenure there with three straight losing seasons, and four in the first five. It wasn’t until year seven that he broke through and made the NCAA tournament.
One of the beauties of college basketball is the diverse paths to elite-level success. That’s all the more clear when compared with the closed society that is college football. Great coaching niches can be carved out in off-Broadway locations.
Mark Few can stay at Gonzaga and not have to sacrifice anything. Stevens could spend six seasons at Butler before going straight to the NBA. Smart spent six at VCU, despite going to the Final Four in his second year. Larranaga worked another five years at George Mason before heading to Miami.
Porter Moser probably could stay at Loyola as long as he wants—in Chicago terms, he could be that school’s Ray Meyer. It would be fun to see what he could sustain there, though watching him rebuild Indiana also would be fun.
Celebrating missed shots would be easier at Loyola than Indiana, to be sure, where the forces that built the program are likely to always outweigh the power of the coach at any given time. I wouldn’t blame Indiana for one minute if it decides to pursue Porter Moser with all its might. But I also wouldn’t blame Moser if he decided to stay right where he is, in the beautiful culture cocoon he created.