INDIANAPOLIS -- When NCAA Tournament play resumes this weekend, the first Sweet 16 game will mark the return of Loyola Chicago to the regional semifinals. We'll see if Porter Moser and the Ramblers can completely recapture the magic and make another leap to the Final Four three years after their Cinderella spring of 2018.
This year's Loyola Chicago squad is no Disney movie, though. The 26-4 Ramblers bristle at the Cinderella label, and rightfully so. Moser has again assembled a Final Four-level outfit. If he can win two more games he'll become the third coach (joining UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian and Butler's Brad Stevens) to lead a team from a mid-major conference to multiple Final Four appearances in the modern NCAA Tournament era.
It's no wonder Moser's become arguably the hottest mid-major coaching candidate since Stevens, whose rise was so meteoric it morphed Butler from Horizon League school to Atlantic 10 passerby to Big East member in a three-year span. (Stevens left for the Boston Celtics two days after Butler officially joined the Big East in 2013.)
Moser's managed to upgrade Loyola Chicago's allegiances since he arrived in 2011, too. A decade ago, Moser and Stevens were contemporaries and rivals, nestled amongst each other in the Horizon League. In 2013, Loyola moved up to to the Missouri Valley Conference. In the past four seasons the school has emerged to alpha status, finishing first or second each year. Moser claims a 63-18 record vs. league opponents since 2017-18. If the eighth-seeded Ramblers beat No. 12 Oregon State Saturday it will be Moser's 100th win over the last four seasons.
Sweet 16 picks and previews for all eight games this weekend. Listen to the latest episode of Eye on College Basketball below.
Stand back and scan the big picture: Take a mid-major to the Final Four in 2018 as a No. 11 then hold steady for two more years with 41 more wins before boomeranging with your best team ever on the way to building what's statistically one of the best mid-major teams of the modern-analytics era. Cherry on top: beat top-seeded, flaming-hot, best-in-a-generation, in-state-big-brother Illinois along the way.
It's why one of the biggest questions that's emerged in the lead-up to the Sweet 16 is: Will Moser leave Loyola Chicago? Should he? He almost did two years ago, when St. John's was ready to hand him the keys. In the 11th hour, Moser balked and stayed home, where he's built a viable small-school darling of a power in one of America's best cities. That decision has improved his career and Loyola's program. The Ramblers boast the top-ranked per-possession defense (per KenPom) in the sport. This achievement still isn't quite getting the attention it deserves. He's doing this at Loyola Chicago. Coaches who've finished with the No. 1 defense in the past decade include Hall of Famers Rick Pitino and John Calipari, in addition to surefire future Hall of Famers Mark Few and Tony Bennett.
Keep in mind what it took for Moser to get back to this spot -- to another Sweet 16 by scaling the craggy path. Under-seeded Loyola has overshot expectations again in part because of scheduling prejudice that, in all honesty, is probably the No. 1 reason Moser should consider upgrading gigs. His program continues to be shrugged off -- if not outright ignored -- when it comes to nonconference scheduling. Two years ago Moser lamented to me about the challenges of trying to build a mid-major power. It hasn't gotten much easier since then.
When you're great and at that level -- yet still so far away from elevating to Gonzaga's status -- power-conference programs either won't play you or won't play you on equal terms.
"I'm trying," Moser told me then. "You know what kills me … when you hear first five in, last five out, and you're approaching Selection Sunday and you hear people criticize you for your schedule. That kills me at our level. We're out there trying to do it. We're getting teams buying out of contracts, not wanting to play home-and-homes. It's very tough. You see a lot of the inequality."
He wouldn't have to worry about this at Marquette or Indiana. So let's talk about those two. They are the vacancies that make sense for Moser, a man born, raised and built to thrive in the American Midwest ... if he wants to leave Loyola. Indiana and Marquette both should -- and I believe both are -- looking at Moser as a top-target kind of candidate. Indiana is reportedly trying to narrow its scope to candidates with "Indiana ties," for whatever that's worth, but it would be incompetent at this point to not wait for Loyola's season to end and formally interview Moser, should he accept an interview (and he should).
I won't speak for Moser or his interests. From afar, and for him, Marquette feels like the better move. It's a Jesuit institution, just like Loyola Chicago, and I know that means something to Moser. The gap between IU and MU isn't that big. Since 2000 Marquette has been to 12 NCAA Tournaments with one Final four, one Elite Eight and two more Sweet 16s. Indiana in that same span has been to 11 NCAA Tournaments with one title-game appearance and three Sweet 16s but no Elite Eights.
And a hell of a lot more melodrama.
Indiana is in a deeper league with better coaching (according to coaches I've asked across the country). Marquette -- like Loyola Chicago -- is in a basketball-first conference. Marquette can more than double Moser's money by placing a "3" at the front of his annual salary, just the way Indiana probably would. Moser also carries ties -- and something he considers a lifelong debt -- to the late Rick Majerus. Moser's career reboot came as an assistant to Majerus at Saint Louis. Marquette is Majerus' alma mater and where he got his start in coaching.
"I think it's a better job," one major-conference head coach told CBS Sports this week re: Marquette. Two other industry sources agreed.
One source referenced how the next coach of Indiana will have to endure a fishbowl-like existence. That wouldn't be the case at Marquette. Another source said that if Archie Miller could be fired after four years thanks to, the next guy isn't going to be given any more leniency. If you win big, they will love you forever, but it's been a long time since anyone won big at IU.
Marquette has a fevered fan base of its own -- Steve Wojciechowski's ouster wasn't exactly pretty -- but the expectations are more realistic.
The Indiana perk: IU at its peak is close to being the best job in college basketball. Marquette can't equal that. But while both jobs would bring plenty of weighty expectations -- and pressures Moser would never have on his shoulders at his current post -- getting to that peak becomes the question. When weighing all of the pros and cons of Marquette vs. Indiana, Marquette has a lot to sell. High-quality league, major metropolitan area, pro arena, A-level facilities, good tradition but without a 10,000-pound magnifying glass over your head every day throughout the season.
Ask Archie Miller, Tom Crean, Mike Davis and Kelvin Sampson about how the Indiana experience can be. Hell, even ask Bob Knight. It's still a great job, but is it a great job for Moser?
For all the speculation about whether staying at Loyola would be a good move, something that gets lost in this: Moser is 52 years old. He's by no means entering the winter of his career, but his upstart days are behind him. Moser has been a head coach for 17 seasons: three at Little Rock (2000-03), four at Illinois State (2003-07) and, after a stint as an assistant at Saint Louis, the past 10 years in Chicago, where he's accumulated a 188-140 record.
That spiffy hair and peppy personality in part cover up some of the coaching scars. He was fired at Illinois State, which amounted to an awakening for him. It was the type of devastating blow that aligned him with Majerus and put him on a trackway to be where he is right now. But prior to the Final Four season of 2018, Moser's mark at Loyola Chicago was 89-105 with a 33-73 league record. He was a sub-.500 coach until 2018. Despite the struggles, Moser has thrived and swooped into his coaching prime well over a decade into his career. He carries a borderline pristine reputation. He's earned this moment and deserves to be discussed at the best job openings in college basketball.
If he opts to stay, he'll probably be able to get Loyola Chicago to an NCAA Tournament-level more years than not. But playing in league that is one-bid more often than not wears on most coaches, Moser included. Having your season come down to one week of conference tournament play is an excruciating part of mid-major life. If he's going to stay with the Ramblers, the school will probably have to make a Gonzaga-like commitment. It will have to do something it's never done before and financially commit on a scale that would blow away every other mid-major program.
If he's ever going to leave, this is the year. Near-perfect opportunities for great jobs in the region won't get better than this. As the drama of the NCAA Tournament continues to play out this weekend, the futures and fates of three programs seems to dangle in the balance.
Loyola's story isn't done yet. The theater of it all: the more Moser and his team wins, the more compelling March's biggest mystery decision becomes.