By Kevin Sweeney
After the craziness of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, just two mid-majors are left standing as we enter the Sweet 16.
Nevada and Loyola-Chicago, who have provided much of the drama from the crazy first weekend, are the two still alive. And as the two mid-major powerhouses prepare to face off against one another on Thursday in Atlanta, it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the two. In many ways, they represent the modernization of college basketball, and their new methods are clearly paying dividends.
Let’s start with the head coaches. Porter Moser appeared to be a rising star in the business with a successful stint at Little Rock before taking the Illinois State job in 2003. However, he struggled to win there, going just 51-67 and was fired after 4 seasons. That led him to the late Rick Majerus, the legendary head coach at Saint Louis, where he was an assistant for 4 years. Moser never seems to go a press conference without mentioning Majerus, and he credits Majerus with much of the culture he has been able to build at Loyola.
“It’s hard to quantify all the things I got from him,” Moser told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune this March. “I made the most of four years with him as a friend and a coach.”
After his time under Majerus, Moser got the opportunity he’d been waiting for: the chance to build a Loyola program in his native Chicago that would soon transition into the Missouri Valley. And while there have certainly been ups and downs throughout his 7 year tenure.
In Reno, it’s been Eric Musselman who has executed an incredible turnaround, winning 24 or more games in each of his first 3 seasons as a collegiate head coach. Before college, Musselman had been highly successful in both the CBA and the D-League, but struggled in 3 seasons as an NBA head coach. It was then that he headed to college basketball, working under Herb Sendek at Arizona State and Johnny Jones at LSU before taking the Nevada job in 2015.
While their paths to their current homes are far from the same, both faced failure early before adapting becoming the great coaches they are today. The philosophies they have employed have helped them find themselves just two wins from the Final Four.
As Brett Koremenos broke down so eloquently in this lengthy Twitter thread, shooting has become a “market inefficiency” in college basketball. Moser and Musselman have put together clubs that shoot the lights out, often with all 5 guys on the floor having the ability to hit from downtown. Combine that with elite ball movement, with both teams ranking in the top 40 nationally in assists per game, and you get an offense that is difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
To attack this market inefficiency, both coaches have embraced a trendy term in the modernization of basketball at all levels: “Pace and Space”. The concept is simple: keep the tempo up and space the floor. How do you do that?
“You’ve got to recruit to it,” Moser told me after a win over Missouri State earlier this season.
That began with Donte Ingram, a senior from local Chicago powerhouse Simeon who is an example of the perfect player in this system. A physical 6-6 wing, Ingram can be deployed at the 2, 3, or 4, shoots 40% from 3, can put the ball on the deck, and has a strong build that allows him to compete in the paint against bigger players.
Moser has continued to recruit to that system when putting this roster together, with Marques Townes and Aundre Jackson both excellent examples of versatile players who can do everything on the court. Combine them with a point guard like MVC POY Clayton Custer who keeps the ball moving and hits outside shots, and all the sudden you have an offense that is awfully hard to stop.
According to Moser, the key to all of this coming together is shooting.
“You can’t really have spacing if you put 2 or 3 guys on the floor that can’t shoot, Moser said. “They’ll just pack in on you.”
Moser says he never wants more than one guy on the floor at a time who can’t shoot. The only player in the regular rotation who isn’t a threat from outside is freshman center Cameron Krutwig, and the Ramblers embrace a “4-out, 1-in” offense that utilizes Krutwig’s strengths as a passer out of the post collapse the defense and create open looks for shooters.
Musselman and Nevada’s roster has gone to the extreme of this pace and space movement, as the roster has been built around long, athletic wings with diverse skillsets. Caleb and Cody Martin have pushed this movement to another level, both of whom are truly “5-tool” players at 6-6 who can guard 1-4 (and occasionally even 5’s), put the ball on the deck, shoot 3’s, and distribute.
Nevada has no one over 6-7 in their regular rotation, with Jordan Caroline often playing as an undersized center who can score inside and out. Built like a football player, Caroline’s strength and quickness allow him score on short drives and post-ups, while also being able to take the ball coast to coast against guards and step out and hit 3’s in the pick-and-pop.
Going back to his roots in the NBA, Musselman has taken influence from the Golden State Warriors’ explosive offense in how he coaches offense. On his personal blog, he wrote preseason about how his team has begun counting passes, modeled after Golden State’s goal of completing 300 passes every game. Accounting for the shorter game and slower pace, Musselman wrote that his target is 200 passes per game.
“Since day 1, we’ve been talking about moving that ball,” Caroline said earlier this season.
Now, the biggest game in either program’s recent history is just 1 day away. A Final Four is in sight, with the upsets throughout the South Region leaving the winner of this ballgame taking on the winner of #5 Kentucky and #9 Kansas State for a trip to San Antonio. And while both coaches will likely receive plenty of calls from bigger programs this offseason, the only thing they want moving right now is the ball.