"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Keegan considers MU coaching possibilities: Smart or Moser

By Tom Keegan

Marquette understandably fired a basketball coach who in seven seasons was sub-.500 in conference games in the regular season and never won an NCAA Tournament game. His teams routinely performed below expectations created by relatively highly ranked recruiting classes.

In six seasons at Texas, Shaka Smart has a sub-.500 conference record in the Big 12 regular season and is 0-3 in NCAA Tournament games, the most recent loss to mighty Abilene Christian.

So unless you believe that it’s a great deal easier to build a basketball powerhouse at Marquette than at Texas, why would you want to hire Smart as Steve Wojciechowski’s replacement?

If Smart didn’t get it done at Texas, where he still works, what convinces anyone that he would bring Marquette back to the winning ways it enjoyed under Tom Crean and Buzz Williams?

Smart’s a big name, thanks to leading VCU into the 2011 Final Four, but big names tend to be more important in winning press conferences than games. Wojciechowski is a big name in college basketball too, and not just because it has 13 letters. You slap the floor at Duke and you’re a big name forever.

Smart would bring 12 years of head coaching experience to the job and Wojo brought none, but the standard here isn’t “better than Wojo,” it’s the best coach you can land.

In that regard, Smart doesn’t measure up to Loyola’s Porter Moser, whose team is favored to score a win Saturday against Oregon State that would advance the Ramblers to the Elite Eight.

Moser, who coaches with confidence and has a strong presence, remains in contention to coach in the Final Four for the second time in four seasons. His career record in NCAA tourney games is 6-1. Smart’s is 7-8. Moser has won three Missouri Valley Conference regular-season titles at Loyola. Smart’s Texas teams have finished as high as third and as low as 10th. At VCU, he competed in the Colonial Athletic Conference in three seasons and the Atlantic 10 in three seasons. He never won a regular-season title in either conference. He has fared better in conference tourneys, winning one in each of the three leagues.

Smart, from Madison, was offered the Marquette job before it went to Wojo. He turned it down and left for Texas the next year. Many still haven’t forgiven Crean for leaving Marquette for Indiana, yet would welcome Smart, even though he turned down Marquette to stay at VCU. Explain that one.

Some coaches get significantly better with experience. See: Rick Majerus, Scott Drew, Moser. Others don’t. Moser was 35 when he took the Illinois State job after three seasons as head coach at Arkansas Little Rock. Fired after four years at Illinois State, Moser obviously learned a ton from Majerus working for him for four seasons at St. Louis.

Moser’s in his eighth season at Loyola and is 99-35 in the past four, compared to 67-66 in the first four.

Talent evaluation, the most underrated recruiting asset, includes knowing what type of players fit your system. Analysts Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith, both very impressed with Moser, had an interesting discussion that started with Barkley saying, “We get so enamored with finding players who can jump over buildings” and finished with Smith saying it’s important to find players smart enough to know that it’s easier to “open the front door and walk through the building to get to the other side.”

If hired by Marquette, Moser could recruit his type of players and choose from the pool he has recruited from at Loyola and become even more selective by adding Wisconsin and national recruits to the mix.

Smart’s a proven recruiter with national contacts, but his recruiting ability hasn’t translated to victories as well as Moser’s has. Not only that, recent news of players transferring out of Texas draws another similarity to Wojo.

Moser over Smart is an easy choice, but that doesn’t guarantee Moser would come since Loyola no doubt will make it hard for him to leave and Indiana might be an option as well. If Moser’s not interested in coming to Marquette, Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates, a Chicago native and Cordell Henry teammate (Whitney Young) who wanted to come to Marquette but headed to Cal after the scholarship went to David Diggs, was a great recruiter at Florida State and has staged a quick turnaround in Cleveland. Gates spent the 2003-04 season as a graduate assistant under Crean at Marquette. Speaking of Crean, his Georgia team scored 98 points in a 10-point victory over Smart’s Longhorns on Jan. 26, 2019.

The gap between Moser and Smart is big enough that there’s no reason to think that if Moser isn’t interested, better candidates than Smart can be lured to Milwaukee: Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey, Utah State’s Craig Smith, etc., among them.

Moser, though, should be the clearcut No. 1 target. He would excel with the opportunity for which his late, great friend Majerus wasn’t quite ready.

—Tom Keegan is a graduate of Marquette University, as are three siblings, two sons, four nieces and three nephews. He most recently was sports columnist for the Boston Herald and in the past has been sports editor/columnist at the Lawrence Journal-World and baseball columnist at the New York Post.

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