Luke DeCock

CB McGrath leaves UNC behind, forges own path in Wilmington

C.B. McGrath spent 18 years as an assistant coach to Roy Williams at Kansas and North Carolina before being named head coach at UNC Wilmington in April.
C.B. McGrath spent 18 years as an assistant coach to Roy Williams at Kansas and North Carolina before being named head coach at UNC Wilmington in April. ldecock@newsobserver.com

Devontae Cacok thought he was getting ahead of the curve. When C.B. McGrath was hired at UNC Wilmington last April, Cacok started watching film of North Carolina’s big men, figuring McGrath would be bringing all of that with him from the Tar Heels.

“I’ve seen how they play, seen some of the sets that they run,” Cacok said.

At the same time, McGrath was busy watching film of the Seahawks. By the time practice started last week, the new coach had created new offensive sets designed to make the most of Cacok, who at 6-foot-7 is an efficient scorer but not a traditional back-to-the-basket, low-post big man like the ones Roy Williams covets and uses to great efficiency.

So while McGrath will start with concepts he’s bringing with him from Chapel Hill, he is already tweaking them for his new team and the strengths and weaknesses of his new players – like Cacok, whose tape study wasn’t entirely fruitless. Some of the core principles will remain the same.

“Obviously, we’re going to run secondary break to get them in certain spots down the court in an organized fashion,” McGrath said of the trademark Tar Heels transition offense. “Now, all the sets that we run out of that are going to be different. I would say, 80 to 90 percent of the stuff that we run is going to be different from what Carolina runs. It’s stuff, after seeing these guys play a little bit, knowing how they score, that will get them in positions where they can score their best. They’re different players.”

It’s a good example of just how much UNC there will be in UNCW under McGrath, 41, who has spent 22 of the last 23 years of his life either playing for or coaching under Williams, first at Kansas and then at North Carolina. The system passed down from Dean Smith to Williams to McGrath is ingrained in him, second nature at this point. His assistant coaches include a pair of former Tar Heels from different generations, Joe Wolf and Jackie Manuel.

The connections to Williams are so strong, they’re impossible to ignore. Before the season, Williams spoke to the basketball program’s fundraising banquet at McGrath’s request, giving what Manuel said was essentially the same speech he gave to his North Carolina players when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2003. (“If we win, everybody’s going to benefit,” Manuel said, summarizing the message.) Practices and conditioning exercises are organized the same as Williams at North Carolina, right down to the thoughts for the day on the practice plan.

cb1
From 2016, some of C.B. McGrath’s occasional (and sporadic) Twitter posts defending UNC coach Roy Williams. DeCock, Luke

But McGrath is also willing to discard the parts of it that won’t work for him in Wilmington, as he did when he was coaching North Carolina’s junior varsity, and as Cacok would quickly found out. And McGrath said he won’t spend his days wondering what Williams would do. He’s going to do it his way.

“His personality is different,” Manuel said. “He’s more even. He’s a young coach, so he’s got his own thought process and philosophy on how he wants to do things. He does have the experience of doing it with the JV team at Carolina, so he’s tinkered, tried some things, liked some things, scrapped some things. I think the foundation is the same. Because it’s a great foundation to build on. For him, it’s about what works with this team.”

McGrath is the second of Williams’ assistants at North Carolina to strike out on his own, following his Kansas college roommate Jerod Haase, who is at Stanford now after four seasons at Alabama-Birmingham, each better than the last. (Both North Carolina and Stanford are expected to visit Wilmington as part of home-and-home series over the next few seasons.) McGrath kept a low profile at North Carolina, with the exception of the semi-annual occasions when his otherwise dormant Twitter account would explode with passionate defenses of Williams against his critics, then fall silent again for months.

Unlike Haase, who took over a UAB program that had not had much recent success, McGrath faces higher expectations. The Seahawks won two straight CAA titles under Kevin Keatts, now the head coach at N.C. State, and have a tradition of success that predates that, including some good seasons in the early 2000s under current Clemson coach Brad Brownell. The transition from Keatts to McGrath was accompanied by new highs for season-ticket sales.

At the same time, the Seahawks lose four starters from last year’s team that lost narrowly to Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament – including C.J. Bryce, who followed Keatts to N.C. State – which means McGrath has some work ahead of him.

“I think there’s an expectation that we will be competitive,” UNCW athletic director Jimmy Bass said. “I know we have a championship culture here.”

When McGrath was hired at Wilmington, they played the old footage of his senior speech at Kansas on the video board. It ended with McGrath saying he might like to coach someday. He doesn’t remember that part of it, even if that would eventually become his goal. And here he is, in a place he and his family already loved even before he moved there.

While the first game is still a month away, so far it’s everything he hoped it would be. If not more.

“It’s been better,” McGrath said.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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