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Coaching Search Bracket: Matt McMahon vs. Grant McCasland

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Matt McMahon’s the latest in an assembly line of coaches churned out by Murray State, while Grant McCasland’s no-middle defense has rejuvenated a moribund North Texas program.

NCAA Basketball: North Texas at Wichita State William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri’s embarked upon its fourth search for a basketball coach in roughly a decade, and as usual, you can find a listicle of candidates anywhere. We also know every fan has their preference. As does each of us on the masthead for this website.

A thought occurred to us: What would happen if you, me, and everyone else ran the process?

How are we doing this? Over the next four days, we’ll roll out four regions featuring a pair of matchups. We’ve assembled a profile for each candidate: their background, play style, pros, and cons. At the bottom of each piece is a poll, where you have 24 hours to make your preference known. The fan vote will make up 50 percent of the vote.

Who makes up the other half? The Rock M staff.

If the staff is unanimous and the fans make the same selection, easy enough. If, however, there is a consensus amongst the staff, but the fans disagree, we have a tie. To break the tie, we’ve enlisted the services of Jim Root (@2ndChancePoints), who will render the final verdict.

On Saturday, we looked at the Young Bloods Region, featuring Kim English, Todd Golden, Dennis Gates, and Jeff Linder.

Today, we’re moving on to the Steady Risers Region. Here, it’s Murray State’s McMahon and North Texas’ Grant McCasland. The other pairing features Colorado State’s Niko Medved and Belmont’s Casey Alexander.


COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 05 Ohio Valley Tournament - Morehead State v Murray State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • Name: Matt McMahon
  • School: Murray State
  • Age: 43
  • Seasons: 7
  • Record: 151-66
  • Salary: $500,000
  • Buyout: $500,000

Background

Few certainties exist in a coaching search, but a candidate from Murray State is as close as you might get to a seal of approval. In the past 30 years, the school in Southwest Kentucky has been an assembly line: Mark Gottfried, Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy, and Steve Prohm.

And seven years ago, Matt McMahon inherited the gig.

After a turbulent two seasons and a 33-31 record, McMahon, who’d spent four seasons on Prohm’s staff, found his footing. The Racers also turned up a bouncy 6-foot-3 kid in an auxiliary gym who would pass through southwest Kentucky like a comet. Might you have heard of Ja Morant?

But life after Ja has gone quite well, too. Murray’s won four of the last five regular-season titles in the Ohio Valley Conference, a one-bid league where the Racers and rival Belmont usually tangle for a dance card in March. It’s a group headlined by a slender wing in Tevin Brown, who arrived in the same class as Morant, redshirted after an injury, and became a 1,800-point scorer along the way.

KJ Williams, the OVC Player of the Year, is a sturdy but mobile five-man, while a pair of SEC transfers – Justice Hill and Trae Hannibal – round out the Racers’ backcourt. It’s also a team that hasn’t lost since mid-December when it took a 13-point loss at Auburn.

This edition of the Racers is posting gaudy offensive numbers, but that’s nothing new under McMahon. Instead, what marks this vintage is its defense. The Racers are 28th nationally in adjusted efficiency, turning opponents over almost 22 percent of the time but with one of the lowest foul rates in the country.

There aren’t many firsts left for one of the country’s best mid-majors – except a Sweet 16 appearance. Perhaps this is the year that changes, and if so, McMahon may find himself passing the baton.

Play Style

Flipping on a rivalry game between Murray and Belmont is a study in contrasts. The Bruins play fast and segue into a four-out motion, a dervish of screening and cutting. The Racers? They throttle back and run sets that can start with a simple flat pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor.

Put another way: one team loves ball screens, and the other shuns them. We don’t have to dig too deeply into the playbook to see another staple—staggered screens. It’s a utility tool for McMahon. Need to distract help defenders during a post-up? Have a guard cut through using them. Want to flow into a DHO? Have your guard in the weakside corner run the baseline and them? Need to spring a shooter loose on the weak side? Covered. Horns, Spain pick-and-roll, chin: doesn’t matter, there’s a stagger.

That shift toward more off-ball motion is evident on tape and play-type data. Since Morant moved on, the Racers have doubled the number of touches from those actions.

Pros

McMahon’s consistently found a way to land smaller combo guards or leaner wings and turn them into stellar producers. Meanwhile, his bigs are strong enough to get a post pin but agile enough to operate as deft screeners and dive into post-ups.

And ignore the tempo his teams play at, too. He runs modern action than you can sell to high-end talent, especially ball-handlers who want to be versed in spread pick-and-roll concepts. All he must do is put on a tape of Morant, Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne – the NBA draft picks who passed through while McMahon has been at Murray.

Oh, he’s also affordable. His buyout is just $500,000.

Cons

Like Alexander at Belmont, what’s the allure of leaving for MU? He only needs to look at Prohm’s tenure at Iowa State, which quickly turned sour during a pandemic season. If McMahon gives up that stability, you’d assume it’s for a program already on sound footing.

McMahon’s life is also about to get somewhat easier. Murray State is joining Belmont in moving to the Missouri Valley Conference, and multiple bids each March won’t be rare. That improved access, a roster that could return five starters, and reliable support might make it harder to pry him away.


COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 25 ESPN Events Invitational - North Texas v Kansas Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  • Name: Grant McCasland
  • School: North Texas
  • Age: 45
  • Seasons: 5
  • Record: 102-56 (177-80 overall)
  • Salary: $600,000
  • Buyout: $1.4 million

Background

Grant McCasland boasts an extensive resume for someone of his vintage. He played at Baylor, graduating in 1999 after arriving as a walk-on. He next served as the director of basketball operations at Texas Tech for two seasons while attaining his master’s degree. In 2001 he was an assistant coach at Northeastern Junior College, where he ran double duty as a resident assistant at the school dormitory.

McCasland then landed his first head coaching job at Midland College, another junior college institution, at the age of 27 years old. He served as the head coach from 2004 until 2009. During that time he managed to take home the 2007 national championship. One of his primary rivals was led by current Texas Tech head coach Mark Adams. It was also at Midland where McCasland invited current Wyoming coach Jeff Linder to be part of his staff.

He then moved up to Midwestern State University, a Division II school. As head coach for two seasons, he led the program to back-to-back Elite 8 appearances in the national tournament.

McCasland was briefly hired to be the head coach of Abilene Christian before Scott Drew convinced him to join his staff at Baylor. McCasland served five seasons under Drew’s mentorship alongside Paul Mills, now of Oral Roberts. It was during this time period that Baylor underwent several philosophical shifts before becoming the powerhouse they are now.

It was in 2016 that McCasland found his first job as a D-I head coach. He served one year at Arkansas State. He took over a Red Wolves squad that had limped to consecutive sub-250 rankings in Pomeroy’s ratings. In his one year in Jonesboro, McCasland finished 20-12 and 11-7 in Sun Belt play, jumping their ranking to 124th.

In 2017, he was called back to Texas. Taking over what could only be described as a moribund North Texas team, McCasland was tasked with a significant rebuild. The Mean Green hadn’t seen the NCAA tournament since 2010 and were coming off of five straight sub-230 rankings, including 320th in 2017.

Not to be deterred, McCasland saw immediate benefits. He has won 20 games every season in Denton — save for 2021 when the team only played 28 games — and has finished no worse than 158th. His last three seasons have all included finishes in the top 80. The Mean Green won the out-right regular season C-USA title in both 2020 and 2022. Though perhaps his most impressive season was in 2021, when North Texas won the C-USA tournament, advanced to the NCAA tournament and knocked off Purdue in a thrilling overtime affair.

Make no mistake, McCasland’s resume is extensive, and impressive.

Play Style

The key feature of a modern McCasland team is on the defensive end. McCasland’s assistant, Ross Hodge, who was hired away from Larry Eustachy’s staff at Colorado State. McCasland attributes his team’s defensive success to Hodge’s implementation of the notorious, “no-middle” defense.

And the proof is in the pudding.

After three average seasons in adjusted efficiency, the Mean Green’s defense has finished 48th and 19th in consecutive years. Again, that’s a national ranking at a Conference USA school. Aside from the general concepts of icing all actions to the boundary, McCasland’s defense puts a premium on both preventing volume and quality of 3-point attempts. They rank fifth nationally in opponents share of field goal attempts coming from three-point range. They rank seventh in defensive three-point field goal percentage. They also force a lot of improvisation, as the Mean Green have rated top 30 in three of five seasons in opponents’ assist rate on field goals. They are known for having interchangeable pieces that can guard multiple positions, disallowing mismatch opportunities.

Offensively, they’re an opportunistic bunch.

While it is certainly true that McCasland’s teams play a slow, if not plodding pace, they do not sacrifice efficiency. The Mean Green have played at a pace 350th or lower in three straight seasons. However, their effective-field-goal percentage has only improved, rising from 85th to 40th to 5th each successive season. While they may use the bulk of the shot clock, they’re taking — and making — high-quality shots. A Matt Norlander piece described McCasland’s search for answers outside of his current staff to include picking the brains of Jeff Linder (Wyoming) and Ben McCollum (Northwest Missouri State) to make their offensive even more efficient.

What you can expect to see when watching a McCasland coached team is a steady stream of ball screen actions and hunting for mismatches. If the defense switches, they hunt that advantage. Whether that’s a guard attacking a big on a pull up or a fly-by, or a big punishing a guard on a post-up. If neither are there, you’ll find North Texas attacks the paint looking for rim attempts or kickouts to open three point shooters. The latter has proven particularly effective, with the team finishing top-40 in 3-point accuracy for three years running.

Pros

There’s a lot to like here. Success across multiple levels of the sport. A stint at Baylor to get a taste of the high major experience under a very accomplished head coach. Multiple stops at lower level programs that require much more of a coach than recruiting and coaching. And then the job he’s done at North Texas. He’s completely rejuvenated a dead program and built it into a winner. After losing three starters from a team that one the C-USA crown in 2020, the auto-bid in 2021 and a tournament game, McCasland rebounded with what will likely be North Texas’s best metric finish of the whole lot. He’s rebuilt. He’s maintained. He’s rebuilt again. And now he’s elevated. There are not many candidates at his relatively young age that can boast such an impressive body of work.

Cons

There’s no question McCasland’s roots are strongly entrenched in the Lone Star State. He spent two years in Colorado and one in Arkansas. He returned to Texas shortly after taking both jobs. Can a school outside of Texas lure him away and keep him?

A second issue is pace of play. While winning should outweigh any stylistic concerns of how you do it, McCasland’s teams trend towards the Tony Bennett style of grinding opponents into submission. You do not see much in the way of transition basketball and high scoring games. Whether that would prove to be his bread and butter or simply the way he has to win given what he has is unknown. It is rare, however, to see coaches drastically shift their style of play.

I would note that of rejuvenated non-blueblood squads, many feature slow paces and strong man-to-man defenses. In fact, we saw two such examples square off in the 2019 national title game.

Finally, McCasland has drawn on his experience in the junior college ranks to build a percentage of his teams at North Texas. Moving to a new region and revamping his recruiting strategy is a lingering question. McCasland’s buy-out is healthy for a coach at a mid-major, but one that shouldn’t provide a significant obstacle to an interested high major suitor.


Poll

Which coach would you prefer to see leading Missouri next season?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Matt McMahon
    (303 votes)
  • 42%
    Grant McCasland
    (225 votes)
528 votes total Vote Now