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A Second Look: Why Grant McCasland might be right for Mizzou

Maybe everyone — administrators, fans, and a certain online search committee — has been neglecting a fantastic option in a coach that overhauled North Texas.

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North Texas v Dayton Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Over the back half of the 2021-2022 season, the basketball staff here at Rock M spent a significant amount of time discussing hypotheticals.

Will the administration show confidence in Cuonzo Martin for a sixth year? If so, what needs will have to be addressed on the roster? What changes might be needed with the coaching staff to make that pay off? Should the newly minted direct of athletics, Desiree Reed-Francois, look for a replacement? If so, what candidates could be a legitimate target. Which best fit the needs of Mizzou’s program? What type of program is Mizzou, anyway?

Many of these discussions found their way into cyberspace. Others did not. Asking either Matt Harris or Sam Snelling, you would quickly find one candidate that I have developed a particular affinity for. In this piece, I will attempt to show you why.

North Texas v Purdue Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On March 19, 2021, Grant McCasland and his Mean Green of North Texas had reached the pinnacle of all mid-major basketball dreams: to secure the league’s automatic bid and to show America why they belong on the sport’s biggest stage. And that they did. Led by senior guard, Javion Hamlet, the the 13th-seeded Mean Green pulled off the fabled mega-upset, defeating fourth-seeded Purdue.

Games like this are what often catapult “intriguing” names into the national conscience. March legends are never forgotten. March wins bring April bags. True to form, McCasland’s name popped up in openings for the Oklahoma and Texas Tech jobs, though ultimately he returned to Denton.

Fast-forward a year, and you’ll see there’s no such dream finish. Despite an incredible 16-2 mark in Conference USA, the Green fell victim to the perils of mid-major basketball. They lost to Louisiana Tech, a team they had beaten twice in the regular season, in the league tournament semi-finals. Correspondingly, there will be no “March Moment” for McCasland in 2022.

Does the lack of said moment coming a year ago versus this week mean we might be overlooking a really good option?

What Matters in a Coaching Hire

We can list a host of criteria to answer this question, and I most certainly will. But the most important factor is: How will the candidate perform leading Missouri’s program?

Past success often give us a body of work to analyze. Yet few programs hire coaches who haven’t done something to justify their selection. What factors matter? Which don’t?

I will spare you an exhaustive examination of the factors I’ve discovered through some research and instead simply list those that I feel are most important. Afterwards, we’ll look at those criteria and how McCasland may just fit all of them.

  1. Has the candidate succeeded as a head coach previously?
  2. Was that success at a program that could be compared in some way to Mizzou’s program?
  3. Does the candidate have some level of experience at a high major?
  4. Can the candidate build a successful staff?
  5. Does the candidate have the requisite hoops acumen to get the job done?
  6. Is the candidate one who will have the support of the Mizzou fanbase?
Arkansas State v Georgetown Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Success as a Head Coach

Recently on Twitter, I posed a question to the Mizzou faithful: Since approximately 2010, which hires by peer programs (read: Non-blueblood programs) do you consider to have been home runs?

The results were interesting, if not expected. Looking through the names, the ones that both I and the fans agree on are: Tony Bennett, Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl, Nate Oats, Eric Musselman, Kelvin Sampson, Chris Beard (Texas Tech), Jim Larranaga, and Chris Mack (Xavier). This is not an exhaustive list, mind you. But it does provide a realistic sample to use as a comparison for someone who might just work here.

  • Tony Bennett: Arguably the most successful name on the list. Came from an incredibly impressive rebuild in Pullman. He took Washington State to multiple tournaments at a place where that simply does not happen with any regularity.
  • Rick Barnes: An extensive history of winning in Austin, where “winning” is often not enough. The Longhorns split ways. Tennessee was the savvy benefactor.
  • Bruce Pearl: Success both at the Milwaukee and Tennessee. NCAA issues forced his ouster in Knoxville. Tennessee’s loss was Auburn’s gain.
  • Nate Oats: Graduated quickly from a high-school math teacher to an assistant coach for Bobby Hurley at Buffalo, and then to the head coach of Buffalo. Turned in what is arguably Buffalo’s best finish in modern program history.
  • Eric Musselman: Connoisseur of transfers, won big at Nevada, including multiple tournament appearances and boasted an NBA background.
  • Kelvin Sampson: Houston hired a coach with a decorated background of success, at Washington State (the producer of great hires!), Oklahoma and Indiana.
  • Chris Beard: The Texas alum spent one year in Little Rock and it paid immediate dividends with a trip to the tournament. Texas Tech wasted no time and immediately found success.
  • Jim Larranaga: Originally pegged to be a lifer at George Mason, he jumped at the opportunity in Coral Gables after Mizzou hired Frank Haith.
  • Chris Mack: Graduated from assistant to head coach. Did NOT turn out well upon moving to Louisville.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of backgrounds. However, eight of the nine have one thing in common: Some track record of success as a head coach. Seven of nine had three or more seasons in that role. “Success,” can mean different things for different spots.

Tony Bennett (with the help of his father, the legend, Dick Bennett) revamped a terrible Wazzu team. No conference titles. No final fours. But an incredible turnaround no matter. Compare with Kelvin Sampson, who had won league championships and found a great deal of tournament success, it’s all relative.

On to McCasland. What has he done as a ball coach to endear himself?

Consider this resumé:

  • Midland College (2004-2009): Won a Junior College National Championship.
  • Midwestern State (2009-2011): Won one conference title, made two trips to the D-II Elite Eight.
  • Arkansas State (2017): Inherited an 11-20 program that rated 251st per Ken Pomeroy and finished 20-12 ranking 124th.
  • North Texas (2018-2022): Inherited a program that ranked 320th in 2017 and finished 8-22. The school had won three league championships, in their history.

Enter McCasland, who guided them along this upward path:

  • 2018: 20-18 (8-10) 146th
  • 2019: 21-12 (8-10) 158th
  • 2020: 20-11 (14-4) 77th; C-USA Regular Season Champs
  • 2021: 18-10 (9-5) 72nd; C-USA Tournament Champs; Round of 32 in NCAA
  • 2022: 25-6 (16-2) 52nd; C-USA Regular Season Champs; lost 3 of 5 starters from 2021 team.

McCasland has won at every stop. From Junior College, to D-II, to the Sun-Belt, and now to Conference USA. Neither of his last two stops were programs that resembled anything close to competent. No matter, he turned them both around. At North Texas, he continued to build thereafter constructing arguably the best program in the league that was previously one of the worst. After 2021, he replaced three of five starters from an NCAA Tournament team and was actually better! He simply lost out on a chance for his March Moment.

North Texas v Wichita State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

How does that translate to Mizzou?

This is a difficult question to answer. That doesn’t mean we won’t try. Matt Harris has done an exquisite job breaking down the financial aspects of programs relative to their peers. If you haven’t caught up on those pieces, do so.

Simply put: Mizzou is a middle-class program both in the SEC and at the high-major level. They have resources. They do not have elite resources. And there is a correlation between winning and program expenditures.

MU’s brass would well-advised to consider that factor when looking at potential candidates.

And that’s just what we’re going to do. When Mississippi State hired Ben Howland, he was coming from a “have,” in UCLA, to a “have not,” in Starkville. He was fine. He was also fired this week.

Tom Crean found himself in a similar situation at Georgia. His former employer, Indiana, puts a little more weight behind hoops. Shocking, I know. Point being, considering coaching “success,” relative to peers and to their standing among that peer group has importance.

Let’s take a look at McCasland.

What are you looking at?

I have plotted the expenses for every C-USA program’s season between 2013 and 2022. That’s the X-axis. The Y-axis is adjusted efficiency margin, which is the basis for Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The higher the number, the better the margin.

You will see 10 highlighted dots which are North Texas’s 10 seasons during these years. Next, look at the dark green dots. Those represents McCasland’s five seasons in Denton, while the lighter shade are the five that came before his arrival. It’s easy to digest: McCasland dragged the Mean Green out of the basement and straight to the penthouse.

(A quick note: The 2021 and 2022 seasons are based on expected growth in expenditures; we’re waiting for federal data from those season to be released.)

OK, he’s done well in the C-USA. So what?

That’s a valid point. So, look at the plot below. It includes schools from four conferences with similar spending and on-court performance: C-USA, Missouri Valley Conference, Colonial Athletic Association, and the Mid-American Conference. How does McCasland look?

Same process, more teams, and same outcome: North Texas’ performance flipped under McCasland’s watch. His last three teams have finished consistently among the best. Even compared against a larger body of competition!

The spending data shows he’s not receiving outlier-type funding to engineer this turnaround either. Expenses have risen across the board which pushes his points further to the right. North Texas is solidly a middle class program amongst their peers. I’ve included several notable outliers to show the other success stories of the chart. One is now coaching at Oklahoma (Moser), the other is at Alabama (Oats.)

Finally, now that we have unearthed a potential comparison in Nate Oats, let’s take a look at how he and McCasland match up.

This is the exact same chart as the prior one, simply with Oats’ finishes highlighted. You’ll find his four seasons at Buffalo in dark red, opting for his new Crimson over the Buffalo blue. The lighter red are the two Buffalo seasons prior to his arrival helmed by Bobby Hurley.

You can see that the success is comparable between McCasland and Oats. What is not comparable is the starting positions of those two mid-major programs when Oats and McCasland took the helm. North Texas was a total gut job. And that’s a significant factor at Mizzou.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Fort Worth Practice Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Does the candidate have high-major experience?

I believe experience in the high major ranks is important. Learning how high-major programs operate is important. The pressure is undoubtedly higher. Media are more demanding. Boosters are more influential. And the competition for recruits is stiffer. All while the margin for error shrinks.

Fortunately, McCasland spent five seasons with one of the best coaches around. Between 2011 and 2016, he worked for Scott Drew at Baylor, a stretch where the Bears logged five top-30 finishes. He knows the pressures involved. You also can’t overlook the fact that three Drew assistants, including McCasland, have moved on to build programs of their own. He knows the pressures involved and also carved out his distinct identity.

Can the candidate build a successful staff?

One of the more intriguing aspects of McCasland in my view is his history with staff construction.

During his time at Midland Junior College, he hired a relatively inexperienced assistant away from Emporia State, of all places. Who might that by, you might ask? Jeff Linder.

You know, the guy who rebuilt Northern Colorado and Wyoming, which made just its third NCAA Tournament since 1988. Linder’s widely regarded as one of the sharpest offensive minds in the country. He was in our coaching search bracket and racked up healthy support. Well, McCasland handed control of the Midland offense over Linder, and the two still trade notes.

At Arkansas State, McCasland convinced an assistant of Larry Eustachy at Colorado State to join him. Ross Hodge accepted the job and the rest is history. McCasland credits Hodge for the implementation of the “no-middle” defense. One made famous by Chris Beard at Texas Tech and Scott Drew in their Final Four runs. McCasland invited Hodge to come along to Denton where the pair has constructed one of the nation’s finest defensive teams. In 2021, the Mean Green finished 48th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This year, the pair has them ranked 15th.

For my money, one of the most important factors in considering a head coach is his ability to hire the right assistants. McCasland’s shown he can identify staff with good ideas and grants them the latitude to put them into practice. Collectively, they lay the philosophical foundation, but it takes someone with a keen eye. McCasland appears to have that quality.

NCAA Basketball: Conference USA Conference Tournament-Louisiana Tech vs North Texas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Do they have the right basketball acumen?

This may come as a shock to our readers: I’m all about coaches who understand data and metrics, and how to put that understanding to work for your team. Is McCasland one of those guys? From a recent interview with The Athletic:

“We watched the [2019] national championship game with Virginia and Texas Tech when we were kind of retooling what we were doing,” McCasland told us on the Underdogs podcast. “You can’t look at those games and not know that possessions are crazy important. So how do you maximize every possession?”

In another piece with Matt Norlander and CBS, McCasland stated:

“We’re not going to have the most overwhelming talent when you get in the NCAA Tournament, but if we have that opportunity to do it, you feel like you have to be able to win in different ways,” McCasland said. “We felt like if we had as good a talent, if not better, we could speed the tempo up on people. It’s not to say we don’t have talent, we just feel like this gives us the best chance. I know it sounds crazy, but we want to have a chance to win the national championship, and in order to do that you have to win your league and it allows us to do that.”

“I said, ‘We’re not going to be scoutable and we’re going to run ball-screen motion and we’re not going to run plays,’” McCasland told me. He met with JUCO star coach Ben McCollum (Northwest Missouri State) and Jeff Linder (now Wyoming’s coach and one of McCasland’s closest friends in the business) to revamp the offense.

These are the kinds of things us data-geeks love to hear. Possession-level analysis. Talent and scheme optimization. Consulting with incredible basketball minds in Jeff Linder and Ben McCollum. The ability to find any and every edge available, no matter how fine. Those who can master these aspects will be playing at an advantage over those who don’t. They’re the card-counters of the profession.

Can the candidate win over Mizzou’s fanbase?

This is the elephant in the room every time MU launches a coaching search. Personally, it’s not the primary factor for me, but it’s also foolish to not consider it all. As a program, MU’s been average to mediocre for most of the past two decades. There have been in peaks — 2009 and 2012 — offset by tumbling in a crater between 2015 and 2017. Until this season, Cuonzo Martin did an admirable job digging out, taking the Tigers to a pair of NCAA Tournaments.

Then this season’s brutal regression unfolded.

Uniting a fanbase matters, if for no other reason that tickets and merchandising revenue give your coach resources to do the job. The arrival of Name, Image, and Likeness payments now means engagement can translate into income for players, and that demands a fan base that’s supportive.

Still, winning matters. Historical data proves it. Below is a graph showing the moving average of MU’s win percentage and its attendances based on percentage of building capacity. Notice anything?

When Mizzou wins, their attendance tracks up. Now, there can be a lagging effect, but still, buzz from a coach only goes so far. Marketing and charisma mean little if the Tigers aren’t competitive. Getting a guy who can win and get the fans excited is the ultimate goal.

Can Grant McCasland do that? Had his tournament success from a year ago transpired this week, I think it’s an incredibly easy sell. A regular season championship and an NIT run don’t inspire the same wide-spread acclaim that a first round upset does, however.

The easiest criticisms of McCasland that may turn fans away are:

His teams play slow and rely on defense

That’s an accurate observation over his last few years at UNT. His last three Mean Green teams have all finished among the bottom-10 nationally in pace. That said, McCasland’s admitted it’s a practical choice and not a closely held philosophy.

The talent level in the C-USA isn’t the same as you’ll find each night in SEC. A slower operating speed allows him to maximize the roster he has at his disposal. Even if he sticks with it, of the nine successful hires initially discussed, three rely on a controlled tempo: Bennett (No. 357), Beard (No. 341), and Sampson (No. 333). Only Pearl, Musselman, and Oats rank among the top-50 nationally in adjusted tempo. Teams can win at every pace, and the likes of Bennett, Sampson, and Beard all reached the Final Four.

Can he recruit?

This question is inherently speculative, no matter the candidate. Recruiting to different schools is never an apples to apples comparison, especially with NIL payments changing the dynamic.

In Denton, McCasland’s model relied on mining junior colleges and has a pretty high success rate. Both star guards Javion Hamlet and Tylor Perry were JuCo products. He signed Umoja Gibson out of high school, who later went on to play at Oklahoma. In Waco, he helped sign two top-20 recruiting classes with Scott Drew. The last year he was part of the Bears program, the staff signed Mark Vital, a key component to their national championship squad.

No matter, I look at a coach’s success to determine if he can recruit. If you’re winning ball games, especially if you have done that at multiple places, over multiple years, you know what it takes. You’re not winning if you’re not recruiting well. If the coach believes he needs supplemental help in that arena, smart coaches hire assistants who have a specialty in player acquisition (all coaches do this). You’re not paying attention if you don’t think the biggest names in the business hire assistants for this sole reason.

I do not know if Mizzou is considering Grant McCasland. I do not know that they aren’t. I couldn’t tell you if he’d even be interested. What I do know is that he checks a tremendous amount of boxes that successful coaches traditionally have. If the search ends up resulting in a pool of mid-major program candidates vying for the job, there are few with a more impressive body of work than his. There are no guarantees in this line of work, but any school with an opening this spring would do well to gauge his interest. You might just be creating a future of “March Moments,” if you do.