When Roy Williams brought his North Carolina basketball team to UNC Wilmington back in November, in large part to help boost the program of former assistant C.B. McGrath, the Tar Heels coach described McGrath’s Seahawks as “a club that’s got a lot of shooters,” adding that “there’s going to be games they can beat anybody.”
Those games, however, have been few and far between.
That’s why Monday, after only two victories against Division I opponents and 11 straight losses, McGrath was “relieved of his duties,” effective immediately.
Assistant coach Rob Burke will finish out the season as interim coach while UNCW begins what it has termed a “national search” for McGrath’s permanent replacement.
“We appreciate C.B.’s hard work with our program and student-athletes over the last two and half years,” athletic director Jimmy Bass said in a statement announcing the coaching change. “And (we) wish him well in the future.”
McGrath was hired by UNCW on April 3, 2017, the same day he helped his mentor and former coach Williams lead UNC to a national championship victory against Gonzaga in Phoenix. The Kansas graduate had been a member of Williams’ staff for the past 18 years both at his alma mater and with the Tar Heels.
But McGrath couldn’t recreate the success of either Williams or his predecessor with the Seahawks, Kevin Keatts — who led the team to two straight Colonial Athletic Association championships and NCAA Tournament appearances before leaving for NC State.
McGrath’s record over his 2½ seasons in Wilmington was just 26-58. This year’s team is 5-14 overall and 0-6 in the CAA heading into Thursday’s home game against Hofstra, with its only wins coming against Campbell, Florida International and three Division III opponents.
Starting the season with a retooled roster that included only five returning players after several players from last year’s 20-loss team entered the NCAA transfer portal, McGrath said in November that he believed UNCW was “ahead of the curve” when it comes to building chemistry and learning to play together thanks to an exhibition trip the team took to Italy this summer.
But after getting off to a hopeful 5-3 start, things went downhill quickly.
First Carter Skaggs, a graduate transfer from Washington State, decided to leave the program. Then, in an even more crushing blow, sophomore point guard Kai Toews announced two days before Christmas that he was returning home to pursue a professional basketball career in his native Japan.
Toews set a CAA single-season record with 253 assists in 2018-19 while ranking second in the nation behind only All-American and first-round NBA draft pick Ja Morant of Murray State. He was averaging 5.5 points and 4.8 assists in 13 games at the time of his departure.
The Seahawks’ most recent victory came on Nov. 26 against Emory & Henry. McGrath’s final game was an 80-63 loss to Elon on Saturday in which UNCW led by five at halftime before being outscored 24-1 to begin the second half.
“The guys are working hard every day in practice,” McGrath said in his postgame comments following the loss. “We’re trying to figure out the right things to do on the offensive end when we’re not making shots — what is it, Do we get the ball inside? Do we attack the basket? Do we settle for open threes?
“We’ve done sort of everything. But when you get the open looks that we are making in practice and we don’t necessarily make them in games at a high enough percentage, obviously you start thinking about what else we can try and do.”
In its release announcing McGrath’s removal, UNCW offered no explanation as to why it decided to make the coaching change now rather than at the end of the season.
The firing came as such a surprise that, according to the Wilmington Star-News, McGrath taped his weekly coach’s television show in front of a live audience at lunchtime and was out of a job by 6 p.m.
McGrath was under contract through 2022 and would be owed more than $600,000 in base salary if he was fired without cause.
Although his tenure with the Seahawks was short, it was anything but uneventful.
In September 2018, just prior to his second season with the program, McGrath and his team were forced to relocate to Chapel Hill and practice at the Smith Center for two weeks while UNCW’s campus was closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.