WILMINGTON — Last season was a learning experience for first-time head coach C.B. McGrath. But he wasn’t the only member of the UNC Wilmington basketball program going through some on-the-job training in 2017-18.
“Me personally, I was coming off a redshirt year with a new coach,” said junior guard Ty Taylor, a transfer from Wichita State. “I spent the whole nonconference just learning where I was supposed to be, learning the system.”
Taylor wasn’t the only one that struggled to get comfortable during what turned out to be a year of transition.
After two straight trips to the NCAA tournament under former coach Kevin Keatts, who left to take the job at NC State, the Seahawks went just 11-21 (8-12 CAA) in their first year under McGrath. It didn’t help that the former North Carolina assistant lost several top recruits after Keatts’ departure or that it took longer than expected for his returning players to adapt to their new style.
Now that those players are in their second year in the system, with the addition of several talented newcomers, McGrath is confident that UNCW is ready to make a quick comeback this season.
If the Seahawks’ performance in Saturday’s hurricane relief exhibition against Clemson is an indication, there’s reason to believe that confidence is justified.
“We have a different mentality, obviously,” McGrath said. “We’ve been working on that from the get-go during the summer.”
It was evident on Saturday during a first half in which UNCW shot 57 percent from the floor, forced 10 turnovers and built a 46-38 lead against the 22nd-ranked Tigers.
Although they had trouble sustaining that pace on both ends of the court in the second half, especially during a six-minute dry spell to start the period, it took until the final eight minutes for Clemson to finally put them away.
The Tigers won the game 78-67, but it was clear that McGrath liked what he saw — particularly since he experimented with several different lineup combinations and used his bench more than he would have in a game that counts.
“There’s a lot of familiarity and a lot of comfort,” McGrath said of the way his team played. “Obviously if you’re comfortable in anything you do, you’re going to feel better, play better.”
It would be hard to ask star big man Devontae Cacok for any more than he gave the Seahawks a year ago, when he led the nation in rebounding at 13.5 per game while averaging 17.7 points per game.
The 6-foot-7 senior is poised for another big season. But with an improved supporting cast around him, he might not have to shoulder as much of the load as he has in the past.
UNCW’s perimeter game looked strong against Clemson with Taylor hitting three 3-pointers on his way to a team-leading 17 points. Junior shooting guard Jaylen Fornes was also productive, scoring 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor in just 18-plus minutes of action.
By far the most encouraging performance, however, was turned in by freshman point guard Kai Toews.
A 6-2 native of Japan who attended high school in Massachusetts and spent the summer with his country’s national team, Toews played with an aggressiveness that belied his youth in his first game in a Seahawks uniform. He did make some mistakes, but he kept the tempo high, got his teammates involved with five assists and attacked the basket when the situation called for it while giving his team an element it lacked last season.
Toews is one of five newcomers on this year’s roster, joining fellow freshman Jaylen Sims, JUCO guard Ty Gadsden, graduate transfer big man Shawn O’Connell from Georgia Southern and junior Jeantal Cylla, a 6-7 transfer from Florida Atlantic who was in the starting lineup for Saturday’s exhibition.
Together with improved sophomores Jay Estime and Jeff Gary, they form a much more talented nucleus than the one McGrath inherited.
“We still have to make the shots and get the stops, but as a coach I like looking down the bench and seeing guys I want to put in the game,” the UNCW coach said. “They can all do some really good things, we just have to do it more consistently.”