No opposing college coach in America knows Northeastern University basketball better than former Kansas guard C.B. McGrath, the second-year head coach at UNC Wilmington.
He and his Seahawks assistants game-planned three times for the Huskies this past season, dropping three games by margins of 17, 4 and 21 points.
“They are really good. They can make it difficult for Kansas. They can make it difficult for a lot of teams,” McGrath said Monday in a phone conversation from Wilmington, N.C., where he’s directed the Seahawks to a 21-44 record the past two seasons.
He arrived at Wilmington from North Carolina, where he worked 14 seasons and won three national titles on the coaching staff of former KU coach Roy Williams. McGrath played for Williams’ KU teams four years (58-0 record in Allen Fieldhouse from 1994-98) and also worked on Williams’ KU coaching staff for four years (2000-03).
The Topeka West graduate explained what makes the No. 13 seed Huskies (23-10) a tough first-round Midwest Regional opponent for No. 4 seed KU (25-9). The teams will tip approximately 3 p.m. Central time Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It all starts with fifth-year senior point guard Vasa Pusica, who averages 17.8 points, 4.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 26 games. He missed seven games early in the season because of injury.
“He is a great point guard — one who has total command. You can’t get him rattled. We were never able to get him out of rhythm,” McGrath said of the 6-foot-5 native of Belgrade, Serbia.
Pusica was sick and didn’t make the trip for one of the three games — an 81-77 Northeastern victory on Feb. 14 in Wilmington.
“We tried a bunch of things — doubling, switching, going under just to try to change it up on him. He always sort of figured it out. (He’d) get it to guys who got open and they’d make a shot,” McGrath said.
“What you want to do is get into him and try to make him work. He is not an athletic freak, somebody who gets up and down court really fast. He’ll back you down. Even if you press him he’ll back you down against the whole press.”
McGrath said the Huskies are far from a one-man show.
“They’ve got all the pieces around him, some pieces I guess you underrate,” said McGrath. “They’ve got a little air about them. They make shots. They’ve got three or four guys shooting 40 percent from three on the season. You can’t say, ‘Hey we’re just going to stop this guy or that guy.’ They are unselfish, take good shots. It’s the most efficient offensive team I think in our conference (Colonial Athletic Association).”
Pusica has made 57 of 142 threes for 40.1 percent; junior guard Jordan Roland 97 of 238 for 40.8 percent and junior guard Bolden Brace 56 of 135 for 41.5 percent. As a team, Northeastern has made 322 of 830 threes for for 38.8 percent to KU’s 246 of 702 for 35 percent.
“They usually play one big guy. Their four-man (Brace, 6-foot-6) is really good. He can stretch the court. He can shoot threes. He can drive it. He can make plays off the bounce. They spread the court and shoot a lot of threes with ball-screen action type stuff. They’ve got a lot of experience, a lot of seniors and red-shirt guys,” McGrath said.
McGrath isn’t trying to imply KU can’t win the game.
He simply insists, “I think it’s going to be a heck of a basketball game. I really do.”
He won’t be able to watch the first-round contest on TV.
“I’ll be in Hutch at the juco tournament,” McGrath said of the NJCAA Division I men’s tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
McGrath — the C.B. stands for Colin Bryan — is one of 20 members of his family who attended Kansas. At some point, he envisions asking KU to schedule a game against his Seahawks at Allen Fieldhouse. It might not be the right time, however, with McGrath trying to accumulate some victories as soon as possible.
“We’ve got such a tough nonconference schedule already. I don’t want to overdo it,” the 43-year-old McGrath said. UNC Wilmington lost to former KU guard and fellow North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase’s Stanford Cardinal, 72-59, at home and fell to Williams’ Tar Heels, 97-69, in Chapel Hill this past season.
“One team is dropping off (schedule) next year that we won’t have to renew with. Maybe something can open up for Kansas. At some point I’d like to get back there, have my team see Allen Fieldhouse, coach a game in Allen Fieldhouse.
“If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. It’s not like it’s a lifelong dream of mine. I got to play in Allen Fieldhouse. All I really wanted to do what play there, not coach against Kansas. We’ll see.”