How Matt McMahon and LSU became college basketball's 2022-23 expansion team

Matt McMahon had little time to ease into his new role at LSU. His program needed players. Beau Brune / provided by LSU athletics

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana -- It must have felt like a cruel April Fool's joke to Matt McMahon.

In the early afternoon hours of April 1, LSU sophomore Mwani Wilkinson entered his name into the transfer portal. In isolation, a four-points-per-game scorer exploring his transfer options wouldn't have been a national story -- but Wilkinson was the 13th member of the 2021-22 Tigers who was set to depart.

Tari Eason and Darius Days had entered the NBA draft. Four other starters entered the portal, including Efton Reid (Gonzaga) and Brandon Murray (Georgetown), who would land at other power conference spots. Five reserves from last season's team were also on the transfer market.

Eleven days into McMahon's tenure in Baton Rouge, he didn't have a single returning scholarship player.

"Some of those early staff meetings, it was like, 'Hey, you know, we play Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn and all these teams next year and we don't have any players on our roster right now,'" he said. "That's not great for the Tigers."

Less than 50 days later, high school recruit Shawn Phillips committed to LSU -- becoming the Tigers' 13th scholarship player. From zero to 13 in just under seven weeks.

It encapsulated a hectic spring for McMahon, 44, who had taken over the Tigers after departing mid-major powerhouse Murray State.

"It's overwhelming," McMahon said. "It's April 1 and you don't have any players committed to your roster. But after the initial overwhelming feeling of hey, we're at zero, now we have to develop a plan. How do we get to the finish line here? How do you go from zero to 13?"

Phase 1: Forming a plan, salvaging who's left

A huge positional depth chart made the third-floor conference room of the LSU Athletics Administration Building, located in the shadow of Tiger Stadium, look like an NFL draft war room. There, McMahon and his staff could be found refreshing the transfer portal and shuffling through 30-40 new names every day.

The roster construction was broken down into four phases: Retaining players from the current LSU roster, bringing over players from Murray State, recruiting the transfer portal and looking into the best available high school players.

It wasn't haphazard. One overriding theme was balance. McMahon didn't want to just grab a bunch of players out of the portal to throw together a team for the 2022-23 season and then figure things out from there. He wanted to establish his culture while also being competitive.

"I told Coach this is a positive," said assistant coach Casey Long, who was with McMahon for five seasons at Murray State. "It gave us an opportunity to lay the foundation. If you want to build a house, you want to build a house on a solid foundation. You don't want to knock it down and have cracks in the wall. You want to start new, build it up. And now you have exactly what you want in a program. And we're fortunate to have the opportunity to do that."

Still, the first few weeks were a little hectic.

Of the 11 LSU players who entered the transfer portal, four agreed to go through spring workouts with the new coaching staff. Of those, Wilkinson and Justice Williams withdrew their names from the portal on April 12 and 13, respectively. Adam Miller would eventually become the third holdover from last year's team to return to Baton Rouge, announcing his decision on May 13. Reid, the 44th-ranked transfer in the country, would ultimately depart for Spokane.

"I think those three will be really embraced by the Tiger fan base," McMahon said of the returnees.

Justice Hill sends a textbook pass to KJ Williams for 2

Justice Hill sends a textbook pass to KJ Williams for 2

He reached out to each of the players on the roster the day he was hired -- working deep into the night, even reaching out to Wilkinson at 1 a.m. His pitch was simple: Go through spring workouts with us while you deal with your transfer recruitments. If you like what you see, come back and play for me.

"I didn't pressure anybody to go through the spring," McMahon said. "I wanted them to see how the program would run. If they want to be part of that, that's great. If they don't, we shake hands and I wish them well at their next spot. That was really the approach we took. I didn't want to be a salesman."

"He made it clear that he wanted me to be part of what he was planning to do here," Wilkinson said. "He just wanted to make sure that I knew how important it was to him to try and keep me here. I really appreciated that. And it played a big piece in me making my decision to come back here."

Phase 2: Bringing in your guys

McMahon said he talked to a number of coaches who had made the mid-major to high-major coaching jump. Their advice: It's beneficial to take as many players from your old spot as possible -- so the second phase was figuring out which Murray State players wanted to follow him to LSU. The Racers went 31-3 last season, won a game in the NCAA tournament and saw nine players enter the transfer portal following McMahon's departure. It provided McMahon with a talented group from which to recruit.

First-team All-Ohio Valley point guard Justice Hill and starting guard Trae Hannibal committed to LSU within two weeks of McMahon getting the job on March 21, giving the Racers some early momentum on the trail.

"This is the coaching staff I wanted to be with," Hannibal said. "I just couldn't see myself getting comfortable [elsewhere] and I wouldn't put myself in a position to readjust. It's family-oriented, the coaching staff knows what's best for me. They'll get the job done and put me where I need to go."

"We got a lot of interest in the portal, but the whole time I really knew," Hill added.

Cam Hayes shows off his vision with nice dime vs. Purdue Boilermakers

Cam Hayes shows off his vision with nice dime vs. Purdue Boilermakers

The Tigers would have to wait until May for the crown jewel of the transfer class, however, when Ohio Valley Player of the Year KJ Williams announced he was withdrawing from the NBA draft and heading to LSU.

One of the big questions is whether what those three players did in the Ohio Valley will translate to the SEC, but McMahon isn't too concerned. Hannibal spent two seasons at South Carolina before going to Murray, while Hill was once committed to Arkansas before Eric Musselman took over. And KJ Williams was considered one of the 10 or 15 best transfers in the country.

"It's different playing against Tennessee Tech and playing against Kentucky, I'm well aware," McMahon said. "But I do think those guys turned themselves into high-major players. KJ would have been at a top-10 program in the country. Juice [Hill] and Trae had multiple Power 5 offers right away.

"They represented a little over 50% of our scoring off a 31-3 team that was ranked in the Top 25 in the country the last three months of the season," he added. "They understand that culture and locker room piece that we want to build. They know what my standards and expectations are. And they're not 17-year-old high school seniors."

Phase 3: Diving into the portal

The third phase was perhaps the most tempting phase in which to go overboard: the non-Murray State edition of the transfer portal. When McMahon took over at LSU, the portal was closing in on 1,000 names. It would have been easy to offer a slew of veteran transfers, older guys who could make an impact during the 2022-23 season. But McMahon says this wasn't a short-term play. Balancing the roster, both positionally and from a class perspective, was imperative.

"I still wanted to follow our evaluation processes that we've had in place and not rush into anything," he said. "It's a little bit of speed-dating in the spring, you have to fast-track all these processes. But you still want to be very thorough and make sure you're not only getting the right players, but the right people in your program."

LSU was strategic. The first domino -- and the first player overall to commit to McMahon at LSU -- was Northwestern State transfer Kendal Coleman. Coleman is very familiar with the program. He's a Shreveport, Louisiana, native and went for 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers in December. Regardless of who was in charge at LSU, Coleman would have been a logical target.

NC State guard Cam Hayes was next, and then came Mississippi State transfer Derek Fountain -- who attended Murray State Elite Camp as an eighth-grader.

Three players with multiple years of college basketball experience -- and multiple years of eligibility remaining -- and two players with high-major experience.

"The one thing with this group that we've signed is, they all want to win and they all want to prove something," Long said. "The guys that came back, they want to prove why they stayed at LSU. The guys who chose here want to prove why they came to LSU. The guys who transferred in, they want to prove why they could be at this level."

"Maybe there is some [pressure] to panic and just start taking players," McMahon said. "But I wanted to stay true to how I wanted to build the program. I want to win right away. I mean, every coach wants to win. But I didn't want to just throw together a team for '22-23, and then be right back in the same boat next spring."

Phase 4: Identifying high school help

A new staff is generally behind when it comes to high school recruitments, especially at the high-major level. This spring, though, there were enough coaching changes, especially in the SEC and within the Southeast, to put plenty of high school talent back on the market. From that standpoint, LSU was fortunate.

Corneilous Williams had signed with Murray State last fall, so committing to LSU was a quick sell. He announced his decision 10 days after McMahon got the job. But the Tigers' other three signees were recent decommits: Tyrell Ward, who reopened his recruitment following Travis Steele's firing at Xavier; Jalen Reed, who left a couple of weeks after Florida hired Todd Golden to replace Mike White; and Shawn Phillips, who decommitted from NC State. Ward and Reed were top-100 prospects, while Phillips was a highly touted prospect early in his high school career and still possesses that type of ceiling.

McMahon and his staff were able to build legitimate relationships with the prospects, doing home visits, getting them on campus -- putting the program on equal footing with other schools in the mix. Having coached former Murray State star and emerging face of the NBA Ja Morant certainly didn't hurt McMahon's pitch, either.

None of the three ended their recruitments until late April, and Phillips' dragged until mid-May. They were the final pieces to the puzzle.

"It's the underdog mentality," Ward said. "I feel like [McMahon] coaches with a chip on his shoulder. Coming from a mid-major program, he feels like he has everything in the world to prove. I want to be part of that culture with him ... the guys he's had in the past, like Cameron Payne, Ja Morant, guys that play with a chip on their shoulder. I want to be one of those guys."

Forty-seven days, 13 scholarships filled, roster rebuilt. Now all that's left is to find out if the blueprint worked, and whether McMahon has the vision to shepherd a program still mired in transition ... and some turmoil.

Next phase: Finding out if McMahon's the guy

As he walks onto the football field at the 102,000-seat Tiger Stadium during a campus tour with a visitor, McMahon's eyes light up. The aura is part of the reason he ultimately decided to make the move from Murray State. He talks about attending games on fall Saturdays -- he tasked current staff member and former LSU star Tasmin Mitchell with finding the best pregame tailgates for recruit visits -- and he relishes the chance to help sell the university to prospective recruits.

The big-time nature of the job was hammered home when the huge stadium screens welcomed him by name when he arrived on campus.

"The LSU brand, to me, is one of the most recognized brands in all of college sports, from coast to coast," he said.

Mwani Wilkinson skies for the jam

LSU gets out in transition with Mwani Wilikinson rising high for the dunk.

But the LSU brand doesn't exactly extend to the men's basketball program right now. McMahon is taking over a program in relative disarray.

LSU fired Will Wade the day before Selection Sunday after receiving an NCAA notice of allegations detailing seven Level I violations against the men's basketball program. The shadow of the alleged transgressions have hung over the program since first being made public in 2019, and there's no specific timetable for a resolution to the Tigers' NCAA case.

After leading Murray State to three NCAA tournament appearances in the past five seasons, winning a game in two of those three tournaments and going 31-3 overall and 18-0 in the OVC last season, McMahon was always going to be a hot name on the coaching carousel. But with how quickly jobs were being filled while the Racers were still playing in the tournament, McMahon didn't have much time to think about his next step.

Murray State lost to Saint Peter's in the second round on March 19, with the game ending near 11 p.m. ET. McMahon woke up the next morning with a message from his agent. There was no time to decompress.

"We're going to need to have some conversations with some schools. Tonight. Things are moving fast," McMahon was told.

Come late morning on March 21, McMahon needed to make a decision. LSU had other candidates waiting in the wings, but the school had zeroed in on McMahon. At 1:30 p.m. ET, he said yes to the Tigers. At 2:30 p.m. ET, he told his Murray State players via videoconference. By 4:45 p.m. ET, he and his family were on a plane to Baton Rouge.

The honeymoon period didn't last very long, however.

In addition to the NCAA issues, there was the roster problem. You know, the zero players returning thing. It wasn't nonstop success for LSU in the spring -- and some of it goes back to the questions McMahon faced on why he took the Tigers' job in the first place.

"There were some people, because of the cloud of the NCAA, people who respect what [our staff has] done in the past and all that, but it just wasn't going to be the right fit for them. We ran into that a lot. And we expected that," he said. "We didn't get every player we wanted, or we missed out on some guys, whether it was because of the NCAA, or just they just had a longer relationship somewhere else. I mean, it's April 1. You're late to the party."

But McMahon's pitch to the players he was recruiting was clear and persuasive, and combined the highlights of his own résumé -- consistent success at Murray State, multiple NBA players produced -- with a portrait of the current opportunity at LSU. Plenty of playing time available, Saturday nights at Tiger Stadium, the chance to play in the SEC at one of the biggest athletic programs in college sports.

Will the NCAA case continue to be a factor under McMahon's tenure? LSU's brand -- both in basketball and athletics as a whole -- is a huge boost, especially in a name, image and likeness (NIL) world. The Tigers are in one of the two leagues with an enormous leg up financially on everyone else. McMahon expects to be in Baton Rouge for the long haul; he signed a seven-year contract that adds years if the Tigers get heavily sanctioned by the NCAA. He brings a level of stability to the program.

"You look at the passionate fan base here. You look at the history. Some of the best players in the history of the game have played here. You start talking about Shaquille O'Neal, Bob Pettit, Pistol Pete Maravich, Chris Jackson and go down the line," McMahon said. "I look at it as this great opportunity to move the LSU basketball program forward. Does that mean navigating some challenging times? Or some tough waters? Sure, that's part of it. ... But I think you can win really big here at LSU."

There's still no definitive timeline or answer on penalties. Until that happens, there are going to be questions. And McMahon doesn't pretend to have all the answers, or know exactly which things are going to translate from Murray State to LSU. He doesn't know how quickly 13 mostly new players are going to mesh together in a cutthroat league with some of the biggest personalities and biggest winners in college basketball: John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Eric Musselman, Nate Oats, Rick Barnes.

"I'm really interested to find out," he said. "I'm sure there will be things that we have to adjust. ... I feel like I want to see if, what we do and how we do it, can it be successful here in the SEC?"

On a humid early June day, LSU was preparing to have its first 5-on-5 run of the offseason. It would be the first time McMahon and his staff saw the majority of the roster play in person.

About an hour before tipoff, most of the team was warming up in the practice facility, getting shots up before moving over to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the 5-on-5 game. A visitor posed a question to McMahon about one of the team's frontcourt players. What made him so intriguing of a prospect?

The usual traits came back as the answer: size, length, skill level, athleticism, shooting ability.

So what's holding him back from reaching his full potential?

"I don't know," he said with a laugh. "We'll find out together."