A new school year is a time for new beginnings. As wide-eyed first years sit at their desks for the first time and bleary-eyed seniors trot to campus pickup basketball games, a new coach overlooks the court at West Gym.
Matthew Malone was hired as UC Santa Cruz’s new men’s basketball coach in October 2021, and is tasked with restoring the middling program to its former glory. When we last saw the banana slugs in winter of 2019, they limped to a 11-15 record driven by an eight-game losing streak in the heart of their season. Close losses mixed with demoralizing blowout scores made for an unfortunate season for the team, composed largely of underclassmen.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit a month after the season ended and, with no head coach and no games to play, UCSC basketball remained dormant for over a year. The search for a head coach provided an opportunity for the slugs to bring in a new perspective and start the season strong.
“It was important to us as a department that we had somebody who had experience leading a program, and had been involved at a high level in coaching Division III basketball,” said athletic director Sue Harriman. “Also, someone who was coming from a winning program and winning tradition […] Matt fit all the criteria we have.”
Malone comes to UCSC from Tufts University in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, one of the toughest Division III conferences in the nation. There, Malone served as associate head coach, or second in command, to DIII coach Bob Sheldon, who retired during the pandemic. Malone served as the interim head coach at Tufts before accepting the job at UCSC, replacing former interim coach Sam Walters, who will now be the assistant coach.
With Malone here, and games on the schedule, the team’s new identity is already in the works.
“The important thing that we’re trying to stress to these guys is that we don’t want to rush anything,” Malone said. “We’re emphasizing defense first, […] really focusing on trying to get five guys to guard together. Offensively, a lot of it is still just getting to know them […] I’m still getting to know what their strengths are.”
That will give Malone and his group a strong foundation, but the team we last saw had weak spots that could be cleaned up. The team struggles to convert their free throws, hitting only 65 percent despite getting to the line often. For any team, making the freebies is an easy path to improving their offense.
They also struggled to take care of the ball, giving it away 14 times a game on average while sporting an assist to turnover ratio under one. Limiting giveaways, and the easy points that come from them, will be the quickest way to improve their defense.
The transition to making these changes looks to be more seamless than strained, especially if you ask the man giving up the reins — Sam Walters.
“No, I wouldn’t say hard. It’s obviously different,” Walters said about the transition in leadership. “I was preparing for our philosophies either way, but it definitely is not hard, especially because Coach Malone’s philosophies and mine align on and off the court.”
Their aligned visions extend through the roster, and the new coaching style has managed to catch players’ interest. When asked to describe Malone’s style in one word, third year wing/forward Tyler Otterlei balked at the limitation.
“One word?” Otterlei asked. “I would say passionate. He’s a really passionate coach and I like everything we’re doing so far. I think we’re gonna have a lot of success as a team this year.”