MATT Hancock arrived at the Geraldton Buccaneers to fill a similar role to Bennie Lewis and Matthew Adekponya of recent years and while his numbers might not be as big, his impact has been just as significant as he’s enjoyed his time immensely in the SBL.
Having grown up in Melbourne, attended college at West Alabama and then come back home to play with the Sandringham Sabres in the SEABL before earning a spot as a development player with Melbourne United in the NBL, Hancock was looking for somewhat of a fresh challenge.
He was weighing up different parts of Australia to play in and when his agent suggested Geraldton and then his Melbourne teammate Lewis gave it his highest recommendation after his 2014 and 2015 seasons with the Buccs where he helped take them to a grand final, Hancock jumped at the chance.
The 24-year-old’s interest in joining the Buccaneers was both because he thought he’d enjoy playing in a team in a small town with such great community support after his time in college in Livingston, Alabama, and he also liked the look and sound of the team he’d be joining.
Clearly the Buccs were, and are, in championship mode with Hancock being the final piece on a team that includes NBL calibre point guard Jackson Hussey, club legends Aaron Ralph and Mat Wundenberg, and imports Dwayne Benjamin and Mo Barrow.
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All that made Hancock excited by the prospect of joining the Buccs and reality has more than surpassed those expectations.
Hancock had a strong regular season forming a tremendous back court alongside Hussey where he was able to average 9.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists a game but his impact has been much more significant than that suggests.
On a team featuring the all-round brilliance of Hussey, Benjamin and Barrow, the potent shooting of Ralph and inside work by Wundenberg, Hancock has been able to fly under the radar, play his role strongly and be among the better defensive guards across the league.
He was a big reason in the Buccs ending the regular season in third position to set up a quarter-final series with the Stirling Senators where they prevailed in Game 1 last Saturday night at Warwick Stadium.
The Buccs will now host Game 2 at Active West Stadium on Saturday night and if that doesn’t go to plan, have a second chance on Sunday to advance to the semi finals.
Hancock is looking forward to experience his first playoff encounter in Geraldton.
“We are in a good position now but it has happened before so we still will need to play well to get the job done at home,” Hancock said.
“Coming into the finals we had won two of our last seven so coming into the weekend we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but at the same time we are confident of going home and getting the win.
“Those home games during the season were just building and building with the atmosphere getting towards the finals series and that last home game against Perry Lakes was incredible. That was the most fun I’ve had with a crowd in a long time.
“That was awesome and coming into the first round of finals at home will be fantastic. We’ll pack the house out and I’m sure they will be even louder so it’s going to be awesome. I’m looking forward to it.”
Hancock has enjoyed especially his back court partnership with Hussey this season and he has no doubt that the move overall to Geraldton has helped his game develop further the past six months.
“Me and Huss are always talking whether it’s trying to improve ourselves or just messing around. We are always trying to keep each other in the game, and we’re working and striving towards being the best back court combination that we can be,” he said.
“I reckon it has helped my game evolve and I’ve definitely worked on a few things like court vision, rebounding and that type of stuff.
“I don’t mind admitting I didn’t get the ball in my hands as much as I would have liked but at the same time I have been able to improve my defence which I really pride myself on. That’s been a main focus of mine that when I can’t get it going on the offensive end that my defensive becomes my main focus.”
Playing with the Buccs where the players are the major sporting stars in the town and the whole community is right behind the team is the sort of environment Hancock enjoyed being part of at college, and is liking in Geraldton.
To then have club legends like Ralph and Wundenberg on the team with him and coached by another great in Ray Evans has all meant that Hancock has fully bought into the culture of the place.
“The amount of community support and involvement they have with us almost equates to the NBL, albeit on a smaller scale. We get a lot of community involvement, all our sponsors are great people and we can go out to see them whenever we want and we pack out the stands every home game, which is fantastic,” Hancock said.
“I was in a small town for college as well so I really understand how much the community is involved and how much guys who have been there for a long time become the heart and soul of a club.
“Mat and Ralphy are through and through Buccs people. You go through the home court and their names are plastered all over the walls, and Ray’s jersey is retired so it’s incredible. It’s great to be part of the club and have got to work with those guys.”
When Lewis talked so highly of Geraldton following his two seasons with the Buccs that included the 2014 grand final, it sounded like the sort of environment Hancock would enjoy being part of.
And now as the season draws to a close he couldn’t be happier with that decision no matter how it turns out from here.
“Before I started with United I played SEABL with Sandringham Sabres who I also played juniors with. So I had a taste of that league so I knew what it was about and my agent told me about all these other leagues I didn’t know about it that I wanted to give a shot,” he said.
“That’s when Bennie Lewis told me about the SBL and that really caught my interest especially to be at a high-profile club and all the imports here are great so the league competes well with all of them across the country.
“Of course by playing at United I got to spend some time with Bennie and he had played out in Geraldton before, and they got in touch with my agent and he took it from there. But I liked what Bennie told me about the place and the club, and I know the club management got in touch with Bennie and Iggy Hadziomerovic to find out if I would be a good fit.
“They egged me on a little bit because they saw it as a good opportunity and it went from there. I had options in the SEABL, Big V and that kind of stuff but I felt like this was going to be a real good fit for me and most importantly that we’d have a chance to win it all.”
While Hancock wasn’t too sure what to expect from his time in Geraldton despite the positive recommendation from Lewis, he has enjoyed the basketball and lifestyle perhaps more than he even anticipated.
The bus trip to and from Perth might be less enjoyable than he was even imagining though.
“The bus trip is growing on me in terms of getting worse and worse every time. I do hate it but at the same time it’s a good team experience to give us the chance to do a lot of bonding while we’re on there,” he said.
“I wasn’t too sure what to expect especially having been at a small town for college with a different atmosphere, but that’s college. I have definitely enjoyed being here.
“I’ve started getting in the water a lot and I’ve taken up snorkelling which I never saw myself doing. It’s been fantastic and I’ve loved every moment of the experience.”
Hancock remains eligible to be an NBL development player for the 2017/18 season and that’s what he is hoping will happen whether it’s back at Melbourne United or elsewhere.
Beyond that he’s not sure what his immediate future holds but returning to Geraldton for a second season isn’t something he is ready to rule out.
“I’m talking with some NBL teams right now and I’m looking for another development spot for this season because I have one-year left where I’m eligible. We’ll see what happens with that over the next few weeks,” Hancock said.
“If that all falls through, there are some options in Europe I can explore and then looking towards next year, there’s always the chance I could come back here. I would always be open to coming back here but there’s a lot of other things I would have to weigh up as well and it depends what happens in the meantime.”
Photo by Vikki Hile