Matt Freeman grew up with the same passion as any red-blooded, New Zealander boy.
He’d bloody himself during lunchtime recess in a game of rugby.
“Rugby is our sport in New Zealand,” said the latest graduate transfer of the UCSB basketball team. “Nothing will ever overtake it there, although basketball is certainly growing and getting bigger.”
Freeman would come home from school with a stiff back and sore knee, and “my mum would ask what I’d been doing.
“When I eventually told her,” he added, “she was like, ‘You’d better stop playing rugby if you’re going to be serious about basketball.’”
Freeman has gotten more serious about basketball by becoming more physical as the Gauchos’ new power forward. It’s a role that Oklahoma’s former three-point specialist sought when he transferred to UCSB last summer.
“I was more than aware of what the coaches at Oklahoma were expecting of me going forward,” said Freeman, a 6-foot-10 Sooner reserve who shot 36.2 percent from the three-point line last season while playing 11 minutes per game. “I probably would’ve bought a couple of extra minutes here and there, but it’s just kind of how it was.
“But the opportunity that coach P (Joe Pasternack) and the other coaches have given me is what I wanted. I’ve been pushing myself in practice about finishing at the rim and rebounding, and I believe those things will translate into the games pretty soon.”
The Gauchos, 1-1 after Sunday’s loss at UCLA, will return to the Thunderdome on Saturday for a 2 p.m. game against Rice.
Freeman, a three-time Big 12 All-Academic Team selection as an accounting major, is the fourth player to transfer to UCSB as a graduate student during Pasternack’s three seasons as coach.
“It’s been all about positional need,” Pasternack said. “There will be some years when we don’t need any graduate transfers at all.
“But to get the program jump-started, we needed to go that route.”
Last spring’s graduation of forwards Ar’Mond Davis and Jarriesse Blackmon left a void at the four spot.
Freeman’s entry into the transfer market caught the eye of UCSB associate head coach John Rillie, who had tried to recruit him to Boise State several years ago when he was a Bronco assistant.
“We knew he’d be a perfect fit for our program,” Pasternack said. “He’s a terrific young man, a high-character kid, and our kids really like him.”
Freeman got his first taste of American basketball while traveling with his club team to such tournament stops as Las Vegas. Rivals.com rated him as a four-star recruit after he averaged 17.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists for the Asian Pacific Team at the 2015 Adidas Global Nations in Long Beach.
He redshirted his first year at Oklahoma and then played in 84 games during the next three seasons.
Freeman, who’s known as “Matty Ice” to his Gaucho teammates, demonstrated both his cool head and hot hand by making a trio of three-pointers and scoring 12 points in Sunday’s game at UCLA.
“Having played in a really big conference and in tough environments every night is something of value that I’m able to carry on here,” he said. “I’m not all there yet, but I feel like I’m growing and getting better every game, and it’s about making the people around me better, too.
“It’s the role I really wanted, showing myself as both a player and a leader.”
The gregarious Kiwi was more “lonely” than a leader when he arrived in Santa Barbara last June, finding an empty campus.
“Everyone was gone on break … I was the only one here,” Freeman said. “It was pretty weird. The days were super-long.”
His time was spent either shooting baskets at the Thunderdome, sometimes with a coach shagging balls, and “watching a lot of TV.”
“Finally, I was like, ‘I need some friends … I don’t have any friends,’” he said.
It didn’t take Freeman long to make some when the Gauchos finally returned. He bonded first with senior guard Max Heidegger, the host of his recruiting trip to UCSB.
“I’m an outgoing dude, for sure, but either way, this is a group that is easy to get along with,” he said. “Everyone is a great bunch of dudes. It’s a testament to the bunch of guys that coach P has recruited and put together.
“It is a little bit easier when you’re a grad transfer. You’ve been around it for a long time. I’m more than aware of the importance of a culture, and that’s been well established here.”
His odyssey from Auckland, New Zealand, to Norman, Okla., and finally to Santa Barbara, Calif. has been an odd one, Freeman admits.
“I’ve had two massive culture shocks … They are three very different places,” he said. “I love all three of them … But with this place, you’ve got the climate.
“I haven’t seen a bad day here since I got here.”
He predicts plenty of good ones ahead on the basketball court.
“I was a redshirt when Oklahoma went to the Final Four, and then I went to the NCAA Tournament with them twice after that,” he said. “I think I can have a fair viewpoint of where we are and how we are.
“I have full belief in this team that we can make the tournament … and win some games, as well.”
He’s ready and willing to join the scrum.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.