LAS VEGAS — Mark Madsen made a home in Utah County for four years while leading the Utah Valley men’s basketball program.

During his four seasons, the Wolverines saw incremental growth each year, culminating in a run to the NIT semifinals last season.

It’s that kind of growth that should give Cal fans hope, after Madsen took over the head coaching position for a struggling Golden Bears program this offseason.

When the Deseret News caught up with Madsen at Pac-12 basketball media days in Las Vegas last month, he shared what the UVU community meant to him and his family.

“It was phenomenal, the community support. It’s a great community up there,” he said.

Under Madsen’s leadership, the Wolverines made their best postseason run in school history during the 2022-23 season. 

Related
The advice from Pres. Hinckley that guided new Cal basketball coach Mark Madsen
Shaq just endorsed Cal’s hire of Mark Madsen. Here’s what he said
Things are looking up already for Mark Madsen at Cal

After earning the WAC regular-season title outright, Utah Valley won at New Mexico and Colorado on the road in the first two rounds of the NIT before beating Cincinnati at home in the UCCU Center in the quarterfinals.

The Wolverines fell to UAB 88-86 in overtime in the NIT semifinals, played at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.  

“It was a complete team effort, from the players to the administration to the coaches to the supporters of the university. That was an absolute team effort, and Utah Valley is a special place,” Madsen said of that postseason run.

Utah Valley’s Aziz Bandaogo reacts during the Wolverines’ 74-68 win over Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the NIT at the UCCU Center in Orem on Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Utah Valley’s Aziz Bandaogo reacts during the Wolverines’ 74-68 win over Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the NIT at the UCCU Center in Orem on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Bandaogo recorded a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double in the win. | Isaac Hale, UVU Marketing

It was a national spotlight moment for UVU athletics.

“Utah Valley has always been a basketball school — a lot of people don’t know that. Utah Valley has always been really good at basketball. Because you can attract a lot of the local Utah-based talent, but then you can attract national and international also,” Madsen said.

In his first stint as a college head coach, Madsen saw his team improve its winning percentage each season at Utah Valley. Last year, the Wolverines were 28-9, including 15-3 in league play, with the overall win total setting a school record.

“Over the course of four years at Utah Valley, there was growth and improvement every single year. We had some great successes. We had some tough losses along the way. You almost learn more from a tough loss than you do from a great win because there’s that pain. You feel that pain,” he said.

“Then you look at what went wrong. You relive it, you watch the tape, and then you say to yourself, OK, this is never going to happen again. Then you try to put the systems and philosophies in place so it doesn’t happen again.”

Utah Valley University coach Mark Madsen directs his players during a game on Dec. 1, 2021.
Utah Valley University coach Mark Madsen directs his players during a game against BYU at Utah Valley University in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

That’s the kind of development California hopes to see from its moribund program under their new coach. In March, Madsen — the former Stanford star and NBA power forward who won two NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers — inherited a program that won just three games last year and hasn’t had a winning season since 2016-17.

It’s an uphill battle at Cal — the Golden Bears have gone through two other coaches since their last winning season, and the program has averaged just 3.7 conference wins over the past six years.

Related
Pixie dust and basketball: Mark Madsen and his improbable journey from the NBA to Utah Valley

California was picked to finish 11th — second-to-last — in the Pac-12 media poll.

Madsen, though, is confident he can turn things around and bring fan support back for the Golden Bears in the Bay Area, where pro teams like the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and MLB’s San Francisco Giants dominate the athletics market. 

That — combined with the natural beauty and myriad of activities available in the Bay Area — may seem like it leaves little room for Cal to attract fans back to the nearly 12,000-capacity Haas Pavilion, though Madsen argues that another college team, Saint Mary’s, shows that it’s possible.

“We will have huge upset wins over national teams. I’m not saying it’s going to happen instantly, but it’s going to happen sooner than people think.” — first-year California coach Mark Madsen

Cal averaged 2,155 home fans last year during a 3-29 campaign, while the West Coast Conference’s Gaels averaged 3,197 in their 3,500-capacity gym, the UCU Pavilion.

While those average numbers of fans are close in number, Cal on average only filled Haas Pavilion to 18% capacity, while Saint Mary’s filled UCU Pavilion to 91% capacity.

“Talk to Saint Mary’s. They get a sellout every night. Saint Mary’s is a sellout in basketball every night, and we will get there,” Madsen said.

What Randy Bennett has created at Saint Mary’s shows it’s possible to succeed in the Bay Area, Madsen contends — over the past seven years, the Gaels have made it to the NCAA Tournament four times.

Related
Could March Madness get Utah Valley coach Mark Madsen dancing again?

Madsen even told the story of waking up one day to see his son wearing a Saint Mary’s basketball camp T-shirt — that’s the popularity Bennett has brought to his program.

“One of the great things about the Bay Area, sports is not their whole world and their whole life. That can be a great thing. That can also be a challenge. I will say this, when we win, we have one of the most passionate fan bases in the country,” he said.

“The Bay Area fans want to see excellence.”

California coach Mark Madsen, left, speaks beside players Keonte Kennedy, center, and Grant Newell during a news conference at the Pac-12 basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. | John Locher, Associated Press

He’ll also have a familiar face for UVU fans — Fardaws Aimaq is joining Madsen at Cal-Berkeley after one year at Texas Tech. In three seasons (including one redshirt year) at UVU with Madsen, the power forward was twice named the WAC Defensive Player of the Year and earned WAC Player of the Year honors during the 2020-21 season.

Despite being new to California, Aimaq was named to the Pac-12’s preseason all-conference second team. 

“It was awesome to reunite with Fardaws. Obviously we’ve had a strong relationship for three or four years. Four or five years now actually. Fardaws is completely healthy, and he’s worked hard to be in phenomenal shape,” Madsen said of the 6-foot-11 forward.

Cal opens its regular season Monday night against St. Thomas (Minnesota), the first of four straight games the Golden Bears will play at Haas Pavilion to open the year.

Madsen is confident they’ll right the ship at Cal.

“We are going to fill up Haas Pavilion — I’m not saying it’s going to happen in 24 hours or overnight, but we will fill up Haas Pavilion,” Madsen said. “We will have huge upset wins over national teams. I’m not saying it’s going to happen instantly, but it’s going to happen sooner than people think.”