Brian Allee-Walsh

UNO men’s team carrying roundball flag in a city that basketball forgot

Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh
Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh Biloxi

NEW ORLEANS These are lean times in and around the Big Easy when it comes to men's basketball.

The city's NBA team continues to impersonate a playoff contender — just barely —thanks largely to the efforts of All-Star game starter Anthony Davis. A human hand has more digits than Tulane has wins. And up the road in Baton Rouge, LSU appears to have hit rock bottom under coach Johnny Jones after an embarrassing 35-point home loss to Florida.

Which leaves the University of New Orleans.

Don't look now but coach Mark Slessinger has his gritty Privateers ruling the roost in the Southland Conference going intoSaturday night's privotal road game against three-time defending league champion Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas.

UNO (12-7 overall, 7-1 SLC) is off to its best league start in nearly 25 years, since winning the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship with a stainless 18-0 record in 1992-93 and making the NCAA Tournament under coach Tim Floyd.

Now, let's not put the cart in front of the horse. These are not your father's Privateers. This is a good Mid-major team that even might end up winning the Southland Conference behind 6-foot-5 senior forward Erik Thomas and bookend senior guards Christavious Gill and Nate Frye. But there is no Wayne Cooper, Ervin Johnson, Melvin Simon, Bo McCalebb or any other superstar of that ilk on Slessinger's roster.

That's not to minimize what Slessinger has going on in his sixth season at the Lakefront school. Though there are miles still to go, he and his program have come far. To fully appreciate the distance traveled, one must understand where they stood in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which essentially left the enrollment-depleted university for dead along with a city, metro area and Gulf Coast region.

In 2010, the university began the unthinkable proposition of transitioning from a dues-paying member of NCAA Division I to a lower D-II or D-III classification, a move that ultimately would have made the city's public university a shadow of its former self.

Fortunately, a new administration came to its senses and UNO officials decided to remain in Division I in men's and women's sports. Slessinger left the relative security of an assistant's job at Northwestern (La.) State and took a leap of faith, joining UNO and the great unknown in 2011.

The men's basketball team played an independent schedule for two seasons while waiting to become an official member of the Southland Conference in time for the 2013-14 season, winning eight, six and six conference games, respectively, the past three seasons.

And now here stands Mark Slessinger and his UNO Privateers, a well-kept secret, living a dream and playing winning basketball in the City called New Orleans.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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