Get to Know an Auto-Bid: New Orleans

In the next installment of our Get to Know an Auto-Bid series, we examine the New Orleans Privateers.

UNO clinched their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 1996 with a 68-65 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in Saturday’s Southland Championship Game.

The Privateers finished with a 20-11 mark and also won the Southland regular season crown with a 13-5 record. The Privateers earned the regular season championship by edging Texas A&M-CC, Houston Baptist, and last year’s champion Stephen F. Austin by one game in the final standings.

New Orleans has won one game in tournament history. That victory came in their first NCAA berth in 1987 as the Privateers downed BYU 83-79 as a seven-seed before falling to Alabama in the second round.

The 21-year tournament drought does not begin to tell the story of the adversity the UNO basketball program and entire school has faced.

The university was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005. While the student population plummeted, the athletic department had an even a tougher time recovering and had to suspend many programs, while the basketball program was on life support.

The additional cuts from state funding only added to their plight and in 2009 the university officially declared that the basketball team would opt out of the Sun Belt Conference and to move to Division III.

What followed was a complicated series of indecisiveness from the administration and athletic department for lasted three years. They altered course in 2011 and decided to pursue a Division II route that would land them in Gulf South Conference.

In 2012, however, New Orleans pivoted completely and announced that it would remain Division I and join the Southland Conference.

Coach Mark Slessinger can be credited with the program’s resurrection. Slessinger tallied 57 wins in his first five years with a program which was a huge success and had the Privateers primed to contend for the Southland crown this season.

The story is far more intricate and impressive than the brief outline I just described, but it is one of the most improbable and remarkable turnarounds in NCAA history.

UNO’s best win of the season came on the road over Washington State. Even though the Cougars are one of the worst teams in the PAC 12, the fact that the Privateers were able to compete with and defeat a power conference team is a great accomplishment and illustrates the upward trajectory of the program.

On the other hand, the Privateers struggles in their other contests against major competition. UNO was throughly dominated by the other tournament teams on their schedule – Northwestern, Oklahoma State, USC – and lost by an average of 38 points.

Erik Thomas leads New Orleans in points and rebounds as the senior averages 19.5 points and eight rebounds per game.

The Privateers will participate in Tuesday’s play-in game vs. Mount St. Mary’s as a 16-seed. The winner of that game will take on No. 1 seed Villanova Friday and if there is any good in this world, one of those teams will take down Villanova.

No matter the outcome, UNO is an easy story to root for and represent the best story of the tournament.

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