When Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast in 2005, it took with it the University of New Orleans' Division I basketball program. It took a few years, but in 2010 the Privateers, a charter-member of the Sun Belt Conference, withdrew from Division-I play citing a severe lack of financing. Their former conference even voted to waive the $500,000 fee normally levied when schools voluntarily withdraw.
Now they're back, but under the banner of the Southland Conference, according to former-standout-turned-booster Gabe Corchiani. The school has set a press conference for Thursday to announce their decision.
Prior to this latest announcement, a lot had taken place for UNO basketball. Buzz Williams made the Privateers an offensive force for the one season that he served as their head coach, 2006-2007. They won 14 games and scored 1.04 ppp under him, their highest offensive rate of the decade before Marquette snagged Williams and Joe Pasternack took over. Pasternack continued Williams' momentum, led by senior point guard Bo McCalebb, who now plays professional ball in Macedonia, with a 19-win season that included wins over N.C. State, Tulane and Colorado.
In the midst of their 2010 withdrawal from formal D-I play the Privateers won just eight games, but continued on as an independent. They garnered just one win against a Division-I team last season, a 63-56 victory over Alcorn St.
Can they re-group and survive in the Southland?
Pasternack and their entire roster from 2010 are gone. UNO has been forced to re-boot their program and hired Mark Slessinger, a former assistant at Northwestern St. and Louisiana recruiter, to fill Pasternack's spot.
For 2012, their first year of Division-I recruiting since 2009, Slessinger has signed eight recruits, including two former D-I players. Forward Eddie Denard (6-6, 230) played one season off the bench at the University of IIinois at Chicago, and forward Cory Dixon (6-8, 215) played a season off the bench under Slessinger at Northwestern State.
They join three JUCO and non-D-I transfers:
Corey Blake, G, 6-5, 210, Lecompte, La. (Alexandria HS/Southern-Shreveport)
Isaac Mack, G, 6-1, 180, Indianapolis, Ind. (Arsenal Tech/Panola College)
Tradarrius McPhearson, G, 6-1, 195, Edwards, MS (Raymond HS/East Mississippi CC)
And three high school recruits, all from Louisiana:
Evans Ganapamo, G, 6-6, 185, Mandeville, La. (Mandeville)
Andre Gonzaque, G/F, 6-5, 210, Alexandria, La. (Holy Savior Menard Central)
Kevin Hill, F, 6-7, 190, Westwego, La. (John Ehret)
No big names here. But they're a rag-tag group that will be forced to work hard for jobs held by current players.
What the Privateers do have going for them is favorable geography, a strenuous schedule for 2012-2013, their last season as an independent before officially joining the Southland, and a conference that is less competitive than the Sun Belt was.
Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls State are both less than an hour and a half drive from UNO, so they'll have rivalries already in place. McNeese St. and Northwestern St. also make for in-state rivalries, and Lamar is just across state lines. But before the Privateers meet any of those teams in conference play they'll first go through the grinder of Butler, Southern Illinois, Air Force and Duquesne in their last season of play as an independent -- a fitting test.
In the Southland, eight of 12 schools spent less than $1,000,000 on their basketball program in 2011, or $949,000 on average, according to BBState. The Sun Belt, by comparison, spent an average of $1.5 million per school in 2011. UNO's Lakefront Arena, which seats 10,000 and spent three years undergoing repairs following Hurricane Katrina, ranks only behind Lamar as the venue with the second-highest seating capacity in the Southland. So even if the team isn't yet ready to compete, at least the program and the facilities will.
Finally, the Southland has been bad as a conference for a long time. Only once, in the 2008-2009 season, were they ranked higher than their mid-major conference competitor, the Sun Belt conference, in Ken Pomeroy's season-ending conference rankings. The Southland has produced just 24 NBA draft picks in its 49 year history, while the Sun Belt can claim 76 picks in 36 years. The Southland was 31st out of 33 D-I conferences last season in efficiency, according to Pomeroy, 26th in effective field goal rate and 29th in three-point percentage.
The Privateers may have a long road ahead of them, but they're set up for success in a conference that demands less, but competes in a more geographically-favorable region. Slessinger should be able to gain more momentum and more recruits as UNO eventually takes the Southland by storm.