UNO’s men’s basketball team will be taking their first trip abroad to play in Costa Rica and Panama, as they were to depart Monday morning. The reigning Southland Conference champs will spend nine days in both countries, playing four games.
In years past, the UNO men’s team has taken trips off the mainland to Hawaii but this appears to be the first time the team will play outside the country.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for us,” said Privateers coach Mark Slessinger, who’s heading into his seventh season at the helm of the program.
“Not just our team and our program but for our university and our city. This is the first time the university has ever gone on one of these tours so we’re really excited about the chance to do that.”
The Privateers will return Aug. 15 after playing two games in Costa Rica and two in Panama. Among their opponents will be Panama’s National Team, which is ranked near the top third of FIBA’s National Rankings at No. 33.
Slessinger said the trip has been in the works for years. It came together for the Privateers this summer, and the timing couldn’t be much better with an influx of new players.
“We’ve had on our calendar that this would be the best year to go because we lost those seniors, and we’d have a bunch of new guys this year,” Slessinger said. “We’ll be able to do three service opportunities on the trip, and that’ll be a great chance as well to do more than just play basketball.”
UNO loses four key seniors from last year’s team including forward Erik Thomas, the conference Player of the Year. Lynchpin guards Christavious Gill and Nate Frye also completed their senior seasons and a host of new players are set to fill those roles.
Among them will be returning starting forward Travin Thibodeaux, who’ll be one-third of a strong frontcourt rotation with Makur Puou and Michael Zeno. Incoming players like 6-foot-6 junior-transfer Diontae Champion (guard), 6-4 freshman Damion Rosser (guard) and 7-3 freshman Bol Rick (center) could be among the new names to make contributions.
Privateer fans will also see an infusion of local high school players including freshman Lamont Berzat (5-6, point) from Landry-Walker, freshman Troy Green (6-4, guard) from East St. John and junior-transfer Scott Plaisance from Country Day (6-9, forward).
“It’s really going to be an exciting experience, and we get a little bit of a look at what’s to come for the season,” Thibodeaux said. “Just for us to be able to gel our chemistry together is going to be huge.”
“We’ve been working really hard preparing for this trip,” added Zeno, who was a valuable asset off the bench last season averaging 16.9 minutes per game and should see his role expand in 2017-18.
“There are a lot of good things coming this year so this is the first big step of it. I think it’s important for us to gain our chemistry early and this trip will help with that.”
UNO is working towards duplicating last year’s success, which netted the team its first conference title since 1996. It also secured the team’s first bid to the NCAA tournament since that same season and the Privateers have been busy collecting their accolades over the last few months.
“It’s been the fastest summer of my life,” said Slessinger. “You get right out of the spring and we added a couple guys late in recruiting, guys get here for summer school and we’ve been going pedal to the medal the whole time.”
Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis is set to host his first basketball camp Monday and Tuesday at the Lakefront Arena. The Privateers will miss out on the chance to work the camp with Davis, but they’ll exchange one opportunity of a lifetime for another.
“Pretty much everyone has never been outside the country except one guy,” said Thibodeaux, noting senior guard Matthew Jiles’ mission trip to Africa as well as players who already hail from other countries.
“I’ve never been outside the country so it’s going to be an awesome experience for me, especially looking forward to my future,” added Thibodeaux, who averaged 8.7 points and 7.3 rebounds last season as a sophomore. “Playing overseas is something I could potentially look into, so it’s going to be an amazing opportunity and I thank God for it.”