UNO men’s basketball coach Mark Slessinger hasn’t had the luxury of easing his team into the early parts of its schedule.
For the third year in a row, the Privateers kick off the season — which begins Saturday at Bowling Green — with a treacherous road schedule that stretches across the country and pits them against some of the better teams in the nation.
“It’s certainly tough to start the season playing against such good programs on the road, but I believe it has helped us grow as a team,” Slessinger said. “Gaining experience in those tough environments helps us build chemistry and prepares us for those conference tournament games at the end of the season, which is always crucial for us.”
UNO, which finished 11-18 last season, starts with eight of its first 10 games on the road after beginning with six of eight on the road in 2014 and five of eight in 2013.
While starting the season with such a difficult slate can be an easy way to sap a team of its confidence early in the season, Slessinger believes the exact opposite effect has happened with his team over the years.
The UNO coach looks back on the team’s road win against UTEP in 2013 as a turning point, and he also saw the team’s road win against Southern Illinois last season as a major reason why the Privateers headed into the Southland Conference tournament with confidence.
That confidence helped the team to an 82-73 first-round victory over Nicholls State, the school’s first win in a postseason tournament since 2010.
“Going on the road into those hostile arenas helps a ton in preparing the team for those crucial games down the road,” Slessinger said. “For us, the conference tournament is always going to be our No. 1 goal, because every team that wins its tournament gets an automatic bid (into the NCAA tournament).
“I think those nonconference wins on the road helped us with our confidence and were a big reason why were able to get a win in the Southland tournament last year.”
While building road experience is important, Slessinger frankly added that the team has been forced to take on a large number of road games to start the season for fiscal reasons, as well.
UNO has faced off against plenty of Division I teams on the road over the past three seasons, but they’ve only been able to get one nonconference Division I school to make the trip to the Lakefront Arena over that same span.
Slessinger said that, with financial troubles still hanging over UNO’s athletic department, it has limited his options and leads tomaking some tough decisions in order to get upper-echelon competition on the team’s schedule.
“It’s always a battle to get those home-and-home’s scheduled, so we’ve had to make some decisions that were best for the (athletic) department and the university,” Slessinger said. “Hopefully, the tide can turn for us in the near future, and we can have the flexibility to schedule some of those games for our home crowd.”
One way Slessinger has found to get some more of those home games against Division I schools has been fighting to develop in-state rivalries that the school can turn into an annual “home-and-home.”
The Privateers play both Tulane and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette on the road this season, and both have agreed to play games at UNO next season. Slessinger believes having those types of games become a consistent part of the schedule will be pivotal.
“We think having those games is huge for us in the long-term growth of the program,” he said. “Having those rivalries that your fanbase can look forward to grows excitement around the team, and that’s huge for building on what we’ve done up to this point.”