WESTWEGO — It’s no wonder Mark Slessinger loves basketball.
Slessinger, the men’s basketball coach at the University of New Orleans, grew up in Indiana, where the sport is as synonymous with the state as crawfish etouffee is to Louisiana.
Indiana, a nationally-recognized powerhouse with five national championships, is minutes from his birthplace in Bloomington. His mother, Barbara, has worked as an usher at its games for three decades, right next to the Hoosiers bench. His grandmother, Geneva, is a basketball junkie, getting her fill of the sport from as many games as she can find on cable television.
Mark grew up playing basketball with Butler assistant coach Matthew Graves, whom he admits was a much better player than him.
“It’s a fabric of life, it’s defines a lot of people; who you are and what you’re about,” Slessinger said of basketball in Indiana. His Privateers (3-9) will face No. 17 Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday in Indianapolis.
“It definitely helped shape my life and determined my course and my character, my values and what I’m about.”
Slessinger is expecting as many as 35 family members to make the 50-mile drive from Bloomington for the game. UNO assistant coach Kris Arkenberg (Trafalgar) and junior guard Isaac Mack (Indianapolis) are also Indiana natives.
Slessinger said part of the task of returning UNO to its former status as a successful Division I mid-major is to challenge the program to compete against teams it wants to model. Butler (11-2) serves as a great example, having advanced to the national championship game in 2010 and 2011.
“It will give them a better understanding of where they need to take their games to,” he said. “I love the challenge of it. Being able to come to a basketball-rich place and play.”
Butler, winners of its last eight games, is off to its best start since 2008-09.
Senior guard Rotnei Clarke leads Butler, averaging 17.2 points. On Dec. 15, Butler upset then-No. 1 Indiana 88-86 in overtime.
UNO not played a home game since Dec. 12. Saturday’s game marks the fourth of a six-game stretch of road games which has included losses to Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri State, Boise State (neutral site) and Mississippi State, which on Thursday beat the Privateers 97-46 in Starkville.
After Saturday’s game, UNO plays Jan. 8 at San Jose State.
“There’s going to be tough times, but you have to come together as a team,” said Mack, who will have his own contingent of friends and family at the game. “If we play our style of basketball — hard-working, blue-collar basketball — we can be in games. Once we get out of that, we struggle.”
Mack is averaging 4.6 points off the bench. Forward Lovell Cook, a product of Warren Easton, leads UNO in scoring with 13.3 points per game.
UNO is making its first appearance in Indianapolis, Ind. since a 1993 NCAA appearance at the Midwest Regional — a 73-55 loss to Xavier (Ohio).