After a magical season with a senior-laden lineup, the UNO men’s basketball team hopes to surprise everyone again with much less experience on hand.
Gone from last year’s Southland Conference regular season and tournament champions is league Player of the Year Erik Thomas, along with fellow starters Christavious Gill, Nate Frye and Tevin Broyles. That group, which combined for more than 4,000 career points, led the Privateers to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 21 years.
Back are a couple of starters in Travin Thibodeaux and Makur Puou, a pair of role players in Michael Zeno and Jorge Rosa, two bench-warmers in Bryson Robinson and Matthew Jiles and a host of newcomers, including junior college transfer guards Tyren Harrison and Ezekiel Charles.
Considering the makeup, it’s no wonder a collection of media members and coaches voted UNO sixth in the preseason Southland poll, though that spot actually is three spots higher than last year’s forecast.
When the Privateers play St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena at 6 p.m. Friday in Queens, New York, no one, including coach Mark Slessinger, will be sure what to expect.
“We lost a lot of offensive production,” he said. “It would be not logical for somebody to pick us to win the league just based on what we have returning. Mathematically if you’re going off of statistics, they probably should have picked us there.”
It will be a while before fans in New Orleans know a whole lot about the Privateers, too. Paying the university bills with a bunch of revenue games in November, UNO plays just once at home before December — against Division II Spring Hill on Nov. 24 — and travels to St. John’s, Oakland, Memphis, South Alabama and Houston.
The Privateers, who could not work out an agreement to play Tulane after beating the Green Wave 74-59 last November, will face their first Division I foe at Lakefront Arena in their Southland Conference opener against Abilene Christian on Dec. 28.
The development of Zeno and Rosa will be critical for their success.
Zeno, a 6-foot-6 senior who started 18 games as a sophomore before his minutes decreased last year, is a versatile defender with shot-blocking skills who needs to score more to complement the well-rounded Thibodeaux (8.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, team-best 3.3 assists) and the 6-foot-9 Puoy, whom Slessinger expects to make major offensive strides after averaging 5.8 points a year ago.
“We’ve got such a really talented group of forwards,” Slessinger said. “They can play a lot of different ways. It’s exciting.”
Rosa, the best 3-point shooter on a bad outside shooting team a year ago, needs to fill it up from beyond the arc and force opponents to account for him.
Harrison and Charles combined for 17 points in UNO’s 94-71 exhibition win against Huntington University. Harrison, who grew up in Queens very close to St. John’s, and Charles, from Brooklyn, should have an extra pep in their step on Friday night.
Despite the roster changeover, UNO likely will play at the same deliberate pace as a year ago, relying on good interior passing from the forwards and trying to dominate the free throw line. Slessinger anticipates the NCAA at some point clearing ineligible 7-foot-3 freshman center Bol Riek, an intriguing prospect from Sudan, which could change the dynamics.
Either way, it will be fun and challenging trying to follow up on the rousing success of 2016-17.
“I don’t know if it’s as much pressure as that they want to keep it rolling,” Slessinger said. “We’ve had a lot more good days than bad days.”