It’s been a long road for Mark Slessinger and the UNO men’s basketball team.
When Slessinger took the job to be head coach for UNO in 2011, the school was making the transition to Division II with all their athletic programs, and it appeared that it would be awhile before the Privateers were granted an opportunity to make a bid at an NCAA tournament berth.
At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Slessinger and UNO’s journey to return to “March Madness” finally comes to an end. The seventh-seeded Privateers take on sixth-seeded Nicholls State at the Southland Conference tournament in Katy, Texas, UNO’s first opportunity to play in a postseason tournament since 2010.
“It’s certainly been a long road that we’ve had to travel since I took this job,” Slessinger said. “But most of all, I’m just thankful for our players and the way they’ve stuck with me and the program ever since we started.
“Guys like (former UNO players) Lovell Cook and Corey Dixon had the opportunity to leave and play where they had more opportunities during our time transitioning, but those guys stuck around and built the foundation for where we are now.”
Slessinger said that it will be a major accomplishment for the team to be able to showcase UNO on the SLC’s biggest stage and display how far the school has come in re-building its basketball program.
“I’m really proud at just how far we have come over these years,” Slessinger said. “I’m glad that we finally get to go on a big stage and show people just that. It’s really just a testament to (UNO President) Peter Fos and his vision ever since the first day he brought me in.”
The Privateers will be matching up with the 10-18 Colonels, who he said were the player’s “No. 1 choice” for who they wanted to play in the first round of the tournament, partially because of the Privateers recent overtime loss to Nicholls State on March 2.
In that game, the Privateers got career nights from guard Christavious Gill (25 points) and forward Terrance Syon (16 rebounds), but they were unable to make the plays at the end to pull out the win.
“Our guys are really excited about getting to play Nicholls again,” Slessinger said. ??It’s been a pretty good rivalry between us over the years, and our guys want an opportunity to make up for the way we finished that last game against them.”
The Privateers finished the 2014-15 season with a 10-18 record, but Slessinger said the team’s win-loss record doesn’t necessarily show the growth UNO has displayed throughout the year.
UNO suffered seven of their 11 conference losses this season by single digits, not to mention their 10-point loss to the Colonels in overtime on March 2.
While the UNO coach said he isn’t happy with the number of close games the team has let slip away, he said he was happy that, despite having a youthful roster, the team has already been competitive against their conference foes.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I was happy with the way we’ve finished some of these games during conference play,” Slessinger said. “But our guys have been right there in all of these games, and I know experiencing these tough losses has already helped their growing process.”
Among the 10 UNO players who have received at least 150 minutes of playing time this season, seven are either freshmen or sophomores.
Slessinger said that being thrown into the fire at the SLC tournament early will be a good way for his young players to learn what it takes to win in tournament environments.
“Really, I think the biggest thing for those guys will be adjusting to the pressure of the moment and the way team’s are playing,” said Slessinger, who won three SLC tournaments during his time as an assistant at Northwestern State. “All these teams are going to raise their level of play in these games, and we are going to have to learn how we can do that as a team.”