Instead of getting bruised and battered by a rough non-conference schedule, the UNO men’s basketball team was tested and toughened.

The Privateers (7-9, 4-1), who won the Southland Conference regular season and tournament championships a year ago, are off to a better title defense than outsiders anticipated. Despite losing four senior starters who accounted for 1,490 of their 2,331 points (64 percent) last year, UNO trails league-leading Southeastern Louisiana (10-7, 4-0) by a half-game entering its matchup with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (4-10, 1-3) at 4:15 p.m. Saturday at Lakefront Arena.

The surge has come after the Privateers went winless against a Division I non-conference schedule that ranked 16th nationally in the RPI according to WarrenNolan.com, losing on the road to St. John’s, Oakland, Memphis, South Alabama, Houston, SMU, Louisiana-Lafayette and UAB.

“That definitely helped us a lot,” said high-flying junior college transfer Dionta Champion, who is 10 for 13 from the floor in the past three games. “I’m glad coach (Mark Slessinger) put those top teams in there.”

Some of the games were blowouts. Others were close. Each one prepared the Privateers for conference play, when every contest has been decided by 10 points or fewer.

“We really made a concerted effort to coach every possession whether we were down 25 or down 2,” Slessinger said. “We wanted to be the exact same coaching staff all the time. SMU was a five-point game with four minutes to go. We got a lot of attaboys but we didn’t get any wins, so this start (in conference play) is a great validation for who we are and where we’re going.”

Senior forward Travin Thibodeaux, UNO’s leading returning scorer, has nearly doubled his scoring average from 8.7 to 16.3, averages a team-best 5.9 rebounds, is second with 3.0 assists and paces the Privateers in steals and blocks with 19 each.

After getting in early foul trouble that limited him to 12 points and five shots in UNO’s home conference opener against Lamar, he made two huge steals and sank four straight free throws as the Privateers pulled away late.

He scored 24 in Wednesday night’s 78-68 loss at preseason favorite Stephen F. Austin (14-3, 3-1), which has won 48 of its past 49 home league games and beat LSU in Baton Rouge this year.

UNO trailed by two points with 4:05 left.

“I know every game we’re going to get our opponent's best effort,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s fun coming in every game defending the championship.”

Thibodeaux hardly has been a one-man show on a rebuilt roster. Champion (5.5 ppg), Troy Green (7.6), Bryson Robinson (8.7), Makur Puou (8.5) and Michael Zeno (7.0) have taken turns stepping up in Southland games.

Robinson, a sophomore guard who rarely played a year ago, erupted for 31 points in an 82-75 overtime win at McNeese State last Saturday.

Puou, a senior center, went out of his normal comfort zone to hit two outside shots just before the shot clock expired against Lamar.

Green, a freshman from St. Rose, had 14 points in a 77-74 league-opening victory at Abilene Christian.

Champion scored 11 points in the second half against Lamar, including a thunderous dunk that brought everyone out of their seats.

“It’s an honor for me to be here,” he said. “Coach uses me as a hype man, and if I’m up, my teammates are up.”

They have been up more than down since the start of conference play, and Thibodeaux likes the team’s makeup and chemistry.

That 0-8 start against Division I teams — UNO did notch three wins against lower-division opponents — means little now.

“We have a lot of versatile guys,” Thibodeaux said. “We always are in good spirits, everybody loves each other and that’s one of the most important aspects of the team. We have fun together.”

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith