It’s way too early to start saying anything about “must-win” games, but UNO men’s basketball coach Mark Slessinger knows that Thursday’s 7:45 p.m. home-opener against Pensacola Christian College at Lakefront Arena is a crucial game for his team.
The Privateers (0-2) opened the season with two double-digit losses on the road against Bowling Green and Duquesne. They follow their game against Pensacola Christian with four more road games before they return to the Lakefront Arena on Dec. 12.
With such a tough slate ahead, Slessinger understands that a win Thursday can help immensely in building the team’s confidence going forward.
“We weren’t happy with the way things fell over the weekend, particularly against Bowling Green, and we didn’t really show how much we improved over the offseason,” he said.
“So playing well in this game is very important for us, and just showing our home crowd that we’re a better team than we were last year.”
One of the major points Slessinger has tried to nail down is the team’s never-ending effort to improve on last year’s abysmal 0.62 assist-to-turnover ratio, the worst in the Southland Conference.
The continued maturation of junior guards Nate Frye and Christavious Gill will help improve that number slightly, but Slessinger said the true key will be for the entire team to embrace moving the ball and playing more as a team.
The Privateers doubled their assists from eight in the season-opener to 16 in the loss to Duquesne, but still only have a 0.83 assist-to-turnover number through two games, 11th in the Southland.
“The more willing we are to move the ball, the better that number will look as the season goes along,” Slessinger said. “When we are really unselfish and make the extra pass, things just seem to fall in place for us. As long as we keep doing that, we will see the improvement offensively.”
One surprising bright spot for the Privateers in the team’s first two losses has been the energetic play of forward Michael Zeno.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore was all over the floor and put up eight points and four rebounds in 11 minutes during the season-opener against Bowling Green, which earned him a few more minutes in the team’s following game.
Zeno took advantage of the extra playing time by dropping a career-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting in the loss to Duquesne, and Slessinger said Zeno’s athleticism and skill set brings a versatility to the Privateers lineup that makes them more flexible depending on the opponent.
“To see him blossom and grow into the player he’s become has been really neat to see,” Slessinger said. “He allows us to go bigger or play smaller at different times, and it helps a lot when guys give you those different options.”