When UNO’s men’s basketball team won its first-round matchup against Nicholls State last year in the Southland Conference Tournament, it was much more than another win for coach Mark Slessinger. It was the culmination of everything the team had been working toward since he took the job in 2010.
“It was a huge step forward for us,” Slessinger said. “It validated all the hard work that that team put in, and all the teams that came before them that didn’t have the opportunity to participate in postseason play.”
With practices for the 2015-16 season beginning Saturday and many of last year’s contributors returning, the UNO coach hopes the team can use that experience to take the next step in its progression going into this season.
“Having those experienced pieces coming back to the team is a big part of taking that next step,” Slessinger said. “Those guys had the experience of winning a nonconference road game against Southern Illinois, and the year before against UTEP.
“The biggest thing for us is to now carry that over into league play and start winning those tough games on the road. That’s the next step in the maturation process.”
The Privateers return five of their top eight scorers from last year’s team that went 11-18 during the regular season, and Slessinger believes each of those players benefitted greatly from their experience making it to the second round of the the Southland Tournament last year.
In particular, UNO will be looking to its leading scorer from last year, junior guard Christavious Gill, to not only improve his play on the court after his first full season as a starter, but to be more of a presence as a leader for the team.
Gill — a former Alexandria High standout — averaged 12.3 points per game last season for the Privateers, but upped his scoring to 14 points per game over the final 11 games of the season, including a career-high 25 points on March 2 in a loss to Nicholls State.
“Christavious has grown a lot as a player over the summer,” Slessinger said. “He’s got so much better pace to his game, and awareness of when to shoot and when not to shoot. ... I think he’ll be a much better volume scorer this year.”
Slessinger also added that he will be looking forward to the additions of freshman guards Coleman Edwards and Danny Cohen to the roster and believe that they each can provide a spark for the team.
Edwards is a 6-foot-2 guard that moved from New Orleans to Sugarland, Texas, after Hurricane Katrina. He averaged 17.3 points per game last year at Fort Bend Clements High School, while Cohen averaged 18 points and seven rebounds last season for a Natchitoches Central team that reached the Class 5A championship game for the second season in a row.
“(Edwards) is a dynamic point guard that can score. I think people are going to have a lot fun watching him play,” he said. “Danny Cohen had one of the most heralded high school careers of anybody and is probably our best athlete across the board.”