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Stephen F. Austin Basketball

Behind Enemy Lines: New Orleans at SFA Q&A with Privateer Island

January 9, 2018

Stephen F. Austin is looking to assert themselves again as the kings of the Southland Conference this year; but in order to be the best, you have to beat the best.

Last year's champion team is coming to William R. Johnson Coliseum on Wednesday evening for what is shaping up to be one of the more league-defining contests of the early season. A year removed from their shocking title run, the New Orleans Privateers have a different cast of characters but, like last year, are off to a surprising 4-0 start.

A series that was split one year ago (each team winning at home) gets only one sequel this season. In order to get some perspective straight from the Big Easy, for our latest "Behind Enemy Lines" installment, we caught up with Steve Ruiz of Privateer Island.

Here are some thoughts from one of the more knowledgeable on SFA's next opponent:

The Privateers are without the key players from last year's championship team, including SLC Player of the Year Erik Thomas, yet head coach Mark Slessinger has called this perhaps his most talented team to date. How was the talent replaced and is that a fair analysis of this roster?

Steve: From a pure ability perspective, Slessinger is correct. Erik Thomas was a genuine talent who was overlooked coming out of junior college, but last year's Southland champions were largely a group of little-engine-that-could types that had a ton of college experience, had learned how to win over a long period of time, and took advantage of a void at the top of the league. But few of last year's mainstays were recruited by any other Division I institutions. Slessinger loves his 6'4"-ish athletic wing guys like few others, and UNO has a healthy new crop of those guys who are a cut above the last group. Newcomers Diontae Champion, Troy Green, Damion Rosser, and Ezekiel Charles are not as consistent yet, but amongst them, the Privateers are getting enough of a contribution to make up for their perimeter losses. At least in conference play thus far.

Also, Bryson Robinson, a returnee but a guy who rarely played as a freshman, has really stepped up of late as a pseudo-point guard for a team that doesn't really have a true point -- at least not one that is ready to contribute consistently. What experience UNO still possesses is in the frontcourt, and Travin Thibodeaux and Makur Puou have been solid in league play.

A year ago, UNO was picked 9th in the preseason polls and managed to win the whole thing. This year, they were picked 6th. Do the Privateers have another surprise in store for the league?

Steve: I actually believe the 6th place was a show of respect. For a team that lost as many players as the Privateers did, you might expect that number to be a good bit lower. To me, that pick was hedging -- i.e. "We think the new guys are pretty talented, but we can't pick a team with this many question marks any higher than that." Despite the 4-0 start, I don't believe this team will repeat as champs, but I think getting even a single bye in the league tournament constitutes a surprise. And you'd have to say that's very much in play.

Shaun from your site told us last year that an NCAA Tournament berth would "bring immense joy to some loyal Privateers fans who have been through an awful lot." It happened. What were your emotions like during the experience?

Steve: Immense joy would be an accurate description to say the least. People may tend to think New Orleanians having "been through a lot" is an allusion to Katrina, but in UNO's case it really references the brutal fight to stay a Division I institution. Circa 2011, we were told by our athletics administration that remaining Division I was a foolhardy venture, that it was impossible. We had an athletics director who admonished us that Division I *shouldn't* be a priority and hinted that doing so was taking away from the school's educational mission. To go from there, through all we had to hear, through the complete lack of leadership, through winning that battle but watching several years of losing as we tried to rebuild our athletics infrastructure, all the way to the moment of seeing our name and our team on CBS on Selection Sunday -- it's hard to put into words. There's so much more to the story, and it would make a fascinating book even for those who don't give a rip about Privateer athletics. Seriously, y'all have no idea.

In terms of my personal feelings, I used to attend UNO basketball games for years and years with my mom back in what are generally termed its "glory days" as a program. We also became attached to the Cubs, who at the time featured former Privateer Jimmy Bullinger, and even took a road trip to Wrigley Field to see Bullinger pitch for the Cubbies. My mom died in December of 2015. In the first full athletics season after her passing, within a span of four months, the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years, and UNO went to its first NCAA Tournament in 21 years. Beyond all others, those were our teams. Emotional? Oh yeah.

Did last season's championship run create any buzz or increased interest from the local community as UNO works to build a fanbase in a top 50 media market?

Steve: Unfortunately, local interest in Privateer basketball has never carried over from one season to the next. This is how it's worked even when UNO was regularly in the postseason and semi-regularly in the Top 25 rankings back in the late 80s and early 90s. There was a lot of positive local press last March. With LSU mediocre and Tulane terrible, UNO got to soak up whatever attention our local media was paying to college basketball, and with the aforementioned "rise from the D1 ashes" story attached, it had some extra kick to it. But the interest always resets every year. The crowds are roughly the same this season, and the media attention is just about nil.

What aspect of SFA's team most concerns you as a supporter of the Privateers?

Steve: SFA is strong in most areas but struggles from deep.  New Orleans led the Southland in three-point defense last season, but this year has been torched from beyond the arc.  SFA's weakness aligning with UNO's weakness is my biggest concern.  The Lumberjacks still have a few capable shooters, and it's easy for me to picture the them hitting a few early on and racing out to a good start at home.

What are some key matchups to focus on leading up to this game?

Steve: As I mentioned earlier, the Privateers don't really have a true point guard other than 5'6" freshman Lamont Berzat, who isn't playing much yet. Sophomore Bryson Robinson has mostly taken on this role. He is not a natural there but has thus far done an admirable job making it work, with 49 assists against 27 turnovers (not to mention the 31-point outburst that almost single-handedly won the McNeese game).

So, I'm not an expert but the primary "matchup" to me, if you can call it that, is SFA's perimeter pressure against UNO's backcourt. The Lumberjacks will not be the first team to think of exploiting the Privateers' shaky ball handling, but they may be able to execute it the best. New Orleans will need a lot of poise from its young guards in what will likely be the most difficult environment it will face this season. Once the Privateers get into a halfcourt set, though, as with last season, the offense tends to run through its "point center," Thibodeaux.  It's a matter of getting to that point.

What is your prediction for the game?

Steve: My gut tells me the Privateers are going to get hit hard early. In the past, Mark Slessinger's teams have had a game or two per season in which they just got completely destroyed.  Despite not winning a single Division I game in the pre-conference season (all were on the road), they were able to hang around admirably against fairly good competition such as SMU and Houston.  Even the 22-point loss at Louisiana Lafayette was more competitive than the margin would indicate.

I think New Orleans will be staggered but is talented enough to avoid a KO and stay in the fight.  This season is a learning experience for them and they have improved a good deal from the first few games of the season, when they just looked lost as the multitude of new players got their feet wet in Division I college basketball.  I just don't think they are quite ready to win this game.  SFA has too much, especially if they can take advantage of UNO's subpar perimeter defense to open up the floor.

Jacks by around 8-12.  I hope I'm wrong.

Behind Enemy Lines: New Orleans at SFA Q&A with Privateer Island

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Good stuff again Isaac! These are great features that really point out the love fans have for their teams. Obviously we'll root for our side tomorrow, but it helps give a camaraderie to SLC basketball.
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Great interview Isaac. Really good questions. Knowledgeable guy from UNO.
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"and hinted that doing so was taking away from the school's educational mission."
I just don't get this approach among colleges. Sure, control spending, participate within your means, but people need to realize that these teams are some of the best marketing that a smaller Uni has.

Loved the writeup Isaac, hope we put together a good game tonight & get back to winning strong.
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