The New Orleans Privateers’ unexpected dream season came to an end with a heart wrenching 67-66 loss to Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four game of the NCAA basketball tournament. Yet, even with the disappointing outcome, UNO capped a season to remember.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
If we jumped into our time machine and landed on the Lakefront in early November, I would’ve pointed to the arena and told you that you were looking at the home of the 2017 Southland conference champions. To which you would have most likely replied, “Are we still in New Orleans?”
I wouldn’t blame you, either. No one foresaw what the Privateers had in store for the Blue and Silver faithful. The coaches in the Southland picked them to finish ninth in the league. The sports information directors (sounds like an easy job) picked the Privateers to finish 10th. So, it’s not a stretch to say the Privateers entered the season without big expectations.
Sometimes you just get to sneak up on everybody.
The first time my eyebrows perked up was when UNO knocked off Tulane and Washington State back-to-back. Sure, the Cougars finished in the lower half of the Pac 12 and Tulane went on to lose to everyone under the sun, but this was the Privateers — a team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2011. Any win was a big win for this club.
Like many mid-major schools, UNO took some big losses early in the season, but they put the Southland on notice by winning their first four conference games. The quick start was followed by consistent play in the conference and New Orleans was in the thick of it sitting at 7-3, neck-and-neck with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State. At which point, to use an ‘80s phrase, the Privateers said, “See Ya,” and won their next five games. While there was still some turbulence ahead, the Privateers went on to clinch the Southland conference regular season title.
Which really meant nothing in the bizarre selection process of March Madness. But the Privateers removed themselves from any bubble talk by winning the Southland conference tournament and receiving the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
UNO was placed in the First Four round, which as a conference champion is unfathomable. The First Four round should strictly be for teams that truly are on the bubble, not conference champions. For a team to automatically qualify for the tournament and then have to play its way into the traditional tournament bracket is ridiculous. What is the point of a conference championship if it doesn’t include a ticket to the Big Dance?
You just don’t always get what you want, I guess. A lesson the Privateers learned in an extremely emotional loss to the Catamounts. The Privateers trailed most of the night, but fought back and, after an outstanding defensive stand, had the ball with 2.9 seconds left and a chance to win it. Unfortunately, a half-court pass that sailed high would end the night and the incredible season.
Congratulations to the men and women who have worked so hard to build the premiere basketball program in the city of New Orleans. Thank you to the young men who played their hearts out and to Coach Mark Slessinger for taking the Privateers, and the community that loves them, to the Dance.
Big Boys Only
While it would’ve been great to see the Privateers make a run to the Sweet Sixteen, at this point, I would take any mid-major team. Why? Because they’re all gone.
Don’t tell me that Butler is a Cinderella. The Bulldogs have three Sweet Sixteen, and two National Championship, appearances in the last six years.
Xavier, you say? Not really. The Big East, even after the restructure, is a power conference and Xavier is a perennial top 10 threat.
What you have left is a grab bag of power conferences (Big 12, Big 10, Pac 12 and SEC all have three teams left) led by the blue bloods of the sport — Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Kentucky.
If you had to force a glass slipper on a team to create a Cinderella you could go with the South Carolina Gamecocks, a team that, even though it's in the SEC, won its first NCAA tournament game in 45 years by beating Marquette in the first round and then doing God’s work by knocking off the Duke Blue Devils to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
*South Carolina Gamecocks. Gregory Shamus
Two brackets to keep your eye on this week are the East and South regions. The East region is truly up for grabs and will produce a team that hardly anyone thought would make the Final Four. Florida, Wisconsin, Baylor and South Carolina will do battle for the magic ticket to Phoenix. If I had to bet, I would put my money on the eight-seed Wisconsin Badgers returning to the Final Four. The Badger seniors are an astounding 13-3 in the NCAA tournament.
But if you only like to watch the heavyweights play, check out the South region which features North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA and Butler. This is an absolute megawatt blender of a bracket. This bracket reeks of the horrible judgment calls made by the NCAA selection committee but, hey, sometimes that really works out for the viewers. The two-seed Kentucky lost to three-seed UCLA 97-92, but then the Wildcats beat one-seed UNC 103-100 back in December. So far this year, Butler has beaten 2016 National Champion Villanova Wildcats twice and both of the Sweet Sixteen contending Xavier Musketeers twice and Arizona Wildcats once. These teams have claimed 24 NCAA titles and 55 Final Four appearances. Sheesh.
So, whatever your flavor, rest up friends. The Big Dance kicks off into high gear this Thursday.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Beer Pairing: Great Raft Brewing’s “Provisions and Traditions” Dark Rye Saison
Playlist Recommendation: Public Enemy – “By The Time I Get to Arizona”