NEW ORLEANS — It’s not that UNO senior forward Lovell Cook doesn’t miss some of his teammates from a year ago.
It’s just that he appreciates the upgrade in talent around him as the Privateers make their U-Turn back to becoming a Division I program again.
Second-year coach Mark Slessinger has brought in six junior college transfers along with a pair of freshman signees for the team which began preseason practice Friday. There are 11 scholarship players, two under the NCAA limit which Slessinger plans to rectify next season.
“The skill level in this group is a lot higher,” said Cook, one of four returning scholarship players. “And there’s a lot of positive energy, too.
“We’ve got some guys who are ready to play.”
They’d better be.
Last season, UNO was officially a Division I program transitioning to Division II. And while the Privateers finished 17-15, they were 1-5 against D-I opponents.
This year, the Privateers are a Division I independent with 22 of the 25 games against D-I foes, including the Nov. 9 opener against San Jose State in Lakefront Arena. Furthermore, unlike last season, the Privateers’ games will count for RPI purposes.
It’s still an odd status shared with only a handful of other schools around the country and one which will be rectified next year when UNO joins the Southland Conference.
But, Slessinger said, he hopes that gives his team a motivational edge.
“We’re playing to win every night,” he said. “Every night for us is our championship game.”
Cook, who prepped at Warren Easton before spending two years at Northern Oklahoma Junior College, said that’s the way he sees it, too.
“We’re trying to get things started back here the right way,” he said. “That means going out and winning as many games as we can and getting some fans in the seats. It’s unfortunate that I won’t be here next year to see us in a conference, but I feel blessed to be part of what we’re doing here.”
Slessinger said he plans to use 10-12 players nightly, and unlikely many coaches who make that part of their preseason spiel and then revert to a seven-or-eight-man rotation, he apparently means it,
Last season, 13 players scored in double digits at least once.
“We play so fast that we’ll platoon five-for-five,” he said. “The other team may have the advantage on us in talent or size, but I guarantee you that we’re going to play harder than the other guy and that will close the gap.”
Obviously though, Slessinger will be leaning on some players more than others.
Cook, who averaged 14.0 points-per-game last and was named third-team All-Louisiana, is obviously one. Another is 6-foot-5, 240-pound forward Eddie Denard, who started his career at Illinois-Chicago before spending last season at Kirkwood (Iowa) Junior College.
Denard turned down Wisconsin-Green Bay, Eastern Illinois and Rhode Island to sign with the Privateers.
“The other places had a feel like it was strictly business,” Denard said. “This is more a family. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who help each other on and off the court. That’s going to make a big difference in the long run.”
Denard added that despite Slessinger’s plan to use almost everyone, it will still be a competitive situation in practice.
“Everybody’s fighting for minutes,” Denard said. “You want to be the guy out there when it counts.”
Others being counted on include forward Corey Dixon from Hutchinson (Kansas) Junior College, who played a year at Northwestern State when Slessinger was an assistant there, guard Corey Blake from Southern-Shreveport and guard Isaac Mack from Panola (Texas) Junior College.
The two high school signees, guard Evans Ganapamo for Mandeville and forward Kevin Hill from John Ehret, are considerably more college-ready after spending the summer with the rest of the players and adding 17 and 12 pounds respectively.
“Our workouts have been pretty intense and I’ve been telling the new guys it’s going to get more intense now,” Cook said. “But this is a pretty energetic bunch.
“We’re all out to prove we’re Division I players and we’re going to compete at that level.”
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