This year’s NCAA Tournament is poised to have a number of great stories, including four schools making their first appearances ever (and a fifth in Northwestern almost certain to).
None will be better, though, than New Orleans. The Southland Conference regular season champion Privateers clinched their spot in the field with a 68-65 overtime victory over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and you can bet you’ll be hearing about UNO’s journey to get there for the next week, until it faces almost certainly a 1 or 2 seed (or maybe even a 16 seed) in its first game.
New Orleans will be making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996, and the school, its basketball and athletics programs have all been through a whole lot since.
UNO was once a solid upper-middle program in NCAA Division I, receiving at-large bids to the NCAA tourney in 1987, 1991 and 1993 and entering the national rankings in all three of those seasons. The Privateers defeated BYU in a first-round game in 1987 and nearly took out eventual national runner-up Kansas as a 14 seed at-large pick in 1991, and Ronnie Grandison, Ladell Eackles and Ervin Johnson are all former UNO players who had long NBA careers.
New Orleans made its last trip to the NCAAs in 1996 after knocking off Arkansas-Little Rock in a classic tournament final, and the program started to slip in the Sun Belt Conference after that. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit.
Like Tulane and other universities in the area, UNO was hit hard. Buildings were damaged, including the Privateers’ home, the nearly 10,000-seat Lakefront Arena. Enrollment took a dive, and UNO operated with a nearly bare bones athletic department. The school actually applied for and was approved to move to the Division III non-scholarship level, then reconsidered and later announced it would reclassify as a Division II school.
Eventually, New Orleans decided to remain in Division I, and slowly it has worked its way back. It joined the Southland Conference in 2013-14 and finished 8-10 in the conference in its first year, but consecutive 6-12 seasons showed a program still regaining its footing.
UNO returned all five starters this year, though, and withstood a rough opening stretch that included decisive losses to Oklahoma State and USC. The Privateers defeated Tulane and Washington State out of conference, then rolled to the Southland regular season title with a 13-5 mark.
New Orleans trailed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi by 10 points early in Saturday night’s tourney final in Katy, Texas, but a team with no postseason experience before a Friday night semifinal win over Sam Houston State showed its mettle and calmly got back into the game. An 18-5 run in the second half gave UNO the lead, and the Privateers matched the Islanders basket for basket down the stretch, then pulled ahead in overtime and held off Corpus Christi.
Katrina is more than 10 years in the rearview mirror now for New Orleans, but the Privateers’ return to the NCAA Tournament, will be an especially proud moment for a school and an area that is still healing. It’s good to have UNO back in the Big Dance, and the team, the school and its fans deserve to enjoy every second of it.
- The teams wrapping up championships on a wild Saturday before Selection Sunday included: Arizona (Pac-12), Duke (ACC), Iowa State (Big 12), Kent State (MAC), Middle Tennessee State (C-USA), Mount St. Mary’s (NEC), Nevada (MWC), New Mexico State (WAC), New Orleans (Southland), North Carolina Central (MEAC), North Dakota (Big Sky), Texas Southern (SWAC), UC Davis (Big West), Vermont (America East) and Villanova (Big East).
- North Dakota-which fought back to defeat Weber State 93-89 in overtime in the Big Sky final-and UC Davis, which edged top seed UC Irvine 50-47 in the Big West, have joined Northern Kentucky as schools who clinched conference titles and are set to make their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I tourney. All three had success at the Division II level before moving to D-I.
- Coaching news: John Groce is out at Illinois, a surprising move considering the Fighting Illini a) aren’t technically eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention yet and b) have an outstanding recruiting class coming in. Groce-who had big success at Ohio University before going to Illinois-posted a 95-75 record in five years with the Fighting Illini and made one NCAA Tournament in his first season.
- Oregon lost to Arizona 83-80 in an excellent Pac-12 final, but the bigger news for the Ducks was the reveal that Chris Boucher will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, suffered the night before in a semifinal win against California. The energetic senior’s career is sadly over, and his loss is a huge blow to Oregon’s frontline and to its depth.
Today’s Menu: The final six conference tournaments wrap up.
- The first-ever Ivy League tourney wraps up with a classic matchup, as defending league champion Yale faces a Princeton team that went undefeated in the regular season (Noon Eastern, ESPN2).
- It’s Rams vs. Rams in the Atlantic 10 final with Rhode Island against VCU (12:30 p.m., CBS). URI may need this one to get in the NCAAs, but it did just beat VCU two weeks ago.
- Classic retro matchup in the SEC final as Arkansas faces Kentucky (1 p.m., ESPN), where it’ll feel like 1995 again.
- It’s been a wonderfully competitive season in the Sun Belt this year, and the final has sixth-seeded Troy against No. 4 Texas State (2 p.m., ESPN2). The defense-minded Bobcats look for their first NCAA bid in 20 years, while the Trojans search for just their second ever and first since 2003.
- The Big Ten wraps it up with Michigan against a Wisconsin team that has found itself again after an inexplicable late-season funk (3 p.m., CBS).
- The final game in the American should be a dandy, with Cincinnati and SMU meeting for a third time (3:15 p.m., ESPN) and both capable of being around in the NCAA Tournament for a while.
Wishing all a happy Selection Sunday.