NEW ORLEANS (AP) University of New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger can't forget the days when he'd show up for a game at Lakefront Arena and see hardly a soul in the 9,000-seat stadium that had been rebuilt amid Hurricane Katrina's lingering ruins.
Memories like those help him and others who've refused to give up on UNO and appreciate how far the Privateers, seeded No. 1 in this week's Southland Conference tournament, have come since the cash-strapped school nearly dropped Division I sports little more than half a decade ago.
''One time we came out and there was like 50 people,'' Slessinger recalled of one of his early home games at UNO. ''I was just like, `Is this real? This can't be happening.'''
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Slessinger grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, watching the Indiana Hoosiers in packed Assembly Hall - where his mother has worked as an usher. But rather than flee the apparent college basketball wasteland in which he found himself at UNO, Slessinger became obsessed with trying to rebuild the program that made two NCAA Tournament appearances under coach Tim Floyd in the early 1990s.
At the very least, the 42-year-old Slessinger has restored the program's credibility.
The Privateers went 18-11 overall this season and 13-5 in league play, clinching the regular season title with a 74-64 victory at Nicholls State on Saturday. That result guaranteed UNO its first NCAA post-season appearance since 1997. The Privateers will get an NIT bid unless they win the Southland's lone automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Having secured a double-bye, UNO opens Southland tournament play Friday.
''This is a really special story and it's not over yet,'' said Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett, who recently presented the Privateers with a trophy to mark their regular-season title. ''They've got a great opportunity ahead of them. ... I probably would have told you this is a 10-year project, but they're on a much faster track.''
On Monday evening, there were more honors. Slessinger was named Southland Conference coach of the year, while Privateers forward Erik Thomas, who has averaged 19.7 points and 7.9 rebounds, was named conference player of the year.
''It is an unprecedented march from where we were ... to where we are today with all the twists and turns,'' Slessinger said. ''It's a story of some great student athletes that were under-recruited that people didn't believe in (during) the recruiting process, but we saw something specifically in them that was special.''
When Slessinger took over at UNO for the 2011-12 season, the Privateers were without a conference or any reasonable certainty about their future. Technically, UNO was a Division I independent then, but its schedule included many games against schools in lower divisions. That season, UNO lost to Division II schools such as Selma, Christian Brothers, Delta State and West Florida, as well as NAIA schools Xavier (New Orleans) and Loyola (New Orleans).
Historically, UNO, which sits right on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, has served mostly commuting students from the New Orleans area, a population that diminished sharply for a few years after Katrina's floods had displaced tens of thousands of residents in August 2005.
Monte Towe, who played for North Carolina State's 1974 national championship team, was UNO's coach when Katrina hit.
He said the storm's effect on the school, from widespread damage on campus to the decline in enrollment, ''was like a heavyweight fighter nailing you with a knockout punch, and you're on your knees and you're not sure if you're going to be able to get back up.''
Towe said that influenced his decision to go back to North Carolina State as an assistant in 2006.
Plummeting enrollment meant declining revenues from fees supporting athletics. Not wanting to divert money from financially struggling academic programs to sports, the administration in place at the time Slessinger arrived formally proposed downgrading athletics from Division I to non-scholarship Division III and withdrew UNO from the Sun Belt Conference.
UNO later appeared settled on a plan to move to Division II, which allows partial scholarships. But just before that transition was complete, a shake-up in Louisiana's higher education system placed UNO under different leadership which supported maintaining Division I sports.
UNO joined the Southland for the 2013-14 season, but could not compete in the post-season because of the program's problems meeting NCAA academic standards tied to graduation rates; Numerous student athletes had left school early around that time over dissatisfaction with planned changes to the program.
So Slessinger focused on recruiting players he felt had high character, cared about academics and could commit to a challenging rebuilding process on the court.
''Despite everything that was going on. He had a vision,'' senior point guard Nate Frye said. ''You would almost think he was crazy with the situation we were in.''
UNO Athletic Director Derek Morel, who has overseen the Privateers' recommitment to Division I sports, took over his department after Slessinger's first season in New Orleans, but decided to keep Slessinger rather than chose his own coach.
''I believed in his spirit, and his passion, his conviction ... and his belief that we could do it here,'' said Morel, whose entire athletic department runs on an annual budget of about $5 million, among the lowest for any public university nationwide. ''We want him here as long as he wants to be here.''
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