NEW ORLEANS — UNO nearly got “clocked” Saturday night at Southeastern Louisiana University but managed to keep on ticking with a gritty 60-52 comeback win and stay in sole possession of first place in the Southland Conference.
The Privateers (10-3, 15-9) are locked in a three-way battle with Sam Houston State (9-4) and four-time defending league champion Stephen F. Austin (8-4) for the all-important top two seeds in the upcoming SLC Tournament on March 8-12 in Katy, Texas.
The top two seeds in league play advance to the semifinals with the champion earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Senior forward Erik Thomas posted a double-double (20 points, 12 boards) to lead the Privateers past the Lions in a game interrupted countless times by clock stoppages and malfunctions.
“I’m so excited for our guys,” UNO coach Mark Slessinger said. “Men’s basketball (at UNO) is in first place. But, more importantly, our university is in first place. Our faculty and staff are in first place. Our students and our alumni are in first place. And our city is in first place. Every one of them deserve it. We wouldn’t be here without all of those people pushing us and helping us, and this being a team effort. This is what this whole thing is about.”
Five games remain in the regular season. It appears the Privateers and SFA are on a collision course with a rematch set for Feb. 23 at Lakefront Arena. The Lumberjacks won the first meeting 71-61 on Jan. 29 in Nacogdoches, Texas.
UNO takes a well-deserved breather before playing host to Central Arkansas (7-6, 8-18) at 5 p.m. next Saturday night at Lakefront Arena.
NO HOOP-LA FOR TIGERS, GREN WAVE
These are hard times for the LSU and Tulane men’s basketball teams.
With Saturday’s home loss against Arkansas, 78-70, Johnny Jones’ Tigers have dropped 11 straight games and 13 of their last 14 and stand dead last in the Southeastern Conference at 1-11 (9-15). It is LSU’s longest losing streak since 2009-10, Trent Johnson’s second season in TigerTown (2-14, 11-20).
Their last win came at Missouri on Jan. 4, 88-77. At the time, LSU stood relatively tall at 9-4 overall, 1-1 in the SEC. Unfortunately, the Tigers don’t play Mizzou again in the regular season. In fact, four of LSU’s last six games are on the road, beginning Tuesday at Ole Miss.
Over on Freret Street, the Green Wave under first-year coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. isn’t faring much better. TU has lost eight consecutive games and 13 of its last 14 and stands 1-11 in the American Athletic Conference, 4-20 overall.
Their last win — and only win in two months — came at AAC cellar-dwellar South Florida on Jan. 11, 82-67. The two teams will hook up again at Devlin Fieldhouse next Saturday.
SAINTS GET DOWN TO DOLLARS AND SENSE
As we await news on season ticket prices, Saints officials are getting their house in order for what promises to be an extremely important offseason. (read here: jobs depend on it. No, really. GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton are on very hot seats!)
The new, major assistant coaches are in the barn — Mike Nolan (linebackers), Bradford Banta (special teams), Curtis Johnson (wide receivers) and Ryan Nielsen (defensive line). The team is staying put for training camp and will work from home in the summer suana. Owner Tom Benson and his three very rich estranged heirs have settled their monetary differences out of court.
And there is contractual peace with ageless quarterback Drew Brees this offseason.
Thus, the easy part is over.
On March 9, free agency begins in earnest for Loomis and Payton as they attempt to piece together a championship roster under the constraints of a league-mandated salary cap of approximately $168 million. The Saints are projected to have between $25 million and $30,000 million in cap space to lure an impact edge rusher, or cornerback, or linebacker, or return specialist/running back, etc.
Veteran fullback John Kuhn didn’t bother with free agency. He re-upped with the Saints on Feb. 3, signing a one year, $1.08 million contract extension.
Of the remaining 18 unrestricted free agents (UFA) according to Spotrac, here’s my top five considerations:
— DT Nick Fairley. A good player, not a great player with past baggage/issues. The concern here is the team will be tempted to overpay him because, when totally focused and grounded, he can fill a huge need in the interior defensive line both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher.
— RG Jahri Evans … played well on the rebound last season … may decide to retire … turns 34 on Aug. 22.
— RB Tim Hightower … a solid, complementary player. Now that he has retained an agent, I hope he doesn’t price himself out of New Orleans.
— CB Sterling Moore … signed off the street during the season and acquitted himself nicely. Not a starter in an idyllic world but there’s a place on the roster for him.
— LB/special teams Michael Mauti … as long as he can walk, there’s always a place for him on my roster after that bone-rattling hit on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in 2015.
There are other UFAs worth a mention.
— OLB Paul Kruger … nothing special; sign him on the cheap.
— RB Travaris Cadet … I’m not a fan of his … if he could return kicks/punts, he’d be more attractive.
— LS Justin Drescher … bring him to camp.
— G/C Tim Lelito … how many opportunities does he get?
— S Roman Harper … know when to say when … a budding position coach.
— DE Darryl Tapp … has the time come to Tapp out on a solid 11-year career?
Other orders of business:
— I’d make solid offers to five players currently under the Saints control: DE Kasim Edebali (restricted free agent), CB B.W. Webb (RFA), WR Brandon Coleman (RFA), WR Willie Snead (exclusive rights free agent) and K Will Lutz (ERFA).
— Also, I would restructure the contracts of S Jairus Byrd ($7.9 million base, $11.7 million cap hit) and TE Coby Fleener ($5.8 million base, $7.5 million cap hit). Better contributors have been asked to rework their deals.
And to think, I did all of this without penning an executive order.
p.s. I’ll take a look at the free agent market and the draft in the coming weeks. Suffice to say, the Saints’ approach should be heavy on defense.
SUPER BOWL LI
Normally, it’s a roster that takes a hit after playing in a Super Bowl with veteran free agents seeking greener pastures and playing opportunities elsewhere. But the runnerup Atlanta Falcons head into the offseason with key changes on their coaching staff, most notably new offensive and defensive coordinators in Steve Sarkisian by way of Alabama and Marquand Manuel, who was elevated from secondary coach after the dismissal of DC Richard Smith.
Let the proverbial annual Super Bowl hangover begin.
Incidentally, Falcons QB Matt Ryan unquestionably deserved league MVP honors after how he played during the regular season. But he reverted to his former destructive self in the Falcons’ epic collapse against New England in Super Bowl LI, that improbable, stunning 34-28 loss in overtime after squandering a 28-3 lead.
Ryan coughed up the ball on a strip-sack that led to one touchdown, in part because of a missed blitz-pickup by running back Devonta Freeman. Then, with the Falcons holding a 28-20 lead late in the fourth quarter, he took a huge loss on a sack that took the Falcons out of field goal range when a 3-pointer would have made it a two-score game.
Instead of icing the game, Matty-Ice enabled the Patriots to stay in the game and eventually win it in overtime.
Oh, Ryan wasn’t the only fly in the ointment. There is plenty of blame to go around (see play calling by former OC Kyle Shanahan, now the head man in San Francisco). But Ryan can’t hide from those two costly, game-changing mistakes.
His legacy reads: 3-5 in the postseason, including 1-1 in conference championship games, 0-1 in Super Bowls.
HE SAID IT
“They are the perfect example of how we should play. In this position today, we played like an amateur team. So there’s nothing else to say. It’s just embarrassing.” — New Orleans Pelicans big man Donatas Motiejunas on the Utah Jazz after a 127-94 loss at the Smoothie King Center on Feb. 8.
The more I see DoMo play and hear him speak, I like him.