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College Basketball
Kelli Anderson
December 10, 2007
On the Rise Playing in a glorified rec gym, a team of Big Easy natives is leading the latest rebuilding project in New Orleans
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December 10, 2007

College Basketball

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On the Rise
Playing in a glorified rec gym, a team of Big Easy natives is leading the latest rebuilding project in New Orleans

OF ALL the mid-major teams that have pulled off upsets in the opening weeks of the season, no squad deserved to celebrate more than New Orleans, which knocked off then No. 21 North Carolina State 65--63 in Raleigh on Nov. 18. The 4--1 Privateers, who haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 1996 or had a winning season since 2004, are on their third coach in three years and are still playing their home games at the Human Performance Center, a '60s-era, on-campus recreational gym that seats just 1,200 fans and had only 805 on hand for New Orleans's home opener against Lamar on Nov. 28. With 9,000-seat Lakefront Arena still undergoing repairs because of damage sustained during Hurricane Katrina, the players also have to do without a proper locker room; they change into their uniforms in a partitioned corner of a gymnastics hall.

But the Privateers learned long ago not to dwell on what they don't have. "You have to block all those negative things out and focus on basketball," says 6-foot senior guard Bo McCalebb, the reigning Sun Belt player of the year and the team's leading scorer (20.6 points a game). "All the disruptions have made us a lot tougher as players and people, and they have brought us closer as a team."

Indeed, when the players were scattered in the chaos caused by Katrina in August 2005, four of this year's five seniors tracked one another down by phone and made a pact. "We decided we'd stick together, go to Tyler [ Texas, where the team relocated for a semester] and finish what we had started," says senior guard James Parlow. It hasn't been easy. Parlow is from New Orleans, and while he stayed with the program, his family lost its home in the flooding and has splintered to different parts of the country. McCalebb, another Crescent City product, passed on offers from Oklahoma State and Ole Miss four years ago to remain near his mother, Tara Batiste, who suffers from a heart condition. While he was sitting out two seasons ago as a redshirt because of a thumb injury, he says several schools contacted his mother to try and get him to transfer. "I didn't want to be anywhere else because I love this city and this university," he says.

Another senior, forward Jacob Manning, sat out most of last season with a foot injury, then was cut by then coach Buzz Williams. But Williams left shortly after that, taking an assistant's job at Marquette in July. Manning approached Williams's replacement, Joe Pasternack, and asked if he could rejoin the team. The player repaid his new coach's faith in him by grabbing a team-leading nine rebounds in the 76--65 win over Lamar.

Pasternack is a 30-year-old New Orleans native who spent eight years as an assistant to Ben Braun at Cal and four seasons before that as a student manager for Bob Knight at Indiana. Aside from an infectious passion for the game, Pasternack has brought an emphasis on defense and rebounding—two things New Orleans sorely lacked—as well as an empathy for what his players have been through. His parents' house was destroyed by Katrina.

"These kids are starving for something good to happen," says Pasternack. "Seeing their faces after the N.C. State game, I think it gave them a belief in what we're doing."

The Privateers still have plenty to work on, as was evident from their season-high 24 turnovers in a 75--60 loss to Nicholls State last Saturday. But Parlow likes the direction the team is heading. "We're up and coming, and that's good for the city," he says. "We want to get New Orleans back on the map."

Luke Winn's weekly power rankings.