UNO is the right fit for Zach Kinsley
Zach Kinsley was making a mistake.
That's what his father told him upon learning he had decided to transfer to New Orleans. Rather than accept any of the Division I scholarship offers in front of him after two seasons at LSU as a walk-on, Kinsley was essentially choosing to join a team filled with them.
No, New Orleans could not offer scholarships this season while competing as a Division I independent. But as much as the Privateers needed a player of Kinsley's experience level on their ragtag roster, he needed them as well. UNO was the only place where Kinsley and his older brother could transfer to and play college basketball together.
"Dad, that's where Ryan's going," Kinsley explained.
While many saw UNO as a reeling program in the midst of a complicated rebuilding plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kinsley saw opportunity. In his second stint as a non-scholarship player, he is averaging a team-best 18.9 points per game. Playing the wing alongside his brother, the 6-foot-5 junior is scoring the ball against mainly Division III and NAIA competition with the same ferocity that transformed him from a lightly recruited prep school prospect into a starter at LSU.
Ryan, his older brother by three years, averages 10.3 points per game, and the duo operates with the type of chemistry developed through countless games of two-on-two with their father, Fred, and eldest of three brothers, Josh. Out of those battles on the family's backyard court in Baton Rouge, Kinsley also learned to play with determination.
"He was the youngest, so he took a beating every time he was out there," Fred said. "That's part of his makeup today. His brothers don't realize how much they helped him. They cut him no slack."
Said Kinsley of the backyard games: "I didn't go down without a fight. A lot of them ended in fights."
When Kinsley arrived at LSU, he wasn't satisfied with merely making the team with a walk-on tryout. He played only 23 total minutes in nine games as a freshman on an NCAA tournament team, but he also spent the time improving his game by going up against Tasmin Mitchell in practice and bulking up in the weight room.
Last season as a sophomore, Kinsley made his first career start at Madison Square Garden and scored 14 points against Arizona State in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Kinsley called his father before the game and listed off the LSU starting lineup, dramatically saying his own name last. Fred, left momentarily speechless by the news, later responded by texting his son the names of those who have performed at the World's Most Famous Arena -- Maravich, Chamberlain, Frazier, Havlicek, and now there was Kinsley.
Kinsley ended up appearing in all 31 games for an injury-plagued 11-20 team that finished last in the SEC. He made six starts and led the Tigers in 3-point shooting percentage (39.5 percent). Coach Trent Johnson rewarded Kinsley for his contributions (3.4 ppg) by putting him on scholarship during the spring semester.
At the end of the season, however, Kinsley was disappointed when Johnson -- as he had done in years past -- excused the walk-ons and asked them to audition for roster spots again at the annual tryout.
"He didn't guarantee me a spot the next year, and the way he let me go just wasn't the way to handle it," said Kinsley, who chose to transfer instead.
Said Johnson: "The bottom line is Zach was a great kid. He's doing a heck of a job. He made a great decision."
Kinsley found refuge at New Orleans of all places.
This was a school transitioning out of Division I and leaving the Sun Belt Conference due to an enrollment drop following Hurricane Katrina and a subsequent budget crunch.
This was a program that was left with only one holdover from last season's roster because it could no longer offer scholarships while expecting to drop down to Division III.
It wasn't what Privateers coach Joe Pasternack, who left an assistant coaching position at Cal four years ago to return to his hometown, had signed up for. When the university made a Nov. 11, 2009, announcement about its Division III intentions (on the eve of signing day), Pasternack lost his recruits. After the season, he needed to give players their releases.
Why did Kinsley turn down three Division I scholarship offers (McNeese State, Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana) and jump at the chance to enroll at UNO? Due to the situation at the school, players who signed there immediately became eligible for competition. That included Ryan, a senior who turns 26 this week and is thankful for the rules that allowed him to become a Privateer after injuries marred his stints at three previous colleges.
The brothers are among the 20 who have logged minutes this season, a collection of no-name recruits, junior college transfers, academic casualties, former Division I walk-ons and journeymen that Pasternack and his staff cobbled together. While paying for their tuition, housing and books, they play with the goal of compiling the best record among Division I independents and are 11-4 and riding a six-game winning streak.
"We can only control what we can control," Pasternack said. "You cannot control adversity. All you can control is how you respond to adversity. Persevere, that's what we've done."
The Privateers bonded over hard-luck stories and looked to Kinsley, the one with the power conference pedigree. He's responded by leading the team in scoring, 3-pointers (31) and minutes played (33).
"It doesn't matter what it is, if we're going to run sprints, run the mile or do schoolwork," Ryan said. "He's got a focus and just a competitive, tough attitude to where he's going to get it done. If it's scoring the ball, that's what he'll do."
Fred, who attended UNO, was initially skeptical about Zach's decision but ultimately backed it once he realized how much his sons wanted to play together. Now he's able to cheer from the stands and watch as they run some recognizable two-man sets from the old backyard playbook.
Where he'll play as a senior is something Zach said he hasn't thought about much, as little is certain. With Ryan completing his eligibility and Zach again able to transfer and become eligible without sitting out a year, he'll have another decision to make when the season ends next month. New Orleans isn't even clear on its own direction, as the school is reconsidering the transition to Division III after its chancellor was fired in September.
"The change in leadership and enrollment presented an opportunity to explore the original decision to move to Division III," athletic director Amy Champion said in a statement, adding that all three NCAA classifications are being reviewed. "We are presently in the midst of a wide-ranging study that will help provide a road map to our athletic department's future."
It's the present that Kinsley cherishes, as he has resurfaced on the Lakefront with a newfound family. Naming New Orleans as his transfer destination was no shot in the dark at satisfaction after all.
"It's amazing," Kinsley said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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