Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In NJIT's Case, There Shouldn't Be Only One

Since the beginning of time, Notre Dame has been an independent in football.  The Fighting Irish have their own television network, NBC, which doesn't stand for the Notre Dame Broadcasting Network, though many think it should.  Notre Dame's independence is of their own choosing.

But the Fighting Irish aren't the only FBS/Division I independents in football. Army, Navy and BYU are independents as well.   Army and Navy, with their rich football history, can stand on their own.  BYU, which has had a long football history as well, first under Lavell Edwards, can also stand on their own, thanks to their own television network and its one billion dollar endowment (that is not a typo).  

In college basketball, there is only one Division I independent.  An independent, unlike Notre Dame and BYU, that would like a conference home.  A basketball program that's deserving of a home.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology, otherwise known as NJIT.   

Their team name is the Highlanders.  If you're like me, you remember the movie "Highlander".  It was about an ancient group of immortals that have searched each other out over centuries, fighting in sword duels, because there can be in the end only one of them.  The tag line for the movie, which spawned several sequels and a syndicated televison show, was "There can be only one". 

Based on NJIT's recent history, it's very fitting.

NJIT became a Division I team in 2006-07.  As they do now, they first played as an independent. They won their first two games against Manhattan and Rider, then proceeded to lose twenty four of their next twenty seven games to finish 5-24.  In 2007-08, they lost all twenty nine of their games. In 2008-09, they lost their first eighteen games, which gave them a fifty one game losing streak before they defeated Bryant.  They would lose their last twelve games to finish 1-30.

In that 2008-09 season, the Highlanders got a new head coach in Jim Engles.  Coach Engles had been a Division I assistant coach for eighteen years before taking over a NJIT.  He had previously been the top assistant coach at Columbia under Joe Jones.   

Engles methodically turned the Highlanders around.  In the 2009-10 season, the Highlanders would win ten games; a nine game improvement.  Their season included two wins over NEC member Wagner and two wins over now Big Sky member North Dakota.  

In the 2010-11 season, NJIT joined the Great West Conference, a conference that was like the last season of the East Coast Conference (Google it).  The Great West Conference had no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but at least the Highlanders had a home.  In their inaugural season in the GWC, NJIT again showed improvement under Engles as they finished with a .500 record at 15-15.   They went 9-3 in the regular season in the Great West, but lost their first round conference tournament game.    

In the 2011-12 season, the Highlanders again won fifteen games, including non conference wins over FDU, Lafayette and Army.   They finished 5-5 in the Great West and made it to the tournament championship game before losing to North Dakota.

In the 2012-13 season, NJIT had its first winning season, finishing 16-13.  The Highlanders had wins over Army and South Carolina State.  But more impressively, they had back to back single digit losses to St John's and Seton Hall.   They also lost at Villanova by only ten points.  NJIT would win the last Great West Conference regular season championship, but lost to Houston Baptist in the last Great West Conference Tournament.

After the 2012-13 season, the Great West dissolved.  All but one of its members found homes in other automatic bid NCAA conferences, with most joining the WAC.  All but NJIT. 

Not that NJIT didn't try to find a home.  The school tried to get into the America East but were rebuffed.  Perhaps Binghamton didn't want have another team finish ahead of it.

The Highlanders were now the only Division I Independent.  Last season, the Highlanders went 13-16, three wins less from the prior season.  However NJIT remained very competitive.  They had road wins over Army, New Hampshire, Maine (who they also beat at home), St Francis PA, Delaware State and UMES.

Coach Engles has done a great job building a veteran coaching staff and a roster of players from throughout the country and overseas.  

Coach Engle's staff includes several long time Division I assistants and head coaches.  Brian Kennedy was a former assistant at DePaul and was athletic director of The Hoop Group, one of the most well known leaders in basketball instruction in the country.  Brian's brother is Rob Kennedy, one of my favorite college basketball color analysts, who is also president of The Hoop Group.

Coach Engle's staff also includes Jesse Agel, Tom Brennan's longtime #1 assistant at Vermont.  Agel later became the head coach at Brown University.  Dino Presley is also a longtime Divison I assistant coach, with twenty one years of experience at schools such as Drexel, Towson, St Bonaventure and Marshall.

What may be even more impressive is NJIT's ability to recruit players from outside the New York New Jersey- Pennsylvania area.  Their roster includes players from Maryland, Florida, Texas, Greece and Russia.

I got to see NJIT in person last year at Hofstra when I was back in New York.  I was impressed with the Highlanders, especially their heart.  Several times it looked like Hofstra was going to blow them out of the Mack Center.  But NJIT rallied several times, including cut the deficit to three, 64-61 before losing 75-64.

One of the eight local New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania players on the Highlanders is Chris Jenkins, who played for Hofstra last season as a freshman, averaging twenty one minutes and five points per game.  He played in that game against NJIT, scoring twelve points on four three pointers.   Jenkins decided to transfer to NJIT knowing that playing time at Hofstra would be limited with Juan'ya Green, Ameen Tanskley and Brian Bernardi all now eligible along with returning players Dion Nesmith and Jamall Robinson.  So Jenkins returned home to New Jersey and will be eligible for the Highlanders next season.

Entering this season, the Highlanders were still in search of a home.  To impress possible conference suitors, Coach Engles and his staff did their best to schedule tough teams.  They were able to play road games against St John's, Duquesne, Marquette, Michigan, Holy Cross, Villanova and South Alabama among other Division I schools.   In fact, they only have four games against non Division I schools.

And the Highlanders have stepped up to the challenge.  After losing to St John's, they barely lost at Marquette by five points, 62-57, after being up at halftime.   Then they won at A-10 member Duquesne 83-81.  

Then this past Saturday, the Highlanders got their biggest win in the history of their program. NJIT went up to Ann Arbor and knocked off #17 Michigan 63-61.   They hit on eleven of seventeen three pointers.  Sophomore guard Damon Lynn led the way with twenty points.

The Highlanders became instant celebrities with wins over Michigan.  Stories came out about how NJIT is the lone Division I independent and how they play in a small 1500 seat gym, while Michigan had a $52 million renovation in their arena, complete with a waterfall. In fact, as Adam Zagoria points out,  the NJIT bookstore is receiving a lot of orders for NJIT gear from Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana and other Big Ten fans just so they can razz Michigan when they play them.

Even though this season is far from over, the Highlanders will be even better next season.  Their top three scorers, Lynn, Ky Howard and Winfield Willis all return next season.  Plus they will be adding the three point threat in Jenkins.  The future only looks brighter for NJIT.  

Now if they could only find a conference to call home.  Coach Engles pleaded his case after the win over Michigan.
"We're doing everything we need to do to get in a league. I would like to be in a conference. My kids deserve it. We shouldn't be the only independent in the country. We're not Notre Dame football. I don't understand why someone in the NCAA -- or someone -- hasn't taken more of an active role in this. We have Division I athletes. We've gone through the reclassification process. We've done everything the NCAA has asked us. ... We need to be involved with everyone else."
NJIT continued their winning ways last night at home, at the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center in Newark New Jersey, the aforementioned 1500 seat gym with a sauna and two weight rooms.  They rallied from behind to defeat St Francis NY 66-64.   Lynn scored twenty two points in the victory.   The students stormed the court after the 4-5 Highlanders' second win in a row.  Considering they hadn't beat the Terriers in the past four years, a court storming for an independent team with no home is okay in my book.

For the Connor MacLeod of Divison I college basketball, Coach Engles and his Highlanders are tired of "There can be only one", as far as their independent status is concerned.  They want a conference to call home and they deserve one.

You know America East, ten is a nice round number.  Make NJIT the tenth America East school.

PS - Coach Engles is one of the few Division I basketball coaches who follows me on Twitter ( IO follow him as well) and has for several years.  I greatly appreciate that and I am very happy for the success he has had with his team.  I hope he finds a conference home for his Highlanders very soon.  That conference will be much better off having his team and someone of Coach Engles' character.

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