Friday, March 7, 2014

NJIT made most of schedule as nation's lone independent

Very few have gotten so much out of so little like Jim Engles has at NJIT. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Special To A Daly Dose Of Hoops

It certainly wasn’t the easiest of college basketball seasons for the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s men’s basketball program.

While most NCAA Division I basketball teams were winding down the regular season, facing league foes and gearing toward their respective conference tournaments, the Highlanders of NJIT were relegated to facing NCAA Division III teams like Wheelock and the University of Maine-Fort Kent and an NAIA school  like Fisher of Massachusetts.

Such is life when you’re the nation’s lone independent NCAA Division I squad.

The Highlanders are the only team among the 352 NCAA Division I programs without a conference affiliation.

NJIT made the jump from Division II to Division I eight years ago and for a while, they were members of the now-defunct Great West Conference, a league that did not own an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In fact, the Highlanders won the regular season Great West Conference title in its final year. The league’s other teams found homes in other leagues. For some reason, NJIT was left without a home.

Maybe it was the school’s athletic facility, the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Athletic Center, an antiquated old-school gym with bleacher seating on only one side and a seating capacity under 1,000. Maybe it’s the school’s high academic standard and reputation, serving for a while as strictly an engineering school, only to branch out in recent years.

Whatever the case, the Highlanders are like college basketball’s lone wolf, an independent in a world of conference affiliation.

NJIT head coach Jim Engles just finished his sixth year, trying his best to get his team through the schedule, knowing full well that the Highlanders never had much to play for, except pride and perhaps the future.

“When we did the schedule, I got a little scared just trying to fit the dates in,” Engles said. “Is it really a proper schedule? I don’t know. I just knew we had to get through it. It’s been hard to manage. It’s almost like we’ve had two separate schedules.”

The Highlanders finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 13-16 record after a season-ending 81-62 loss to North Carolina Central, a team that had won 15 straight coming into Newark.
NJIT started the season off in fine fashion, defeating Army, New Hampshire and Maine, in consecutive games, all on the road. The road wins certainly raised some eyebrows. Most had all three games penciled in as losses for the Highlanders.

“We beat Lafayette in overtime, giving us a 4-2 record early,” Engles said. “We were playing well, but then the guys got a little false confidence. We had a bunch of home games that we lost. The kids all started to learn as the season got harder. Things were more mental than physical.”

Engles said that it was also tougher owning a young team. The Highlanders had only one senior on the roster in Quentin Bastian, and he was lost early for the season after elbow surgery.

The Highlanders were led by freshman guard Damon Lynn, a native of Hillside, N.J. and a product of Union Catholic. The 5-foot-11 shooting guard averaged 17.7 points per game, with a season-best 34 points against North Carolina A&T. No question, Lynn was a talented gym that slipped between the cracks of the area’s larger schools, because he could have definitely benefitted the rosters of schools like Rutgers and Seton Hall, but had no offers.

Lynn finished the season with 107 3-pointers, ranking him fourth all-time for 3-pointers in a season by a Division I freshman.

Current Golden State Warriors All-Star Stephen Curry holds the all-time record, making 122 treys in 2006-07, followed by Oregon’s Tajuan Porter with 110, also in 2006-07, then Keydren Clark of St.Peter’s with 109 in 2002-03. Lynn also completed his freshman season averaging 3.69 3-point baskets per game, which is sixth-best all-time among freshmen.
Lynn gives the Highlanders a ton of hope for the future. Engles has to hope he’s able to keep Lynn in Newark.

Terrence Smith, a 6-foot-5 sophomore power forward from Fort Lauderdale, was the Highlanders’ second leading scorer at 12.2 points per contest. Smith was fourth in the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 62.2 percent from the floor.

“It’s been a struggle for me to manage their expectations and continue to progress,” said Engles, who inherited the Highlanders a year after posting an 0-29 record in the middle of an NCAA record 51-game losing streak. “But we continue to make progress. We’re practicing a lot better. The games we’re playing aren’t ideal. It’s not easy to get anyone to play in February. Until we get in a conference, this is the way the schedule has to be.”

The Highlanders recently defeated Wheelock, 110-46, Maine-Fort Kent, 84-45 and Fisher, 99-67. The Highlanders also defeated Division I Maryland-Eastern Shore, 77-76, on the road Feb. 19.

“It’s been a long season,” said Engles, who took his young team to Europe in August to play five exhibition games. “We have one of the youngest teams in the country. We have six freshmen. I’m not using it as an excuse. The whole season has been a challenge.”

However, Engles doesn’t believe that the Highlanders just played out the string with nothing at stake.

“We’re not playing for a championship, but we are playing for our reputation,” Engles said. “There are so many positives here. We’re going to get in a league. I truly believe that.  If we can get through this year, add a few more guys, then that will make me a better coach and makes us a better program. We are playing for something. We’re playing to get in a league.”

Engles said that the school’s administration has approved an $80-100 million facility/arena project that will begin construction soon. That has to help the cause of getting a league in the future.

However, as it stands right now, NJIT will once again be the lone independent Division I program in the nation in 2014-15. And that’s a distinction that no one wants in Newark, or anywhere else, for that matter.

James Hague

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