NJIT makes splash with upset of Michigan, but still needs conference home
NEWARK, N.J. -- A couple of months before the basketball team from the New Jersey Institute of Technology headed to Ann Arbor Saturday and upset the 17th-ranked Michigan Wolverines in one of the biggest upsets in recent college basketball memory, Jim Engles, the Highlanders' head coach, took me downstairs from his windowless, cinderblock-walled office and into the locker room of the only conference-less team in Division I college basketball.
"When we first got here, it was like a scene out of 'Hoosiers,'" Engles said, talking about the dingy, wire-mesh locker rooms from old Indiana high school gyms in the movie.
He opened the locker room door at the Fleisher Athletic Center, and perhaps the most noticeable difference between when Engles began here seven seasons ago and now -- even bigger than the upset win over a Top 25 program that's now on Engles' resume -- came into view. A locker room, still small, but $250,000 nicer, with splashy graphics and fancy lockers and comfortable chairs, a legit Division I locker room that this team's players could be proud of. It marked one more step toward legitimacy, one more step toward joining the club -- any club.
I went to Newark to visit Engles this preseason because I'd heard he was a talented young coach in an impossible situation.
NJIT, an excellent academic institution that markets itself as an Ivy League-like school, is the only independent school of the 351 teams in Division I basketball. It moved into Division I in 2006 and fulfilled all of the NCAA's requirements to transition into the top division. For a while, the Highlanders were part of the Great West Conference, which was a conglomeration of similar schools without homes. It was a tough transition. The year before Engles started, NJIT went 0-29. When Engles took over, his team lost its first 18 games. It had become a laughingstock, a punch line for basketball futility.
A crystal basketball sits on Engles' desk, engraved with Jan. 21, 2009 -- the date of Engles' first win at NJIT, over Bryant. It was NJIT's only win that season.
"I was worried we'd never win a game that year and this thing wouldn't ever get started," Engles told me. "We are still dealing with the fallout from the losing streak. There's still people who make fun of us. If we didn't win a game for two full years, I don't know if you'd ever recover."
But Engles' team did recover. The next season, 10 wins. The season after that, 15 wins, then 15 again and 16 a year later.
Then football-driven realignment happened. Around the country, every Division I school stood up and shuffled around in a game of high-stakes musical chairs. When the music stopped playing, only NJIT was left without a place to sit.
"We're in purgatory," Engles told me simply.
There is no other team without a country that NJIT can commiserate with, either. And that's not going to change. Since NJIT's transition to Division I, the NCAA changed the rules on what a school must do to make the transition. Now, a school must have already secured affiliation with a conference before it makes the transition. So there won't be any opportunity for NJIT to bring together a smattering of newly-minted Division I schools and turn them into a new conference.
They're at the mercy of other conferences to welcome the Highlanders aboard.
Despite the obvious unfairness of his situation, Engles -- a married father of two middle-school-aged girls whose wife works on Wall Street and who'd been an assistant at Columbia before taking the NJIT job, his first head-coaching gig -- is surprisingly sanguine about his situation. There's no villain here, no one institution where NJIT can point its blame. The Highlanders are simply a victim of circumstances. They can only wait for those circumstances to change.
A win against the nationally ranked Michigan team ought to help. It'll put NJIT on people's radars, at the very least, even if the Big Ten isn't likely to extend an invitation any time soon (despite Engles' postgame joke that it should).
There are so many challenges Engles faces that no other college basketball coach does. There's motivation: How do you get your players to fight for something when the end of the season has no championship, no possibility of even being in a conference tournament? Travel is tough, too. Last year, NJIT played a November road game in Albany, New York. Then the team hopped on a bus for a game at Army three days later, then a bus to New Hampshire for a game two days after that, then a bus to Maine for a game two days after that. (The Highlanders won three of four.)
Scheduling is the biggest challenge. His schedule is front-loaded with tough games -- this year's pre-Christmas matchups include St. John's, Marquette, Michigan and Villanova -- because big-time basketball powers would rarely schedule a non-conference matchup during January or February. In the winter months, Engles relies on friends in the business who'll do him a solid and put NJIT on their schedules.
"Coaches don't want to play us during their conference play because their kids aren't focused," Engles said. "Kids aren't as motivated to play that game. Some leagues don't even allow teams to play out of conference during conference play."
This season's team has two transfers sitting out and six freshmen. Damon Lynn, the sophomore guard who scored 20 points and made six threes against Michigan, has attempted (and made) more 3-pointers than any other player in Division I college hoops so far this season. Engles runs actions like Princeton, Michigan and Creighton, knowing that isolation plays won't work here -- his only way to compete is to have everyone touch the ball and make sure everyone has to be guarded. All his players have been undervalued, under-evaluated or overlooked in some way.
Engles sees another round of conference realignment as inevitable. And he sees it as something that can only help NJIT's situation. He just doesn't know how long his team is stuck in this purgatory.
I asked him about how much he looks forward to becoming part of a conference again.
"I look at it this way," he said. "And this is stupid to say. But the day I married my wife, it was one of the best things that ever happened in my life. I have two children -- the birth my children, without them my life wouldn't be whole. But when we get in a conference, it will be close to that."
I laughed. He was serious.
"We've done everything we were supposed to do," Engles said. "When is somebody going to notice that this is wrong?"
Well, how about now?