N.J.I.T. returned back to its Newark campus around midnight early Sunday and they were greeted by 150 fans in the pouring rain. The players, fresh off of a victory over No. 17 Michigan on the road on Saturday afternoon, were carried on shoulders into the locker room after getting off of the team bus.
“Like getting off the bus after winning a NCAA Tournament game,” N.J.I.T. head coach Jim Engles described to NBCSports.com.
In reality, as the last independent team left standing in Division I men’s basketball, the win over the Wolverines was as close to the NCAA Tournament as the Highlanders are going to get this season. As the only team without conference affiliation among 344 men’s basketball teams at the Division I level, N.J.I.T. can’t play for an automatic bid as a conference champion. There is no conference tournament to salvage the regular season.
The Highlanders used to belong to the Great West Conference until it folded after the 2012-13 season, but that league didn’t get an automatic bid to the Big Dance anyway. N.J.I.T. formed “rivalries” with schools like North Dakota and Utah Valley State, only to see those guaranteed games disappear when other programs in the GWC went with new conferences.
Instead, the program has a tough time filling up a schedule full of reasonable games, especially in the height of conference season in late January and February. The Highlanders will play home games on back-to-back nights, play some opponents more than once during a season and travel nearly anywhere to get a game.
“We’re stuck in a situation from a scheduling standpoint where nobody has to play us,” Engles said. “[If for] some reason teams come together and decide not to play us, that’s a concern for me.”
Thankfully, Michigan played N.J.I.T.
For the Highlanders, it was the first time in ten years of Division I competition they had played a ranked opponent. Engles uses John Beilein’s program as a model for N.J.I.T. as the Highlanders will use some similar drills and terminology in practice.
“I use Michigan to teach my team how to do things. I have so much respect for John Beilein at all of the places he’s gone,” Engles said.
Engles has been pleading with his players to watch and learn how Michigan’s players jump stop, and it must have done something, because playing in Ann Arbor, and beating the Wolverines, has now thrust N.J.I.T. into the national spotlight.
The 46-year-old Engles is using his new national platform to campaign for someone, anyone, to help his school get into a conference. While not having a legitimate chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament is tough enough, Engles argues that the experience of being a Division I student-athlete is not the same at N.J.I.T.
“It’s not just about our basketball team, it’s about our track athletes, our soccer kids, the baseball team. There are athletes on that campus that don’t have the same student welfare experience as other NCAA athletes have at Alabama and Kentucky and St. Francis, New York and LIU and it’s unfair,” Engles said.
While Engles acknowledges the school’s facilities aren’t desirable for a Division I program in some instances, he believes the school fosters a supportive environment for its athletic programs and its athletes to thrive.
“I get it. Our facilities are substandard to some high schools now. So I’m not going to lie. This is the reality that we have,” Engles said. “But there are other programs with nicer facilities that don’t have the infrastructure that we have that will help these kids.
“We’re a national research institution, we’re a state university, we’re well-funded, we’ve been asked to do certain things from a conference perspective and done them. They’ve asked us to put lacrosse in and we added lacrosse at the Division I level this year.”
And if you want proof that N.J.I.T. can succeed in athletics long-term, look no further than Engles’ own men’s basketball program, which went from national laughingstock, to near-.500 ball against yearly differing schedules.
Since breaking a 51-game losing streak during Engles’ first season in 2008-09, he’s gone a respectable 72-87 and the team has hovered around the .500 mark in four straight seasons. This despite uncertain travel schedules that include connecting flights to some games and games that interfere with classes. N.J.I.T. spent time during an airport layover watching highlights of the Michigan victory on TV after a Michigan State fan in baggage check enthusiastically greeted them. People used to look at the N.J.I.T. logo when the team was traveling and know them for the losing streak, or not recognize them at all. Now the Highlanders can hold their heads higher.
“We talk about commitment. You make a commitment to your school, to your teammatess, to your program. Not a lot of my kids got offered Division I scholarships. Maybe they’re undersized for their position. They might be underevaluated. We just talk every day about getting better,” Engles said.
And from the Michigan win and with the new-found attention, all Engles is asking for is a little bit of help. Help to get games and help to get into a permanent conference situation. The head coach believes the Highlanders would geographically fit within the America East or NEC, but he just wants the assurance of comfortable conference scheduling and a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
“Just get us in a league and you don’t ever have to deal with us again,” Engles joked.
Let’s be realistic, we’ll all forget about N.J.I.T. in a few weeks when they roll along with another independent schedule that is light in February games. But that shouldn’t be the case. The Highlanders and their players deserve the chance to have an experience like other Division I men’s basketball players. Getting them in a conference would give them a chance to sneak onto TV in mid-March, with a shot at the NCAA Tournament on the line. Engles is cool if you forget about his program, just let them get into a new conference first. Then he believes they’ll creep on the national radar once again.
“You don’t realize how many people follow you and actually care about your program. It’s been tremendous and I’m really happy for the kids,” Engles said. “I hope we can build on this and the next big story is to get in a conference and then everybody can forget about us for the rest of their lives.”