With its win over Michigan, NJIT uses the attention as it fights for a chance to join a conference

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source: AP

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.”

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.