The nation’s lone independent team in Division I, NJIT, stunned 17th-ranked Michigan with a 72-70 victory on Saturday.
For head coach Jim Engles, this is a program-defining victory, their first victory against a team in the Top 25 in their first game against a ranked team. The program has been dealt with plenty of challenges. Engles admitted as much before his seventh season, and he spoke about how it has been difficult without a conference after the game.
“We’re trying to get into the America East or the Northeast Conference,” Engles said. “I want to get in the Big Ten now. How about opening up a spot for us?”
The Highlanders have already played three of their nine games against America East schools this season. While the conference is aware of NJIT’s predicament, there has not been any movement on the topic.
The presidents and administrators may have to make the decisions, but victories like NJIT’s over Michigan prove they can compete and give the conference a much needed RPI boost. Coaches from around America East, when asked prior to the season, said they thought the Highlanders could compete in the conference.
NJIT’s facility, the Fleisher Center, leaves plenty to be desired and as one coach said is one of the worst facilities. However, they may play in the sixth smallest facility in Division I, but the school has begun the process of building a $100 million arena.
“I think basketball wise, they would do well and it’s easy for me to say that because we’ve competed against them the past few years and Jim can really coach,” one America East coach said. “I think he’s a good recruiter and they’ll be even more appealing to kids if they’re in a league.”
So far there hasn’t been any movement on if the Highlanders would join a league, but the America East and Northeast Conference officials should be on notice. Not many programs in their leagues have beaten an Atlantic 10 team and a Big Ten team in the same season in their history. Michigan head coach John Beilein said the loss was humbling for his team, and you wonder how many more NJIT will humble as they roll through a schedule full of non-conference games until March.
“I think all the coaches across the board would welcome NJIT,” another America East head coach said. “That decision is not made on that level, and we don’t know what goes into it, but from just a pure basketball standpoint, a coaching standpoint, I think we all feel the same way.”
Because from a basketball standpoint NJIT is definitely ready for its conference closeup.
Ryan Restivo covers the America East conference, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.