Now, more than three months removed from the victory over then No. 17 Michigan that thrust NJIT into the national consciousness, head coach Jim Engles and the Highlanders are working towards a different goal.
After beating NAIA school Fisher (MA) 96-70 on Saturday, the Highlanders are now 15-10 overall and 13-10 against Division I competition. With two more Division I (Albany, at Howard) and two non-Division I games remaining, NJIT looks to be in line for a potential postseason berth, perhaps in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
“I’m hoping,” Engles said about playing more basketball after their regular season finale at Howard on March 4. “I think it’s a possibility. It’s something we’ve focused on, not being in a conference tournament it’s motivation for me and our guys to finish out the season strong.”
The CIT is the best available option for the Highlanders’ first ever postseason appearance. The tournament caters to mid-majors and has welcomed competitive Division I teams of all types in the past.
While CollegeInsider.com‘s Angelo Lento isn’t on the selection committee for the CIT, she had this to say about a potential bid for for the Highlanders. “NJIT has guaranteed themselves of a winning record, which makes them eligible for the CIT. Wins over Michigan and Yale highlight a fantastic season to date. … While I am not directly involved in the CIT selection process, I do know that four letters have been talked about a lot in the past few weeks — NJIT.”
Just a few seasons ago, the Highlanders fell one game short of earning an automatic bid to the CIT in March of 2012, losing to North Dakota in the Great West finals. This team though has more talent than last NJIT iteration with postseason aspirations, or the 2013 team that finished 16-13 overall. If NJIT were in any number of mid-major conferences, Engles would be preparing for the end of conference play and then a conference tournament. One which NJIT – which is ranked 176th in KenPom – might be a favorite to earn an automatic bid the NCAA tournament. The Highlanders will play Albany on Friday and while the Great Danes are a perfect 9-0 in America East play, NJIT is a 2-point favorite at home according to Pomeroy’s projections. NJIT is ranked higher in KenPom than all but a few of America East (3), MEAC (2) and NEC (1) schools.
But the current realities of college basketball mean that instead of prepping for one of those tournaments, NJIT is enjoying a six-game home stand and has won 10 of its last 11 games overall.
The Highlanders have persevered through the normal things college teams do, such as injuries, even if they went about it a slightly different way. Engles has had to work around losing star point guard Ky Howard, who was averaging 11.8 ppg and 4.1 apg before he went down against Yale with a stress fracture.
“When he got hurt I was very concerned because he’s been such a big contributor,” Engles said about losing Howard. “The positive thing that happened is that we started this season playing an 11-man rotation so it wasn’t like players hadn’t played.”
The team has kept going thanks to that depth. At the beginning of the season Engles played as many as 11 different players in his rotation. Now the Highlanders only have nine healthy bodies, but every single player can contribute.
“With nine guys you’re going to play,” Engles said. “You’re not worried about coach yanking you because there is nowhere else to go.”
The pressure being off has allowed some players to blossom. During the winning streak sophomore guard Rob Ukawuba has stepped up, scoring in double figures in five of the seven games since Howard went down with his injury after scoring no more than eight points in any game beforehand. It was Ukawuba playing Robin to standout sophomore Damon Lynn’s Batman on Saturday as the two combined for 50 points in the victory.
Still, it’d all be so much easier if NJIT could find a conference home and compete for a tournament title. Right now things are quiet on that front, but last week the board of trustees did approve a new $100 million multipurpose arena that will put NJIT’s facilities on par or better than most of its presumed future competitors. The school certainly hopes that the arena, coupled with the introduction of lacrosse and a competitive basketball team will lead to a conference affiliation.
For now though a berth in the CIT would be great. Engles doesn’t think playing basketball past the first week in March is necessary to put NJIT on the map or help the team’s recognition. They’ve already done that by putting a competitive program on the court and beating Michigan, Duquesne, St. Francis Brooklyn and Yale among others. Rather it would just be the perfect ending for the season of hard work by a young team — there are just two seniors on NJIT’s roster.
“The validation comes from everything we’ve gone through over the past seven years,” Engles said about whether a postseason berth would change the perception of NJIT basketball. “It would just complete the story of the year. It would be the cherry on top of a great season.”