Taking The Next Step Now The Priority For NJIT

Coming off a season where the school advanced to the semifinals of the CIT and placing their best RPI finish in school history, NJIT will have plenty of expectations laid upon them next season.

Even though they might be Division I’s last independent school, head coach Jim Engles and his staff will have to build out another 29-game schedule, but returns a roster with plenty of experience.

“I think we have a very good team coming back,” Engles said. “Terrence Smith didn’t play for us last year, so he’ll be back in the fold if everything goes well with his rehab. I’ve just been really more focused on these guys getting trying to get these guys ready for next season.”

“We do have a good team coming back, which makes me feel good, I’m just trying to make sure that these guys are set up properly. W’re going to have to deal with the expectations of what we were able to accomplish this year and take the next step. I’m not quite sure what that is yet until we sort of finish our schedule and we have an idea of what we’re going to be facing next year.”

While the life at an independent school means that uncertainty is at every corner, the certainty of NJIT’s upset victory over then-ranked Michigan as well as a national postseason run garnered plenty of attention for the Newark school. Engles split the All-Met Coach of the Year honors with St. Francis Brooklyn head coach Glenn Braica.

Smith, who averaged 12.2 points per game during the 2013-14 season, will be expected to return as well as all of their starters from last season. Those starters include leading scorer Damon Lynn whose 17.5 ppg led the team and as a sophomore became the first player to reach an All-Met team in NJIT’s Division I history.

As the Highlanders have higher expectations next season, so will their expectation to play plenty of quality opponents. Engles said that their finish last season should help them get games from leagues who have held RPI restrictions against playing them as a non-conference opponent. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is one conference that enforces bans teams in the bottom 50 of a three-year RPI average, to incentivize playing quality opponents.

“It’s actually been going pretty well,” Engles said. “I mean still not completely done, but we’re getting there now, which is good. We’ve been talking to a bunch of different people and I think the exposure we got this year certainly made it a lot harder for us to get people on the phone, but we had a good year, so we can’t hide from that. We’ll wind up playing a pretty competitive schedule next year.”

One game that is known on the Highlanders schedule is their likely opener on Nov. 14, a date in Lexington to face the Kentucky Wildcats as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic, an multi-team event exclusively held on campus sites for schools like NJIT.

Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others  for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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