NEWARK, N.J. – On perhaps the worst night in a couple of seasons – and make no mistake, it was a brutal 82-67 defeat his team suffered at the hands of 10-21 Stetson at the Fleischer Center in the Atlantic Sun quarterfinals – NJIT coach Jim Engles was able to make a reality check.
He was extremely disappointed, sure, but the “never forget where you came from” thing means something to Engles, and it was only a few seasons ago, they were storming the same court after beating Bryant in 2009. Why? Why not? It was their first win in two seasons. And it would be the only one Engles would get in his first season in Newark. The Highlanders that season were perhaps the worst offensive team in recent Division I history, with 0.749 points per possession and a 38.5 eFG% (24.8% from three-point range).
The team above them in the offensive rankings, Winston Salem St., would drop to Division II a year later, and the smart money then might have been on NJIT to do the same rather than continue to chase a quixotic Division I dream.
By now you know the recent history: the title in the defunct Great West, a win over Michigan and a run in the CIT that marked a season for the ages in 2014-15 that – although we’ll never know – might have saved them from oblivion. Finally, the coup de grace, an invite from the Atlantic Sun and breaking ground on a new, modern 3,500-seat arena.
So Engles could smile and joke in the postgame press conference, even with the disappointment of a sellout crowd that was never really given a chance to get going Tuesday.
“All I can say is look how far our program has come, we have placards with our name on them (in the postgame press conference),” Engles said. “That’s unbelievable. And it puts it in perspective a little.”
A quick autopsy on the 2015-16 NJIT season (which may continue, a 17-14 record makes them eligible for the postseason and after last year, they have a good chance to get an invite) shows that much of the Highlanders’ first conference campaign was a struggle on almost all fronts. Damon Lynn played his guts out Tuesday, exhausted by the last couple of minutes, and he finished with 24 points. But he was just 1-12 from behind the arc, with NJIT finishing a woeful 2-26 overall. In fact, for the season, Lynn – hounded by defenders and battling injuries – made just 32.0% of his threes, 31.4% in conference play.
Last season the Highlanders shot 37.1% from three, this season just 34.3%, which doesn’t seem like a ridiculous amount, but it dropped them from 61st to 183rd nationally.
At the other end of the floor, NJIT did finish first in Atlantic Sun defensive efficiency, but that’s a little like being the biggest fish in the quickest pond, as the A-Sun was the most efficient offensive conference in the nation (which led to some exciting basketball, at least). Overall, NJIT has dropped to 260th in defensive eFG% (51.7%) after being 64th last season (46.4%), largely due to the graduation of rim protector Daquan Holiday and a season-ending injury to Winfield Willis in December.
So while it’s hard to say a loss like Tuesday’s was coming, NJIT was only 8-6 in the conference regular season after all and was swept by last-place USC Upstate in an extremely balanced round-robin. They had many flaws, and Engles knew it. It’s a lesson learned: joining a conference is wonderful for everyone, but it is a different kind of pressure than they had felt in the past. Add in some nagging injuries to boot, and NJIT now knows what conference life is really like.
And it’s not necessarily as nice as the brochure, at least on the court.
“Going through the league has been a big adjustment for us, and now we see exactly what we need to prepare for and accomplish,” Engles said. “This is definitely a process. Just because we got in the league didn’t make everything fall into place for us. We ended last season on such a high note, but college basketball is a frustrating sport because you end the season on a low note like today. But we see what we’re up against now and we have to keep improving as a program.”
Tuesday’s game proved to be a bit embarrassing for the Atlantic Sun, who allowed Stetson to compete in the postseason tournament despite being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to an APR (Academic Progress Rate) ban. If the Hatters win, North Florida would get the A-Sun’s automatic bid, which creates a potential nightmare for the league if it is a North Florida-Stetson final and the Ospreys go to the NCAAs no matter what.
But Stetson doesn’t care at this point, and A-Sun Freshman of the Year Derick Newton looked like he belonged in another league Tuesday, scoring 28 points on 10-12 shooting, 3-3 from behind the arc. Newton has shot it at 47% from three-point range, and at 6’7”, as Engles said after the game, “is going to be a handful for the next three years in this league”.
— #ASunMBB (@ASunMBB) March 2, 2016
NJIT led 8-4 early, but it would be their last as a 13-1 run sparked by Newton put the Hatters up 26-13. The Highlanders made a couple of mini-runs to try to crawl back into the game, but just as the crowd started to reach the deafening levels it did in last year’s CIT, Stetson would put an end to it, or a key shot just wouldn’t fall for NJIT. Stetson led by 13 at the half, quickly stretched it to 18, and the game was never closer than 12 after that.
“I felt like the pressure was on them,” third-year Stetson coach Corey Williams said. “What we needed to do was come and maybe get them on their heels. I thought the pressure was certainly on them after that.”
Most disappointing for the Highlanders was posting just 0.91 ppp against a team that was 344th in defensive efficiency and had held just three Division I teams under 1.00 ppp coming into Tuesday all season. Obviously, the poor shooting had plenty to do with that, and Engles said the lack of practice due to nagging ailments probably contributed to that.
“What we did want to do is not let them drive uninhibited to the basket,” Williams said. “They run this Princeton offense, which is very difficult to guard, and I think we finally figured some things out. But they missed shots. This game could be played 10 times and if they hit those shots, they would probably win. Our situation, we’re just playing. I have a very young team, and they’ve grown up. (A win last Thursday over) Florida Gulf Coast was a bit of a tipping point for us. We’ve only talked about one thing and that’s having a chance to win this conference tournament.”
The steps up the mountain always get tougher as the air gets thinner, of course, and NJIT will go back to drawing board and regroup. South Alabama transfer (and Newark native) Abdul Lewis will help a lot of their rim protection problems at 6’10”, while Lynn and Ky Howard will return for their senior campaigns.
“These guys wanted the standard to be what we accomplished last year,” Engles said. “We did a really good job managing injuries from a staff perspective, but you lose this game and there is no perspective this time. I’m hoping we can get healthy and get into a postseason tournament because I think we still deserve it. I knew we wanted it, but I knew Stetson wanted it. Anyone can win in this league and that’s the truth.”
Lynn, like his coach, was upset but honest about the proceedings after the game, and perhaps had the best summary of the transition to being a real, live Division I college basketball team with an NCAA automatic bid conference affiliation and everything.
“It’s like a rollercoaster with a lot of ups and downs,” Lynn said.
The down Tuesday was a steep and disappointing one for NJIT, particularly after the wonderful heights last season. But they likely won’t last. And the ups – with even more fancy placards for Engles and his team – should be back soon.