After Jim Engles left for Columbia, NJIT decided to invest in continuity. The Highlanders looked at a number of candidates, but eventually gave the job to Engles’ lieutenant Brian Kennedy.
Kennedy offers a bridge between the Engles era and the next step in NJIT basketball. Engles helped end a 51-game losing streak and then turned the Highlanders into a viable mid-major program with a signature win at Michigan and back-to-back CollegeInsider.com Tournament appearances. Now Kennedy needs to work on turning the Highlanders into a powerhouse.
He’ll have a strong foundation to work from. The Highlanders return a strong core from the team that finished 20-15 and reached the semifinals of the CIT. Kennedy will need to find a way to replace key combo-guard Ky Howard, but he will have Damon Lynn, Tim Coleman and a healthy Rob Ukawuba back for another trip through the Atlantic Sun.
Considering all that’s coming back, don’t expect too much to change.
“Jim Engles and I have the same core beliefs. We’re both fundamental coaches,” Kennedy said. “You don’t want to fix what’s not broken.”
Kennedy said that he isn’t going to reinvent the offense and that players will continue to have the opportunity to make plays in transition and take a large number of three-point shots. (NJIT ranked 40th nationally in three-point rate last season.)
“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Kennedy said. “I think that’d be the dumbest thing to do.”
Kennedy is currently focused on recruiting for the future. As an assistant under Engles, Kennedy helped convince overlooked New Jersey talents to come to Newark, including Lynn, and it has made all the difference for the NJIT program. He also has a lot of connections to the Garden State. Kennedy once worked for Hoop Group, which his brother Rob is now the president of.
“NJIT is a special place. The academics are wolrd class. So you just can’t grab any player,” he said.
Thus Kennedy hopes to use the relationships he’s made with coaches in New Jersey and around the area to help find the right fits.
“New Jersey coaches are guys I’ve known or grown up with,” Kennedy said. “I’ve known the high school coaches and the AAU coaches all my life. … I think it’s a unique relationship that I have with New Jersey.”
And while Kennedy said that the 2016-17 season could be a successful one even without an NCAA tournament appearance, that’s ultimately the goal. Now that the Highlanders are in a conference with an automatic bid it comes down to three nights in March, which may be why it isn’t the best way to define a season.
“A lot of people have mentioned the NCAA tournament [as the goal],” Kennedy said. “But look at Monmouth’s season. No one would say that wasn’t successful. Anything can happen in March.”
Unlike Monmouth, which had to play the MAAC tournament in Albany, the Atlantic Sun gives the top seed home court advantage throughout the conference tournament. It didn’t help NJIT last season, as the Highlanders lost their first round matchup to Stetson after shooting 2-26 from three, but the best way to position yourself for future success is a strong league record.
Because now NJIT’s future can be about more than just one win.