Entering its 10th season as a division 1 program the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders could be considered the poster child of a basketball team making the jump to division 1. The road has been a long one for the small school of just over 10,000 students located in Newark, NJ.
Over their first two seasons they won a total of five games including an 0-29 campaign in 2007-08. As a result, there was a coaching change. Athletic Director Lenny Kaplan decided to hire Jim Engles who had spent the previous five seasons as an assistant at Columbia. In Engles’ first season the team lost its first 18 games and then finally got off the broke into the win column by defeating Bryant for their only win of the season.
After competing as an independent since joining division 1 the Highlanders joined the Great West Conference in 2009. They remained there for four seasons, increasing their win total each season, from 10 in 2009 to 16 in 2013 winning the regular season conference title. After the season NJIT once again found itself as an independent because the remaining basketball schools found other homes at the height of conference realignment. They have since spent the last two seasons playing a myriad of teams while searching for a new conference to call home.
Things really turned the corner last season as they got a marquee win for the program in December as they went to Ann Arbor and defeated #17 Michigan 72-70. They finished the year with 21 wins and their first ever trip to the post-season, a run to the CIT semifinals. This July they also found a home, accepting an invitation to join the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Through it all Engles has been the man leading the charge and is now beginning to see the fruits of his labor. One would think taking over a team that went winless the year before would be a scary proposition, not for Engles.
“The main thing for us to set a foundation for what we wanted to do going forward. It was hard from a record standpoint, in actuality it was one of the more enjoyable seasons because we had kids who really listened, who really wanted to try.” Said Engles.
NJIT moved to the Great West during the height of conference realignment. While the geographical fit wasn’t perfect and travel was difficult Engles thinks the time in the Great West was good for his program. “We were all dealing with the same issues. We were all dealing with the same kind of recruiting hardships and trying to put our programs on a solid foundation.”
As teams in the Great West began to leave for more stable homes, Engles wondered what was going to happen to his program. “What are we doing? Are we going to be able to get in anything here?” The immediate answer was no, because NJIT was at a different place geographically than the other teams in the Great West, when the dust settled they were left as division 1’s lone independent for the last two seasons.
This season however they do have a home, and although the geographical logistics aren’t ideal for them in the Atlantic Sun Engles is looking forward to having a place to call home and the new challenges and opportunities that will bring. The Highlanders finally found themselves on the positive side of the numbers game and Engles knew it. “When the A-Sun lost Northern Kentucky I knew it would be a good fit for us because obviously they were going to need another member and we were the only independent. So we were hoping and had our fingers crossed.”
They got that long-awaited invitation and even though the conference is based mainly in the southeast that won’t be an issue for the Highlanders having dealt with logistics of being a geographical outlier as a member of the Great West.
As a team with a conference affiliation, that opens new doors in terms of recruiting for Engles. “It has already helped us because we are getting a lot more attention nationally from recruits. We get information from kids every day that we never got before because we weren’t in a conference. We would like to try and get into Florida and the southeast corridor. Some good things are happening which will allow us to branch out a little bit more than we have in the past but we are still trying to figure out if that’s the right thing to do.”
One thing a conference affiliation does for the program is give them a real chance at an NCAA Tournament bid. Coming off a season where they won 21 games and had perhaps the upset of the season when they defeated Michigan to go along with a run to the CIT semifinals, They Highlanders are one of the preseason favorites in the Atlantic Sun.
When talking about the NCAA Tournament Coach Engles says, “That’s been the easiest thing for me to deal with. We’ve never been able to motivate that way, we’ve really had to motivate with the idea of getting better, improving. It’s exciting to see it in their eyes because there’s definitely an energy with the guys knowing that they are working towards a specific goal at the end of the season.”
Engles knows that a successful season isn’t going to be because of new surroundings or post-season potential; it’s going to be on the same principles he started with when they won a single game in his first season. “We never talk about winning, we talk about improving. We are talking about the same exact stuff which has been able to keep us competitive. We are talking of dealing with the expectations of having a good year last year and being able to continue that this year. We don’t want to lose sight of the things that have made us successful and that’s coming in everyday and getting your work done.”
From day one improvement has been the foundation for Jim Engles. That’s what his team has done since his arrival. Now not only are the Highlanders coming off a signature season for the program with a new conference to call home and a new facility that will be finished in two years, they return 10 players from that squad that gained invaluable experience. There is a chance Engles could see his team improve itself right into an NCAA Tournament berth.