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The Morning Dish – Monday, December 21, 2015

December 21, 2015 The Morning Dish No Comments

There are lots of schools that in either the short term (this season) or long term (overall program direction), you might want to buy stock in if they were stocks. One that fits the latter is NJIT, a program that once upon a time was famous only for a long losing streak as a Division I newcomer. It’s not just that the streak is a very distant memory that is the reason for it, though, and it’s not just their 83-74 win over St. John’s on Sunday, either.

Simply put, the program now has a couple of big positives.

The Highlanders had a breakthrough season last year, winning 21 games, which sets a school record in the Division I era. They beat teams from nine different conferences, highlighted by a December win at Michigan. They went to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, which was their first postseason tournament appearance, and they didn’t just get there. They made a run to the semifinals, losing to Northern Arizona.

The CIT was about the best they could hope for, though. The Highlanders were back to being a Division I independent last season, at the time the only one in the country. The Great West Conference, which they won a regular season title in 2012-13, disbanded, and every other school found a home. While independents have reached the NIT in the past, nowadays many NIT bids are gobbled up by regular season champions in one-bid leagues who don’t win their conference tournament.

Being an independent meant that scheduling was a big chore, but more importantly, NJIT had no path to the NCAA Tournament. Even being in the Great West, which had no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament (their tournament champion had an automatic bid to the CIT), was hardly different, but there was the hope that one day it would get a bid if it was around long enough and met qualifications for one. Not having a path to the NCAA Tournament hurts recruiting; we note this every time a program is banned from the postseason for more than a year. Kids want to play in college, they want to play in Division I, they want to play on TV – but most of all, they want to play in the NCAA Tournament.

In the northeast region of the country, there are lots of colleges and universities, including in Division I. There are plenty of conferences; it seemed to be just a question of which one they would join and when it would happen. Academically, the Patriot League would make sense, but when they expanded recently, they grabbed Boston University and Loyola (Md.) and bypassed the Highlanders. America East would seem to make sense, but it never happened, even after BU left. The Northeast Conference and MAAC could have taken them, but took a pass.

In light of that, the job that head coach Jim Engles has done deserves a lot of recognition. The school has plenty going for it – it’s located just outside New York City and offers a terrific education – but he and his staff were basically recruiting with one hand tied behind their back with no path to the NCAA Tournament. They had pockets of success before last season’s breakthrough, and as last season’s team had just two seniors, there was reason to believe they had not peaked yet.

Then in June, the game-changer came: NJIT was finally going to get a home, in the Atlantic Sun. It is a challenge geographically, as all of the other members are in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. But it is the one thing they lacked. They have a chance now.

Months earlier, the school announced plans for a new events center that should be part of the campus in 2017. That certainly had to help them land in the Atlantic Sun, and put the two together with the job Engles has done, and you see that there’s plenty of upside for the program.

With that in mind, we hit Sunday’s win at St. John’s, the program’s first against a Big East team after 21 losses. The win puts the Highlanders at 7-5 on the season with four non-conference games left, two of which are at home. Their first-ever conference game will be a home game, as well. Anticipation is surely building, just like the program’s potential.

Side Dishes

A team currently transitioning into Division I, UMass-Lowell, has been a pest for a number of opponents, and they gave UConn a battle on Sunday. The Huskies pulled it out, though, by an 88-79 margin behind 28 points from Rodney Purvis.

In other action of note, Pittsburgh hammered Davidson 94-69 at Madison Square Garden in the Gotham Classic, Monmouth beat Rutgers 73-67, Samford hit a number of big shots late to hold off Nebraska 69-58 in Lincoln, and UALR improved to 10-0 in John Brady’s final go-round with an 84-57 trouncing of Northern Arizona.

Tonight’s Menu

It’s a fairly busy slate for a Monday night as teams are getting in games right before Christmas.

  • West Virginia gets a visit from Eastern Kentucky, which should be a good test for the 9-1 Mountaineers.
  • Providence heads a couple of hours away to take on UMass at the Mullins Center.
  • Intriguing matchups of mid-majors include High Point visiting William & Mary and Elon visiting UNC Asheville.
  • Grand Canyon and Houston both have nice records and each has a good win to its credit of late, and they meet in Las Vegas in the Global Sports Classic.
  • Oregon travels to take on Alabama in Birmingham.
  • West Coast Conference play begins with eight of the ten teams in action; Gonzaga hosts Pepperdine and Saint Mary’s hosts San Francisco in games of note.

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