NJIT ‘playing to get in a league,’ not a title

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The New Jersey Institute of Technology is the only NCAA Division 1 independent men’s basketball team, a distinction that can make life a little difficult at times.

While most Division I teams are winding down the regular season, facing league foes and gearing toward their respective conference tournaments, the New Jersey Institute of Technology was forced to play Division III teams like Wheelock, the University of Maine-Fort Kent and an NAIA member Fisher College of Massachusetts.

The Highlanders are the only team among the 345 NCAA Division I programs without a conference affiliation.

Finishing his sixth season, NJIT coach Jim Engles tried his best to get his team through the schedule, knowing well that the Highlanders never had much to play for, except pride and perhaps the future.

“When we did the schedule, I got a little scared just trying to fit the dates in,” Engles said. “Is it really a proper schedule? I don’t know. I just knew we had to get through it. It’s been hard to manage. It’s almost like we’ve had two separate schedules.”

NJIT made the jump from Division II to Division I eight years ago and for a while, they were members of the now-defunct Great West Conference, a league that did not have an automatic NCAA tournament bid.

The Highlanders won the regular season Great West Conference title in its final year. The league’s other teams found homes in other leagues. Chicago State went to the Western Athletic Conference and the University of Texas-Arlington joined the Big South. NJIT was left without a home.

The Highlanders finished the 2013-14 campaign with a 13-16 record. Though NJIT started the season by defeating Army, New Hampshire and Maine - in consecutive road games.

“We beat Lafayette in overtime, giving us a 4-2 record early,” Engles said. “We were playing well, but then the guys got a little false confidence. We had a bunch of home games that we lost. The kids all started to learn as the season got harder. Things were more mental than physical.”

The Highlanders were led by freshman guard Damon Lynn, a native of Hillside, N.J. and a product of Union Catholic. The 5-foot-11 shooting guard averaged 17.7 points per game, with a season-best 34 points against North Carolina A&T.;

Lynn finished the season with 107 3-pointers, ranking him fourth all-time for 3-pointers in a season by a Division I freshman.

“It’s been a struggle for me to manage their expectations and continue to progress,” said Engles, who inherited the Highlanders a year after posting an 0-29 record in the middle of an NCAA record 51-game losing streak. “But we continue to make progress. We’re practicing a lot better. The games we’re playing aren’t ideal. It’s not easy to get anyone to play in February. Until we get in a conference, this is the way the schedule has to be.”

The Highlanders recently defeated Wheelock, 110-46, Maine-Fort Kent, 84-45 and Fisher, 99-67. The Highlanders also defeated Division I Maryland-Eastern Shore, 77-76, on the road Feb. 19.

Engles said the “whole season has been a challenge,” but the coach doesn’t believe that the Highlanders just played out the string with nothing at stake.

“We’re not playing for a championship, but we are playing for our reputation,” Engles said. “There are so many positives here. We’re going to get in a league. I truly believe that. If we can get through this year, add a few more guys, then that will make me a better coach and makes us a better program. We are playing for something.

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