You say that you have never heard of the NJIT Highlanders? Likely, that means that you are not much of a men’s college basketball fan. Indeed, the Highlanders made some noise this past season when they shocked the then 17th-ranked Michigan Wolverines on the road in December. The New Jersey team then went on to beat St. Francis (Pa.) and Yale, two teams that qualified for the post season.
The Lone Independent Program
The 10,000-student New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) is based in Newark and operates under the shadow of programs such as the Seton Hall Pirates and St. John’s Red Storm as well as Rutgers and Princeton. Of the 351 Division 1 college teams, only NJIT is not affiliated with a conference, what has made scheduling a nightmare for the budding program.
We last looked at NJIT six years ago when the school broke its 51-game losing streak. That streak included a winless 2007-2008 season and 18 consecutive losses to start the 2008-2009 season. The program is one of the more recent ones to make the transition to Division I and promptly was overwhelmed in its then new role.
Much has changed over the intervening years. For a brief time, NJIT was affiliated with a conference — the now defunct Great West Conference, composed of teams from coast to coast. Indeed, the conference was formed in 2008 and disbanded five years later when its full time members left for new conferences. That left NJIT alone and has forced the school to become very creative in finding teams to play, including Division III opponents.
A Postseason Invitation
And without a conference to call its own, NJIT does not benefit from a post-season conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that comes to the winner. Furthermore, the school’s scheduling late in the season thins out as potential competitors vie in regular season and post-season meet ups.
This year, NJIT finally found something it wasn’t able to attain previously: a post season tournament bid. Specifically, the Highlanders finished the regular season at 18-11, good enough for a bid in some tournaments. But without conference affiliation, it still wasn’t good enough for the NIT or CBI tournaments. Fortunately, a fourth tournament — sponsored by CollegeInsider.com — liked what they saw in the Highlanders and extended a bid.
The CIT (tournament) consists of 32 mid-major teams and to participate, each one must pay to play. Despite that requirement, NJIT accepted the bid and hosted the University of New Hampshire Wildcats at home. And the home for the Highlanders is as intimate as it comes in college basketball — the center holds only 1,000 fans, rivaling the size of many high school gymnasiums.
A new arena will break ground later this year and when it is finished in time for the 2017 to 2018 season, it will hold 3,500 fans. That’s a size that should attract a handful of conferences that have so far have chafed at the thought of including the Highlanders.
Two Wins and Another Home Date
NJIT made history on March 16 when it beat New Hampshire to kick off CIT play. That win also meant the Highlanders would host a second game — against the Cleveland State Vikings. In its second-round contest, a late three-point shot by Ky Howard broke a 77-all tie and the Highlanders held on for the victory.
Just as they did in the first game, NJIT turned a halftime deficit into a win and with it the Highlanders secured a third consecutive home contest — the Canisius Golden Griffins are coming to town on Saturday.
If NJIT does win on Sat., they’ll advance to the CIT final four. Games are played on the courts of the host team; there is no word whether NJIT would continue to host if it were to advance.
Prudential Center Possibility?
If NJIT does host, might the Prudential Center in downtown Newark open its doors to the upstart Highlanders? If it does, it would have to quickly clear the court as the arena will host an open house for nurses that ends at 4 p.m.
The 18,711-seat arena once hosted the New Jersey Nets and is currently the college basketball home for the Seton Hall Pirates. A larger venue would accommodate a surging fan base and would represent an ideal backdrop for what also would be a nationally-televised event.