NJIT is a team with nowhere to go but up

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009

PJ Miller could have played for most mid-major men's basketball programs that regularly experience winning seasons -- or simply win a few games here and there. Instead, the Potomac School alum chose to play for the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

"To pick NJIT kind of was a shock to a lot of people in the D.C. area," Miller said.

For much of the NJIT's previous four years as a Division I program, the Highlanders have been a punch line. Sports Illustrated recently named NJIT the least successful program of the decade -- even though it has been a Division I program for only half the decade. (The Highlanders played the first three years with provisional status, and are currently in their second season as a full-fledged Division I member.)

A mere victory over Bryant University last season drew national headlines. Of course, it's newsworthy anytime a team snaps a 51-game losing streak. Then, true to form, NJIT lost 12 more games to finish the season. It entered 2009-10 with a 14-102 record in its past four seasons.

But there are visions of change at the commuter school in Newark known more for technological innovation than basketball ingenuity. Coach Jim Engles is in his second year and, only one month into the season, already has led the Highlanders to three wins, tripling the school's win total from the past two seasons. NJIT also kept things close in a 71-62 loss to Rutgers on Saturday.

"I was probably a little naive to the whole thing as it went on because I was more concerned with running the program," Engles said. "And as the losing streak started to build, it became a little more of a reality for me because I saw how it affected the kids. After we won and beat Bryant, it was a lot easier for us and the kids started to play freer."

The Highlanders visit Virginia on Monday night in a game typical for Division I's bottom feeders -- road games against power-conference opponents, with a paycheck and a loss to show for it. For Miller, a Fort Washington native, it is a matchup that excited him since the schedule was first released.

"Showing everybody NJIT is becoming a program," Miller said of Monday's game. "I kind of just want us to play hard enough and get better to the point that people don't have to look at the old records. They can look at what we're doing now."

Miller is one of seven freshmen on NJIT's roster. Engles is trying to eradicate the losing stench, and will do so with players who only know of the records but never experienced them.

Engles needs his players to buy into the concept that prompted him to accept the job in April 2008. He was not intimidated by the program's losing reputation. As an assistant coach for 18 years, most recently at Columbia, Engles yearned for a head coaching job. Where others saw losing, he saw a Division I job in the New York metropolitan area.

"I didn't walk in with my eyes closed," he said, adding that he was encouraged by helping build programs in the past.

Engles has used Columbia as a model for the Highlanders. He pitches the school's academic reputation in a vibrant part of the country. The recruiting base is as fertile as any region in the nation, and the losing created an opportunity in which freshmen could play. NJIT's rotation already features five freshmen. Miller, who has started eight of 10 games, cited guaranteed playing time as part of NJIT's allure.

Despite the optimism, challenges still stand in Engles's way. Even if Columbia is the model, the Lions play in the Ivy League, which is a bus-trip league. NJIT participates in the Great West Conference, meaning the school from Newark competes in a conference with programs from South Dakota, North Dakota, Utah, Texas and Illinois. Not exactly a bus-trip league -- nor one convenient for travel time or geographical recruiting.

"I think the only challenge that comes up is it's during the school year so that you got to make sure you do a good job with classes, but I thought we did a good job last year and I didn't think it was an issue, so I'm not scared off by it," said Engles, who added that most of the flights are direct.

And even though the Highlanders are improving, few are watching. NJIT has averaged 450 fans per home game. At this point, Engles said fans are trying to determine whether the Highlanders can win at Division I. Support comes from maturation. If it works, winning could spread the NJIT brand outside of the New York/New Jersey corridor -- and allow Miller to graduate with the last laugh after arriving when the program was a punch line.

"In four years, people will kind of be in shock how a program went from not winning to being an elite program with players that work hard, get the job done and win games," Miller said. "And not just games they're supposed to win, but games against teams that are supposed to be high-caliber and more talented."

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