Will stunning upset of Michigan help NJIT leave independent life behind?

The last independent left standing in the country is still independent because it got snubbed by the America East and Northeast conferences.

Too bad for them. A shocking win by the Highlanders last Saturday would have done wonders for the RPI of either league.

“It has to help us,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said regarding his Highlanders’ 72-70 win at nationally ranked Michigan. “When you’re a low-major Division I school … you don’t have access to the spotlight, and the fact we were able to win the game should put us back in the spotlight with coaches and commissioners and the NCAA.”

In its first few years of full D-I membership, NJIT was part of the Great West Conference—a loosely affiliated amalgamation of a bunch of league-less schools like NJIT that saw its conference tournament winner advance to the CIT rather than the NCAA tournament. When the Great West disintegrated, NJIT watched as Great West members Utah Valley and Texas-Pan American found new conference affiliations … while the Highlanders remained, well, homeless.

“The rules have changed now. There will never be another independent,” Engles told Blue Ribbon in a telephone interview. “When we get in a league, there will never be someone like us—thankfully—because no one else deserves it. You shouldn’t have to go through it.

“I’m not sure why someone with the NCAA, when they talk about student-athlete welfare and talk about taking care of the kids, rather than try to pay all these students money now, why didn’t they talk about the 300 kids here at NJIT, put them in a league and then you can forget about us.”

Engles knows it’s not a decision solely related to basketball. Determining a conference for NJIT is something that will be decided by athletic directors and university presidents and conference commissioners.

That doesn’t make the current independent status any easier. Especially when NJIT’s body of work this year also includes pushing Marquette to the limit, and beating Duquesne on the Dukes’ home floor.

“I think we’re competitive and I think our other athletic teams are competitive, and I think that’s proven,” Engles said. “I know what other schools deal with, I know what gyms other people play in.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg thing. So now we have to be the perfect Division I program to get into a conference? I know there are schools out there in the Northeast that … they’re not funded completely well, they’re not in great gyms, but they’re in a league. It’s not fair.”

Whatever happens with regard to NJIT’s conference affiliation, the win at Michigan changed the public perception of the Highlanders overnight. Previously, NJIT was best known for posting a 51-game losing streak; the streak stood at 33 games when Engles took over in Newark after a dreadful 0-29 record for the program in 2007-08. Engles ended the streak, but NJIT finished his first campaign with a 1-30 record.

“The last time we got this sort of media exposure was when we won our first game, our first year. And that was just because it was a novelty. It was like a joke,” Engles said.

Now, NJIT has gone from giant joke to giant killer. The Highlanders earned not only their first win ever against a ranked opponent, but they also posted the biggest victory against the spread (+24.5) since Gardner-Webb beat Kentucky as a 26 point dog in 2007.

The victory in Ann Arbor was a stunner considering this is the least experienced team fielded by NJIT in the last few years. And one of the Highlanders’ top returning players, Terrence Smith, has yet to play in 2014-15 because of a broken foot sustained in preseason practice. Smith, by the way, ranked third in Division I in field-goal percentage (.629) last season.

“When he went down, I had a lot of sleepless nights,” Engles said. “Terrence was a real good rebounder, and when he went down, I was like, ‘How are we gonna grab a rebound’? These kids have really responded. They’re starting to grow up.”

Especially the two seniors on the roster. Odera Nweke and Daquan Holiday don’t stuff the stat sheet the way the talented underclassmen on the NJIT roster do, but they’ve proven invaluable with regard to their leadership, defensive play and toughness.

“We are not a very big team. Last year when we lost, we got dominated physically inside,” Engles said.

That hasn’t happened yet this season, not even against might Michigan.

“We shot the ball so well against Michigan,” said Engles, whose team shot 61 percent in the first half and 58.7 percent for the game. “It’s not like we’re better than Michigan. We ran our offense well, and we just made shots at a very high rate and we didn’t turn the ball over in the second half. At the end of the day, we managed to make a couple of plays.”

More than anything, NJIT’s win provides validation for a program that has endured arguably the most beleaguered history of any current D-I school in the last seven years.

“A lot of people don’t realize what we’ve been going through,” Engles said.

More do now, thanks to the notoriety received from beating Michigan.

Will it be enough to help NJIT secure conference membership?

Engles certainly hopes so.