Scheduling is hard for all head coaches, but imagine having to do it without the safety net of a conference schedule. That’s what NJIT head coach Jim Engles faced this offseason.
It led to some sleepless nights.
“I woke up at times over the last few months in the middle of the night thinking ‘How are we going to play in January and February?’ It was definitely on my mind,” Engles said.
A former member of the Great West, the Highlanders were the only Division I team left without a dance partner after the latest shifts in the college basketball landscape.
Sure, the Great West wasn’t the best collection of teams ever, but it was a conference. With that came certain advantages – guaranteed games, a conference tournament, etc. Now no such luxury exists. The Highlanders will be playing non-conference games from November to March.
“I couldn’t be as selective as some years,” said Engles about putting together games. “I had to fill the schedule.”
Surprisingly, it has worked out alright. While the schedule might be more challenging than Engles wanted while breaking in six freshmen, it has some advantages. It’s East Coast based (no more flying to Chicago State or Utah Valley) and it allowed the Highlanders to do something different this offseason – travel to Europe.
Programs big and small take advantage of the NCAA’s rules for 10 days of practice around a trip abroad. Thanks to reduced travel this season (the longest trips are to Butler and Tulane), NJIT has the resources to do it too. The Highlanders will be playing five games in France, Belgium and Holland in August. Hopefully that means valuable experience for all the young players.
The other thing NJIT is doing? Playing the teams of the conferences it hopes to be in some day. Two logical targets for the Newark, NJ based school are the NEC and America East. The Highlanders’ schedule is littered with games against those schools, including a home-and-home series against three America East schools, plus four games with NEC opponents (including LIU and the long-standing series with St. Francis Brooklyn).
“They’re almost like auditions for us to get into a league,” Engles said.
Another thing that helped Engles with scheduling? The odd number of teams in a few conferences. America East currently has nine schools – hence how the home-and-homes are feasible – and the MEAC has 13 teams. That means NJIT will be heading down to North Carolina for a two-game set and also taking on Delaware State and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore as other teams are playing their conference slate.
There are also four non-Division I games, which should help NJIT get some wins and home games, but throw in games against Newark neighbor Seton Hall, at Hofstra, at home versus Duquesne (and former LIU head coach Jim Ferry) and a trip to Penn and it’s a credible Division I schedule.
Thank Engles’ network. He’s been coaching in the Northeast since graduating from Dickinson College in 1990. Those contacts certainly helped.
“I was able to work out some things with guys I’ve known,” Engles said. “A lot of these guys were very amenable to playing at those times. I was able to get it filled.”
Now he’s got to get his young team ready to play. Because while there’s no conference tournament to win this season. NJIT still has its work cut out during its five-month audition tour.