By Kevin Sweeney
All they ever wanted was a chance.
For most college basketball players, coaches, and fans, the ultimate goal is reaching the NCAA Tournament. Just a few years ago, NJIT was about as far from that goal as possible. After the collapse of the Great West Conference after the 2012-2013 athletic year, the Highlanders were once again without a conference. The lack of a conference from which to receive an auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament left NJIT independent once again, with no real hope to hold onto.
However, the Highlanders now have something that would have been unthinkable just 2 years ago: a chance to dance.
After a 2014-2015 season in which the Highlanders shocked the world with a win over Michigan as well as a semi-final run in the CIT, NJIT moved in the Atlantic Sun conference. The move has put them in position to finally make a push for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The Highlanders have made the move to the A-Sun in style, winning 6 of their final 8 conference games to earn the 2 seed in the conference tournament. As a result, the Highlanders will host their quarter-final and, should they win, semi-final games during the tournament.
Junior guard Damon Lynn was excited about being able to bring conference tournament games the Highlander faithful at Fleisher Athletic Center, saying “The students, our piers, our friends and family, they come to support and I don’t think it gets louder anywhere else in the country.”
While NJIT has a difficult road to fulfill their ultimate dream of reaching the NCAA Tournament, the Highlanders are just excited for the opportunity, one which many of the players never would have thought possible when they committed to come play there.
“It hasn’t really set in yet.” Ky Howard, a senior guard averaging nearly 13 points per game for the Highlanders. “It feels like a movie, so, I’m just enjoying the ride and everything.”
Looking at that road, the Highlanders begin their journey on Tuesday night against Stetson at 7:30pm. NJIT swept the season series with the Hatters. A win would give the Highlanders another home game on Thursday night against the winner of the Jacksonville-Lipscomb tilt. The toughest match-up for the Highlanders would be a championship game showdown against North Florida. The Ospreys have owned NJIT this season, dominating them in both meetings this season. That potential game would be played in Jacksonville at UNF Arena.
NJIT head coach Jim Engles stressed that he wanted his players to treasure the moment, saying “I just want them to enjoy the experience. I just want them to understand how far the program has come, how much of an effect they all had on the program, and to enjoy it.”
No matter what the outcome of this week’s conference tournament, it is clear that the Highlanders are certainly headed in the right direction.