By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
This is a success story, a basketball success story that is as improbable and unbelievable as they come. It’s a tale of persistence, perseverance and patience. It’s a saga of sticking to your guns and believing that you’re doing the right thing, even when everyone else seems to think you’re in way over your head.
This is the story of Jim Engles and the men’s basketball program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Engles’ Highlanders won last Saturday afternoon, defeating the two-time defending champion of the Great West Conference, Utah Valley, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 63-55 final score.
The win enabled Engles’ team to improve to 14-11 overall, but more importantly, 5-1 in the GWC, a league that will dissolve at the end of the current college basketball season.
Now, a 14-11 record isn’t quite enough to get a parade down Broad Street and it’s not going to get Engles’ name on a flashy marquee anytime soon.
But it’s as impressive of a record as there is in NCAA Division I basketball in the state of New Jersey. While Seton Hall continues its swan dive, Rutgers looks to play out the string and places like St. Peter’s, FDU and Princeton are mere shells of what they once were, Engles and the Highlanders represent life. They represent a program on the rise, reaching the three-game- over .500 mark for the first time since becoming a D-I program seven years ago.
How remarkable is this? Well, considering the Highlanders were once the laughingstock of all of Division I basketball.
The year before Engles arrived, the Highlanders were 0-29.
The year he arrived, there was remarkable improvement. They won one game, going 1-30.
The losing streak reached an NCAA record 51 straight games.
Through it all, Engles remained steadfast and strong. He truly believed he could turn things around.
“Even though we won only one game, I enjoyed that season,” Engles said. “I enjoyed coaching those kids.They competed. I knew that we had to get better and we were going to get better. I think that helped me get through the fire. Believe me, I appreciate winning more than anyone in the country, but I understood the process of losing. I knew that it took a while. So the losses and the losing streak really didn’t bother me.”
Of course, Engles heard the whispers.
“I read some certain things that were poking fun at us,” Engles said. “Back then, I understood what we were doing. We were competing. It was frustrating, sure, that we were losing. But we were competing. The kids didn’t get rewarded for competing, but since then, every year, the kids have done something different.”
The next season, Engles’ team won 10 games, posting a 10-21 record. For a lot of those kids, winning 10 games must have been like winning the Final Four, considering all that they had been through.
“We had kids who played as freshmen who had to deal with the losing streak,” Engles said. “That had to be in the forefront of their minds.”
The next two seasons, the Highlanders won 15 games each year. Last year, they went to the championship game of the Great West Conference, losing to North Dakota.
This year, they already have 14 wins, so barring a catastrophe, this will be the best Division I season at the school. Among their 11 losses are four to solid Big East programs, Providence, St. John’s, Rutgers and Seton Hall. All four of those losses, the Highlanders were in the game, having a chance to win. They lost by a single point to Providence.
It’s a drastic turnaround from even a year ago, when the Highlanders lost to 30 to Seton Hall. Not anymore.
“I think it’s helped that when we played those teams, we got some media coverage,” Engles said. “I think that helped the outside perception that we had. I personally wasn’t as surprised that we did well. It’s hard to explain that to people. We just took the opportunity that was presented to us.”
The team is led by senior guard Chris Flores, who has tallied more than 1,300 points in his career and is averaging 15.5 points per game this season. In a recent game, Flores scored 31 points, failing to miss a single shot in the game. Ryan Woods, another senior, is averaging 13.6 points per game.
“They’re pretty solid,” Engles said. “Chris has made himself into a Division I player. Ryan Woods has developed. P.J. Miller has developed. They all got invaluable experience over the last couple of years.”
And now, the winning has enabled Engles to get into living rooms and talk to recruits that he never had a chance to even speak with. A 2,000-point scorer named Jake Duncan from Virginia has already signed for next season. A 6-foot-9 player, originally from Russia, named Vlad Shustov, is on his way to Newark. So is a kid from the famed St. Anthony program, a rugged forward named Tim Coleman. Rob Ukawuba, a stud from East Brunswick, is also coming.
“Winning does solve a lot of problems,” Engles said. “No denying that fact. Kids want to win and the academics we have here open the door a little more.”
There’s no question that Engles’ program has turned the corner. In five years, NJIT has gone from a complete joke to no joke. No one will want to face them soon.
“I think we’re near where I thought we would be in five years,” Engles said. “I think we’re following the master plan, where we expected it to be. By being in first place in our league with three games left is the perfect world.”
No, it’s more like the unconscious world. While the rest of New Jersey basketball is totally irrelevant, NJIT has a championship at stake.
“We have to finish this now,” Engles said. “The feeling is definitely different. But our expectations have gone up. It’s a whole different realm now. We have to win this.”
Because after this season, there’s the unknown. The Great West dissolves, because the other league members have all joined conferences. NJIT does not have a conference to call home for the 2013-14 season and may find itself being the nation’s lone independent program.
“I’d be lying if that wasn’t on my mind,” Engles said. “With all the progress we’ve made, we deserve to be in a conference. We deserve the recognition and deserve to be in a league like the America East or the Northeast. Right now, we’ll worry about the things we can control. But it does bother me we don’t have a league. If we’re the lone independent, that’s something we’ll have to figure out.”
For now, the NJIT Highlanders, and their young coach Engles, continue to be the feelgood story of the local college basketball season. If they can only find a league that they could bring this improbable saga to.