What’s going on out there?
The first month of the college basketball season has turned into an upset-a-palooza. Or as Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford said the night his team ended Indiana’s 43-game non-conference home winning streak, “We’re the little engine that can.”
And now we have the gold standard of little engines. Can there be a more inexplicable how-did-this-happen result between a have and have-not in recent times than the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT to its friends) 72, and Michigan (humbled before an underdog-loving nation) 70?
Michigan, as in ranked No. 17 last week, and national runner-up two years ago.
NJIT, as in the program that traveled to Ann Arbor 0-24 against teams from the Power 5 conferences and the Big East. That had never, ever played a ranked opponent before Saturday, let alone beaten one. And that six years ago was looking down the business end of a 51-game losing streak.
— Jim Engles, NJIT coach
NJIT, as in the program whose home arena doubles as a campus fitness center, with average home attendance so far this season at 638.
NJIT, as in the only Division I independent team in the nation, since no conference has sent an invitation. So the schedule includes opponents from nine different leagues and games in 10 different states. And only one home game in 37 days between Nov. 23 and Dec. 30.
NJIT, as in the 3-5 team that had already lost this season to UMass Lowell. Twice.
So the question to coach Jim Engles Monday was simple: How the world had changed for his program in 48 hours?
“The last time we got this type of media attention was when we won one game,” he said over the phone. “When you win one game and you’re on the call to ESPN for breaking a 51-game losing streak, it’s obviously a novelty. And now six years later, to get the same type of media attention for such a positive thing is really unbelievable, and it’s really, really great for the kids.
“The amount of texts, emails and well wishes . . . some of the people who have reached out to me, I hadn’t heard from since high school.”
Same for Damon Lynn, the sophomore who scored 20 points and hit the late 3-pointer NJIT had to have. “Instagram is going crazy,” he said, and in 2014, it doesn’t get bigger than that. “I feel like we’ve put in a lot of work to make it to this moment. Seeing all the Twitter, and Facebook and Google, all I could do was smile and thank God we have done this.”
The game was at noon Saturday. It took until midnight for the Highlanders to make all their flight connections — Charter? What charter? — and get back to campus in Newark. Look who was waiting.
“There were 200 kids standing at the bus in the rain, going nuts. It was like we’d just won an NCAA Tournament game,” Engles said. “That’s why you coach and that’s why I’m so proud of the win that we had. They carried our kids back to the locker room, if you can imagine that.
“There’s not a big contingent of people coming to your games, buying season tickets. The people that come to your games are your friends. They’re the people you live with in the dorm. When you can get that type of reception from you friends, it’s really priceless. It’s something you never forget.”
Lynn won’t. “It felt like we had bonded, as a university, not just as the men’s basketball team. It was cold, it was late, and that really meant a lot. We see them all the time on campus. Now they believe in us.”
One game in December can mean a lot to the NJIT’s of the world. It was that type of weekend in lots of places.
On Friday, Yale got its first win against a ranked opponent since 1952 when Jack Montague’s 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left beat Connecticut. Until that moment, Montague had missed all six shots, and Connecticut had beaten 68 consecutive in-state opponents. “I told the guys in the locker room, no matter old they get, if they get Alzheimer’s or dementia, they’ll remember this for the rest of their lives,” Yale coach James Jones said.
On Saturday, Green Bay got its first road win against a ranked opponent in program history when it beat Miami (Fla.). No, not just beat Miami (Fla.), but rolled over the previously unbeaten Hurricanes, 68-55. Two days before, the Phoenix had lost to Georgia State.
Also Saturday, North Florida ended an 0-11 record against Big Ten teams by winning at Purdue. “It’s a great day to be an Osprey,” coach Matthew Driscoll said.
Wasn’t it, though?
On Sunday, Radford — formerly 0-24 against the Atlantic Coast Conference — traveled 12 miles to beat nearby Virginia Tech 68-66. Guess who always gets the headlines in that neighborhood? “For one day,” Highlanders coach Mike Jones said, “You get to hear about Radford.”
This is the season that began with Charleston Southern beating Mississippi with a dunk at 0.1 seconds on opening day. It is same the season when Holy Cross, after losing to 29 consecutive ranked opponents during the past 36 years, beat No. 25 Harvard. And Gardner-Webb, formerly 0-9 against the ACC, edged Clemson when the Tigers asked for a timeout they didn’t have with the score tied and six seconds left.
It is the season when Eastern Washington was 0-20 all-time in front of crowds of more than 10,000 and 0-13 against the Big Ten, before the Eagles showed up in Bloomington and outscored Indiana in the paint by 10 points.
But nothing tops Saturday in Ann Arbor, when NJIT, a fearless team with a hot shooting hand, perhaps changed in one day how it is viewed by its peers and at its school.
Engles’ program had shown steady progress, going from 1-30 his first season to a regular season title during its brief stay in the Great West two years ago. But nothing has moved the meter like this.
“We’re fighting a perception problem. These kids go to a really, really tough and rigorous academic school, and they do a lot,” Engles said. “The unfortunate thing is, normally when you win a game like this and you get this type of reaction, it’s at the end of the season. The reality for us now is we’ve got to play another 21 games. We’ve got to validate how we’ve played.”
Maybe Saturday will come with a bonus.
“For as good as these kids feel now after beating Michigan, that’s hopefully just a little taste,” Engles said. “If this win can help us get in the conversation with conference commissioners . . . hopefully it can help us long-term by putting us in a league.’’
Added Lynn, “The conference commissioners haven’t really given us a chance. Now we have proven to them we can play.”
Next up is St. Francis on Tuesday night. It’s the only NJIT home game for weeks. It’d be nice if the crowd was more than 638.
“I think it’s going to be a little overwhelming,” Lynn said.