- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Central Avenue is truly a desolation row. Flickering streetlights dimly illuminate shuttered businesses and shattered glass from smashed car windows. The wind whips empty coffee cups and tabloid newspaper pages down the sidewalks, and a thin coat of greasy grime seems to coat everything. It's a scene that perpetuates all the negative historical images of the long-suffering city that lies in New York's long shadow.
But turn the corner and venture down a short alleyway, and it's an entirely different world. There's a series of futuristic glass and brick buildings, carefully-manicured tree groves and crisp red banners that line scrubbed-clean walkways. This is the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a 125-year-old center of higher learning and a first-year reclassifying member of the NCAA's Division I.
Near the center of this urban campus is the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Center, named after an NJIT basketball hero of the late 1940s and his wife. On Monday evening, a thin trickle of people entered through the front doors -- the toteboard outside said there was a game on, and $10 got you in.
On first look, the inside of the 1,000-seat Fleisher Center appears more like a racquetball court than a basketball arena. It's a rectangular space coated in white paint that's made brilliantly blinding by banks of fluorescent lights embedded in the 20-foot ceiling. Every sound is echoed and amplified, from the squeaks of sneakers to the alarm-clock buzzer to the crowd, which sits in a short set of retractable bleachers on one side of the court. The shoebox acoustics make the 400 or so in attendance sound more like 40,000, a deafening roar.
This particular night's opponents, the Lafayette Leopards of the Patriot League, appeared initially perplexed and disoriented by the strange atmosphere and the unknown opponent. NJIT, a school that wasn't even on the national basketball map just one short month ago, raced out to an early 18-12 lead.
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NJIT won its inaugural men's basketball game back in 1923, a 36-32 decision over a local YMCA squad. That beginner's luck carried over to its first game at the Division I level, on November 11 of this year. The Highlanders crossed the Hudson to play Manhattan College, the defending regular-season champions of the Metro Atlantic, and came away with a shocking 56-55 win.
The seminal snapshot from that contest, and its most dramatic moment of symbolism, came in the final minute when a 5-foot, 10-inch guard named Clayton Barker wheeled through the lane past a defender nearly a foot taller. The game-winning layup that followed a split-second later capped a furious NJIT comeback from 39-25 down with 16:05 to go.
"I told the team the day before," said Jim Casciano, who's entering his sixth year as the Highlanders' head coach. "I said, 'When you win at Manhattan tomorrow, walk off the court as if you've been there, done that. Then let all hell break loose in the locker room.' And that's exactly what happened. We played with poise, confidence, and beyond anyone's expectations, including my own. We found a way."
Three days later, when the team arrived back at the friendly confines of the Fleisher Center for its first-ever D-I home game, all hell broke loose again. Backed by the white walls and a wall of noise created by a packed house of 1,025, the Highlanders lulled Rider into a state of disorientation and won 63-52. Barker was a hero again, scoring 13 points.
"Sure we won two games, and we're not giving them back," said Casciano of NJIT's 2-0 start. "But sometimes you get caught up in the winning, and forget about what it takes to win."
Indeed, the Highlanders haven't won since. They dropped two quick games at Columbia's weekend tournament to square their record, and later were thrashed by Siena and American by 24 and 25 points, respectively, after the Thanksgiving break. A 10-point home loss to Maine followed, a game with a cold-shooting second half that followed a first half that ended with NJIT only down by one.
The home team followed a similar pattern on this night, against Lafayette. After that early lead, the Highlanders unraveled, allowing their guests to storm back to lead by six at halftime. After the break, Lafayette's Andrew Brown nailed four 3s in the space of four minutes, all of which came from the same spot on the floor, just beyond the lip of the key.
"You could see with each of those made shots our body language got worse and worse," said Casciano. "[The coaching staff] told our players that any time Brown has the ball behind a screen, he will stop and shoot. We didn't defend it the first time, and then we didn't defend it the second or third time."
The Highlanders slid further and further backward, and finally lost 76-57. Most of the fans didn't stick around to hear the final ear-splitting buzzer.
"What does the word 'competitive' mean?" mused Casciano afterward. "I think we've been competitive in every game. But there are those five to 10 minutes in each game when we haven't been competitive that make it look ugly, so the person who picks up a newspaper, or looks at a boxscore, or sees the ticker on ESPN says, 'Oh, they got blown out again.' "
But in the second half, with the game slipping away, there was a glimpse of NJIT's next generation. A spindly 6-7 freshman named Dan Lewis leapt off the bench and provided an instant jolt of energy, even as his teammates' backs slumped under the weight of the impending loss. Lewis, however, appeared unfazed by the mounting scoring deficit or the crisis of confidence around him, hitting a series of layups and short jump shots. But in the end, his energy dissipated, and the Highlanders could no longer mount any resistance.
"We're definitely not there yet," said Casciano. "We need to be patient, we need to gain experience, and we need to recruit. I'd like to see where we are two years from now, when my freshmen are juniors and we have the opportunity to add six pieces to the mix. It'll be interesting."
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With recent additions via transition and reclassification, there are now a total of 337 schools playing Division I schedules. But very few seem to be as much of a longshot to compete successfully as this one, which struggled to an 8-19 record a year ago in Division II's Central Athletic Collegiate Conference. Despite a modest legacy at the lower levels -- NJIT made the national D-III quarterfinals back in 1995 -- the Highlanders haven't had a winning record since 2002-03, Casciano's second season in Newark.
And while it'll be hard enough to survive this first season in the top flight, that challenge pales in comparison to trying to make a go of it without a conference affiliation. Filling out a full D-I schedule is difficult work for independent teams, so this season NJIT and six far-flung indies -- Utah Valley State, Texas-Pan American, Longwood, Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, North Dakota State and South Dakota State -- have formed a scheduling alliance, which guarantees each school home-and-home matchups and enormous travel bills. Next year, however, IPFW, NDSU and SDSU will ascend to the Mid-Continent Conference, making life on the outside a whole lot more lonely and difficult.
"We will explore all opportunities," said Casciano. "The obvious ones are the ones that are geographically friendly: the Northeast Conference, the Patriot League, America East, maybe even the Colonial to a degree. But each one comes with different needs and requirements. A lot of people would like to see us go into the America East with all the public resources universities. I like the Patriot League because we recruit those same academically strong players. Three kids on that Lafayette team you saw tonight, we recruited."
As NJIT continues to search for a conference home, its D-I status eventually might help to rescucitate the bruised and battered reputation of its physical home, the venerable city of Newark. At worst, Tri-State area residents have long considered Newark a crime-infested dump, and at best it's thought of in the context of the New Jersey Turnpike (it's "Exit 13"), as a place to park the car before taking the PATH train to Manhattan, or as a cost-effective airport alternative to JFK or LaGuardia.
But the face of the city is quickly changing. The multi-billion dollar Harrison MetroCentre project will bring millions of square feet of office, residential and retail space to Newark in the coming years. Next season, the NHL's New Jersey Devils will move into a brand new arena just blocks from NJIT's campus.
So by the time NJIT becomes postseason-eligible in 2010, Newark itself might be seen as a go-to destination instead of a place most visitors want to get out of as soon as possible. And when the Highlanders score that initial big first-round NCAA Tournament win, hopefully they'll lead a parade down a revitalized Central Avenue.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.