Independents ShootAround: Can anyone make the postseason?

Updated: August 28, 2008

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

NJIT failed to win a game in the 2007-08 season.

Nowhere to go but up

Give New Jersey Institute of Technology coach Jim Engles credit. He knows what he has gotten himself into. And he certainly has experience with programs where victories have been scarce.

Engles, after all, was an assistant coach at Wagner in the early 1990s when the Seahawks were brutal. He was later part of Joe Jones' staff that took over a Columbia program that was 2-25 overall (and winless in the Ivy League) the season before.

His latest task: to take an NJIT team that didn't win a game last season and enters 2008-09 with a 33-game losing streak and make it competitive.

"I think I'm a glutton for punishment," Engles said. "At Wagner, we were pretty much last in the RPI when we got there, and we were able to build a program. At Columbia, it was almost a mirror image. I might be the only coach who has ever started his career with zeros at two different jobs. [Columbia was] 0-14 in the Ivy League, and now we're 0-29."

While Engles is certainly enthusiastic, he is also a realist. NJIT isn't going become UCLA overnight. The Highlanders are entering only their third season playing a full Division I schedule after moving up from Division II. NJIT's roster has one junior and 10 freshmen or sophomores. And then there are the challenges related to playing as an independent.

Engles, a first-year head coach, is trying not to worry about the last challenge. He simply wants to use his energy to move NJIT in a positive direction.

"I don't want to get where, because you're an independent, you can't expect to be good or expect certain things …," Engles said. "People say, 'You're going to have problems doing this, you're going to have problems doing that, it's just going to be impossible.' When you start thinking about that right off the bat, you've got no shot. I'm trying to think we're in the Big East. Let's act like we're in the Big East and we're pretty good.

"If you act like you're not supposed to be good, you're not going to be good. Act like you're a legitimate mid-major. We've only been Division I for two years, it's not like we have any fundamental problems."

One benefit NJIT does have over some independents -- and even some low- major programs in conferences -- is that the Highlanders aren't going to tour America in order to raise money for the rest of the school's athletic programs. Sure, NJIT will play at St. John's and Rutgers this season, but the rest of its guarantee games are reasonable. The Highlanders aren't going to begin the season by playing 12 of 13 on the road or on some sort of tour of the Top 25.

"We're not going to have to play a bunch of money games to help the athletic department," Engles said. "I'm fortunate that our AD wants us to go out and play games that make sense."

With a roster filled with youth and inexperience, Engles doesn't know what to expect from his team. Last season's leading scorer, Nesho Milosevic (12.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg), transferred after last season.

Engles was responsible for the scouting report for Columbia's game against NJIT last season, a game in which the Highlanders gave the Lions all they wanted before losing 64-52.

"The one thing I could say about [the Highlanders] when I scouted them was even at the time when they were 0-and-whatever, there was some physical talent there," Engles said. "But they were just so young and they had issues and they turned the ball over too much and you could tell they played selfishly just by watching the tape. But you knew that if they could get it together, they could be a handful."

Engles knows the upcoming season isn't going to be easy. He wants his team to embrace the challenge and the adversity. From the little bit Engles and his staff were able to work with the players last spring, he has liked the attitude.

"We've got a captive audience; they were 0-29," he said. "I don't have to preach to them. If I tell them to run through a wall, they probably will because they say to themselves, 'I don't want to go through what I went through last year.'"

And Engles knows that first victory will be fun. Just as it was when he was at Columbia.

"We won our first game on the road at Sacred Heart, and it was like we won the national championship," Engles said. "Guys were hugging each other, throwing things at each other. I'll never forget it, it was a blast. I know we're going to have that same experience when we win our first game here. Hopefully it's sooner rather than later."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Division I continues to grow
While the transition to Division I isn't easy -- it costs a ton of money for the schools involved, getting into a conference can be a nightmare and then there is the whole thing about competing against top programs -- it doesn't seem to be scaring some schools away. This year, North Dakota and South Dakota will play a mixed schedule as they move into Division I. Bryant University in Rhode Island and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville are also making the move, but they have the advantage of conference support. Bryant will join the Northeast Conference, while SIU-E is moving into the Ohio Valley.

The Great West answer?
While several independent schools already have a scheduling arrangement so they can play games in January and February (when schools in conferences are playing league games), six schools are taking things a bit further. The Great West has been a Football Championship Subdivision (better known as Division I-AA) league for several years. Now it will become an all-sports league. Utah Valley State, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Houston Baptist, Texas-Pan American, North Dakota and South Dakota will compete in most sports.

Will the CBI take an independent?
One of the biggest challenges for independents is that it is seemingly impossible to be selected for a postseason tournament. The last two teams not in a conference to reach the NCAA tournament were DePaul and Notre Dame in the early 1990s. This decade, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (now in the Southland) twice failed to be invited to the NIT despite consecutive 20-win seasons. But with the creation of the College Basketball Invitational, another postseason tournament along the lines of the NIT, independents have one more option. While many teams without conferences have to play extremely difficult schedules early in the season, there is at least a greater chance a good team could reach the postseason.

Will anyone find a home?
A number of former independents have found conference affiliation in recent years. North Dakota State, South Dakota State and IPFW all moved into the Summit League. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi moved into the Southland. Winston-Salem State got picked up by the MEAC. So who will be next? Cal State Bakersfield is pushing hard to get into the Big West. NJIT could fit in the NEC or America East or Patriot League. But will it happen? It would certainly make things easier for coaches and athletic directors if they can pull it off.

No chance
Division I basketball isn't the same everywhere. Some schools have private planes, others ride buses. Some teams don't go on the road early in the season, others live out of a suitcase. At some places, 1,000 empty seats is a bad night, but a crowd of 1,200 is a big deal at some schools.

But the biggest difference between the haves and have-nots is talent. There are certainly good independent players, but there is a big gap. All you have to do to see that is look back to last season. Last season's independents (10 schools, including current conference members Winston- Salem State and Presbyterian) combined to go 2-31 against teams that reached the NCAA tournament. The two tournament teams that lost to an independent were San Diego (beaten by Cal State Bakersfield) and Coppin State (North Carolina Central).


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com

Cal State BakersfieldCal State Bakersfield
The Roadrunners return leading scorer Terence Johns, a guard who averaged 13.2 points per game as Cal State Bakersfield went 8-21. That record did include a good win at San Diego. Junior guard Trent Blakley (9.8 ppg) also returns, as does team assist leader Donavan Bragg (3.4 apg). CSUB will play virtually every Big West team this season, and coach Keith Brown had his contract extended through the 2010-11 season.

Chicago StateChicago State
David Holston is one of those players that most college basketball fans don't know, but they should. While only 5-foot-8, the Chicago State senior can fill it up from long range. Last season, Holston led the nation in 3-pointers made per game at 4.6. That number was slightly higher than Davidson's Stephen Curry (4.5 made 3s per game). Holston averaged 23.1 points per game, while backcourt mate John Cantrell returns after averaging 15.5 points per game. They were two of the reasons why Chicago State finished with the best RPI of any independent team.

Houston Baptist
Houston Baptist's first season playing a full Division I schedule will certainly be a little easier with Gordon Watt still around. The 6-6 Watt put his name into the NBA draft after averaging 16.4 points per game, but he pulled his name out before the deadline. Houston Baptist played a mixed schedule of Division I and Division II opponents last season, going 13-15. Only one of those victories came against a Division I opponent. The school has won 32 in a row at home.

LongwoodLongwood
While the Lancers don't play in a conference and are certainly realizing how difficult the Division I level can be, the Longwood players are definitely getting to play quality opponents. This season, the Lancers will play road games at West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Florida. Longwood has two starters back from last season's 9-22 team in forward Kirk Williams and guard Ryan Bogan. Those two combined to average 28.6 points per game as juniors.

NJITNJIT
This is how difficult things have been of late at New Jersey Institute of Technology: Only one player on the Highlanders' roster has won a game there. Junior center Dan Stonkus was on the 2006-07 team that won five games. The only other junior on the roster is forward Gary Garris, but Garris spent his first two seasons at American University in Washington, D.C. Ten players on the NJIT roster -- five sophomores and five freshmen -- have never won a college game.

North Carolina Central
North Carolina Central might share the same city as Duke and the same area code as North Carolina and NC State, but it lives in an entirely different world. Last season, NC Central played seven home games all season and went 4-26. The Eagles opened the season playing 15 of their first 16 on the road. The good news is that team had just one senior. The bad news is that the senior was leading scorer
Charles Futrell (16.7 ppg). Bryan Ayala is the leading returning scorer (13.0 ppg).

Savannah StateSavannah State
There are signs of life in the Savannah State basketball program. It wasn't that long ago when that didn't seem possible. The Tigers went 0-28 in 2004-05 and followed that up with a 2-28 record the following season. Former Georgetown player and current Savannah State coach Horace Broadnax is playing players in waves, and he led Savannah State to a 13-18 record last season. Chris Linton (8.6 ppg) and Anthony Jones (8.5 ppg) are the leading returners.

UTPATexas-Pan American
Texas-Pan American coach Tom Schuberth was named the All- Independent Coach of the Year after the Broncs went 18-13. This season, Schuberth has a lot of work to do. Texas-Pan American has to find a way to replace guard Paul Stoll (14.2 ppg), forward Zach Trader (13.9 ppg) and guard Brian Burrell (13.6 ppg). Junior forward Nathan Hawkins is the leading returning scorer after averaging 10.6 points per game.

UVSCUtah Valley State
Ryan Toolson doesn't have the benefit of a national stage, but the Utah Valley State senior is among the best shooters in college basketball. For each of the past two years, Toolson has led the nation in foul shooting. Last season, Toolson made 95.1 percent of his free throws. In 2007, he made 96 of 99 free-throw attempts (97 percent). But Toolson isn't merely a free-throw machine. A year ago he was eighth in the nation in scoring, averaging 23.4 points per game, and he also made 43.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.

2007-08 Independents

Overall record
Texas-Pan American 18-13
Jacksonville 18-13
Utah Valley State 15-14
Savannah State 13-18
Winston-Salem 12-18
Chicago State 11-17
Longwood 9-22
Cal State Bakersfield 8-21
Presbyterian 5-25
North Carolina Central 4-26
NJIT 0-29
**Winston-Salem State has moved to the MEAC. Presbyterian has joined the Big South.

For all the news and notes on the Independents, click here.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Ryan Toolson, Utah Valley State, Sr. 23.4
David Holston, Chicago State, Sr. 23.1
Kirk Williams, Longwood, Sr. 16.9
John Cantrell, Chicago State, Jr. 15.5
Terrence Johns, Cal State Bakersfield, Sr. 13.2

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Kirk Williams, Longwood, Sr. 6.5
Santwon Latunde, Cal State Bakersfield, Sr. 6.1
Paul Davis, Winston-Salem, Soph. 6.1
Chris Linton, Savannah State, Sr. 5.9
Carl Montgomery, Chicago State, Soph. 5.8

Final Shots

• Life isn't easy as a Division I independent. Did any of the current independents make ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings?

• An independent hasn't made the NCAA tournament since DePaul did it in 1991. Will that streak end this season? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.