|Winless New Jersey school hopes to avoid some unwanted history|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 11 January 2008 11:04|
The Highlanders are 0-17 and have more losses than all but two of 341 Division I teams, both of which have already won their first game.
A year after making the jump from Division II, little NJIT is trying to avoid the dubious distinction of becoming the third NCAA Division I team in the last 50 years to go through a season without winning.
``Nobody wants to be associated with losing or going 0-30,'' coach Jim Casciano said this week as the Highlanders prepared to play Columbia on Saturday. ``I try not to get that far ahead. If we take care of business and do what we need to do, we're going to win some games.''
NJIT has 12 games left to snap a losing streak that stands at 21 dating back to last season. The last Division I team to have a winless season was Savannah State, which went 0-28 in 2004-05. Before that, Prairie View was 0-28 in 1991-92. Iona started last season 0-22 before winning its first game.
The only other winless Division I team this season is Grambling State (0-9).
While many of the NJIT's losses have been by wide margins - including defeats to Washington and Manhattan by a combined 83 points to open the season - the Highlanders have been competitive in other games.
They trailed Penn by three points midway through the second half in Philadelphia last Saturday, but wound up losing 79-68 when starters Dan Stonkus and leading scorer Nesho Milosevic fouled out. They were within seven points of Rutgers with six minutes remaining last month before losing by 10.
``A lot of games, you look up and there's eight or 10 minutes left and we're down maybe 10 or 12 points, so we're one run from making it a game,'' senior Kraig Peters said. ``We need to play better earlier in the game so that if we make a run, we can actually take the lead.''
The challenges are daunting for a program that had finished 8-19 in its final year in Division II after experiencing some success in the early 1990s.
Five of the top eight scorers are freshmen, and Casciano concedes that he is probably two recruiting classes away from having a Division I-caliber team from top to bottom.
Casciano missed more than a month this season with what he described as a combination of medical issues, and he has had to dial back some of his 80-hour work weeks since he returned.
It is widely agreed, though, that the chief obstacle is a lack of a conference affiliation. NJIT is part of a loose confederation of independent schools spread out through Virginia, Illinois, Texas and North and South Dakota, which makes for some grueling road trips.
It also means there is no automatic bid to the NCAA tournament looming as an incentive.
``Getting in a league has got to be their No. 1 goal,'' said Monmouth coach Dave Calloway, who endured 19 consecutive losses to start the 1998-99 season before turning the program around. ``Everything we do is geared around those three weeks in March. You've got to have the NCAA Tournament to play for and recruit for.''
NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan has approached several conferences including the Northeast Conference, which includes New Jersey schools Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson, as well as America East and the Patriot League, with no success.
``We're trying to keep our name in the forefront,'' he said. ``We're going through a process and it's not easy. You can't flick a switch and be good. I do believe that we can turn this around. But we have to find ourselves a conference, which is the biggest thing.''
As the pressure mounts for NJIT with each loss, the challenge may become even more difficult.
``Nobody's rolling over for us,'' Casciano said. ``If anything, they're playing us harder because they don't want to be the first ones to lose to us.''