NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — NCAA men’s and women’s basketball no longer has any independent institutions now that the New Jersey Institute of Technology agreed Friday to join the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The lone independent among 351 Division I basketball schools over the past two years will be part of the conference in all sports beginning in the fall.
NJIT will be immediately eligible to compete for all Atlantic Sun postseason tournaments, plus have a chance to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The NJIT men’s soccer team already had a commitment to be a working member of the Sun Belt for the 2015 season, but the Highlanders will join the Atlantic Sun for soccer in 2016.
The Atlantic Sun now has eight members after Northern Kentucky left the conference to join the Horizon League, beginning July 1.
Atlantic Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart admitted that the move to secure NJIT as a league member was hastened by the departure of Northern Kentucky.
“We always have to be aware of future possibilities,” said Gumbart, whose conference already had a relationship with NJIT in men’s and women’s swimming and diving.
“The door was always open for NJIT to prove it belonged with us,” he said. “This is a celebration for us as it is for NJIT.”
It’s more of a party for NJIT, which gained Division I status in soccer in 2004 and in the rest of its sports in 2006. NJIT was briefly part of the Great West Conference, but the league did not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and subsequently disbanded in 2013, leaving NJIT as the nation’s lone independent.
“A lot of the kids I recruited always asked me first, ‘What conference are you in?'” said NJIT head men’s basketball coach Jim Engles. “I had kids come here knowing that they might never get a chance to play in a conference tournament and have a chance at the NCAAs. It’s been hard, dealing with the fact that we couldn’t be in a conference. But this is now the future.”
NJIT still holds the dubious distinction of holding the record for the nation’s longest Division I losing streak, losing 51 straight games from 2007 through 2009. The Highlanders snapped the streak with a win over Bryant, then lost the final 12 games that season, going 1-30 during Engles’ first season.
But the program continued to improve yearly. Last season, the Highlanders shocked the college basketball world by knocking off then No. 17-ranked Michigan at Crisler Arena. The Highlanders went on to win 21 games and reach the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
Gumbart said the Highlanders’ late season run helped them get in the league, as well as the school’s general proximity to New York and the promise the school has made to build a $100 million wellness and events center by 2017.
NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan said the deal was 10 years in the making, but came together within the last six weeks.
“The biggest thing we missed over the last 10 years was the benefit of having a conference,” Kaplan said. “We’re no longer representing ourselves. We can now take the next step.”
Winfield Willis, who will be a senior guard on the Highlanders’ basketball team in the fall, said he didn’t think it was going to happen, so stopped hoping for the school to join a conference.
“Now, we’re going to be able to compete for something on another scale,” Willis said. “You can definitely feel the excitement here.”
Engles said the conference affiliation makes his job easier. Over the past two seasons, while other teams played a regular season conference schedule, the independent Highlanders had to fill their schedule with games against Division III opponents.
“You can’t put a price tag on this,” Engles said. “We now have the opportunity to do some special things. It’s hard to put this all into words, but it was hard being the only one.”
The Highlanders join Jacksonville, Stetson, North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast from Florida, as well as Kennesaw State of Georgia, South Carolina Upstate and Lipscomb of Nashville as members of the Atlantic Sun.
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