When Jim Engles became the head coach at NJIT in 2008, he inherited by far the nation's most challenging rebuilding job.
NJIT had just completed a nightmarish second season in Division I in which it went 0-29 and lost every game it played by at least nine points. The Highlanders suffered through plenty more humiliating losses in Engles' debut campaign, extending their winless drought to an incredible 702 days before finally notching their lone victory that season.
Wins aren't nearly as hard to come by anymore for NJIT, and even marquee ones are no longer unfathomable. The Highlanders proved that Saturday afternoon when they notched the biggest upset of the season thus far, stunning 17th-ranked Michigan 72-70 in Ann Arbor.Wolverines star Caris LeVert scored 18 of his game-high 32 points in the final eight minutes to rally his team back from a seven-point deficit, but NJIT guards Damon Lynn, Ky Howard and Winfield Lewis matched him big shot for big shot. Lynn sank perhaps the most critical shot of the game, a 3-pointer that increased the Highlanders' lead to 68-64 with less than three minutes to play.
Michigan's best chance came when Howard missed a 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer with 11 seconds to go and the margin at just one, but the Wolverines failed to corral the rebound. They never got another chance to tie or take the lead either as DaQuan Holiday hit two foul shots and the Engles elected to foul Kameron Chatman in the closing seconds rather than allow the Wolverines a chance at a game-tying 3-pointer.
Though NJIT has followed up a respectable 13-win season last year by upsetting Duquesne and taking Marquette to the wire so far this year, the chasm between the Highlanders and Michigan is unfathomably large.
Michigan has been a member of the prestigious Big Ten since its inception; NJIT is the lone remaining independent in Division I because its former conference folded two years ago and it has yet to find a new league willing to offer an invitation.
Michigan plays in newly renovated 12,700-seat Crisler Arena; NJIT calls home a high school-sized gym with bleachers on only one side of the court.
Five Michigan players have been selected in the past two NBA drafts; NJIT has never produced an NBA player.
None of that mattered Saturday, however. For one afternoon, a program ranked 19th in this year's KenPom rankings was on a level playing field with a program ranked 293rd.
The biggest long-term benefit of Saturday's win for NJIT could be that it forces conferences in the Northeast to pay attention to how far the program has come.
Engles told reporters in Ann Arbor after the game that his goal is to get NJIT into the America East. Then he cracked a joke Michigan fans probably won't find amusing.
Said Engles, "Maybe we can get into the Big Ten now."