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With homegrown talent, NJIT is ready to compete in the ASUN

The Highlanders are on pace for their best season since joining Division I.

NCAA Basketball: New Jersey Tech at Minnesota Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Gritty, overlooked guards. Winners from the New Jersey’s finest. And an ability to win on the road.

These are some characteristics that define the New Jersey Institute of Technology Highlanders, an ASUN team that played in Division II until 2006. NJIT currently sits at fourth in the ASUN, making it a darkhorse threat to win the conference and one of the greatest turnarounds in mid-major basketball.

Last year, the Highlanders finished just 14-16 and suffered from inconsistent stretches in conference play. Already, NJIT has surpassed that with a 15-5 record that includes statement wins at Fordham and Duquesne.

The Highlanders’ skill lies in their homegrown talent on the court and sidelines. A native of the Jersey Shore, coach Brian Kennedy has received praise from the New Jersey coaching elite, and even the former governor.

Hall of Famer Bob Hurley, the former coach at St. Anthony High School, said this about Kennedy in the NJ.com piece:

“A lot of recruiters are slick, like used car salesmen, Brian is a very genuine guy and that straight-forward approach is good for NJIT, which is a no-nonsense institution.”

NJIT is a team on the rise with a strong start to its season and a new arena to showcase. The $110 million Wellness and Events Center just opened last year and certainly has the draw to keep Northeast recruits close to home.

As for the team, five players on the roster are from New Jersey powerhouses such as St. Anthony. They are led by a splashy guard in Shyquan Gibbs and Abdul Lewis on the interior. However, NJIT’s best player, Zach Cooks, was truly a hidden gem find.

Cooks was under-recruited out of Lawrenceville, Georgia, but has already established himself as a leading scorer in just two years at NJIT. He’s 72nd nationally in scoring with an average of 18.8 points per game off of nearly 40 percent shooting from behind the arc. Largely responsible for the win over Duquesne, Cooks poured in 17 points after halftime. The 5’9 guard may be the next March Madness household name, and not just because of his scoring ability. Cooks averages 2.6 steals and 4.8 rebounds per game, making him the core of this team.

With double-digit losses to UMass Lowell, Cornell, Houston and Lipscomb, it’s clear the Highlanders still have plenty of room to improve. NJIT must look to solidify its identity on both sides of the ball, and that includes tough-minded defense. Locking down on defense could help the Highlanders prevent opponents from jumping out to large leads.

The Highlanders are at a monumental turning point in their season, now just 3-2 in conference play. The low point of the season came after suffering a loss at North Alabama in which NJIT turned the ball over 18 times. The one bright spot of a six-point loss may have been the emergence of sophomore San Antonio Brinson. He added 16 points and five rebounds and in one of his best efforts of the year.

Consistency from Lewis will be essential to continued team success. When he scores in double figures, NJIT doesn’t lose. When he’s unable to score in the paint (six turnovers against North Alabama), things begin to look iffy for the Highlanders.

The path to the NCAA Tournament through the ASUN is difficult. Liberty and Lipscomb are in the midst of great years and seem to have a stranglehold on the league. But NJIT is in the mix. With a roster that’s beginning to bloom with homegrown talent, the Highlanders are laying the groundwork to be contenders for years to come.