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Zach Cooks and NJIT begin a new era in the America East

After a disappointing year and a conference switch, the Highlanders look to thrive in their new home

NJIT athletics

As the NJIT Highlanders make the transition from the ASUN to the America East, head coach Brian Kennedy knows that adversity lies ahead.

BartTorvik projects NJIT to finish third in the America East with a 10-6 league record, behind Vermont and UMBC. The Highlanders finished 9-21 in a bit of a down year last season, but have largely been competitive in a league that features a slew of teams that make noise in national tournaments, such as Liberty, Lipscomb, and Florida Gulf Coast.

“There are two sides of the coin,” Kennedy said. “Obviously these teams haven’t seen us before, but preparing for a new conference season has been a lot of work. We’ve used that time wisely as a staff to watch everybody’s games from the previous two years to get acquainted with styles of play and personnel, but everything is gonna be new to us.”

The conference change makes sense, especially geographically. NJIT’s closest road trip as a member of the ASUN was to Liberty in Lynchburg, Va., 405 miles from their campus in Newark. Now, their longest America East road trip (to Orono, Maine) is 459 miles, allowing them to bus to-and-from games — which is especially important during a global pandemic.

Beyond the changes in opponents, styles of play, and road trips, how Kennedy attracts players to the campus is bound to change, too. Some of the team’s players are from southern states in close proximity to NJIT’s old road trips, but those players are no longer regularly playing in front of family and friends down south. Geography is far from the only factor when it comes to recruiting, though.

“NJIT is such an elite academic university, so we still have to go out and find student-athletes that want that experience,” Kennedy said. “We’ve had success with local kids throughout the years, so we always wanna keep our footprint in the New York metropolitan area, especially in New Jersey.”

Kennedy and his staff have been “shuffling through the deck” during the pre-season to gauge where they’re at as a team and what each individual may bring to the table. The Highlanders were hit hard by injuries last season — Kennedy won’t use that as an excuse — and the return of 6’ 10 junior big Kjell de Graff is a significant boost to their roster. De Graff was coming into his own and had just been named a starter before he went down with a torn ACL in practice nine games into last season. His return, along with the continued development of 6’ 9 junior Souleymane Diakite should fortify the back line.

NJIT’s newcomers will play a crucial role in the 2020-21 season. The team wanted to get a bit older, and did so by landing junior college transfers Dylan O’Hearn and Miles Coleman. The 6’ 4 O’Hearn arrives from Western Oklahoma State Community College where he put up 24 points per game last season, while the 6’ 5 Coleman comes via Indian River State College, where he won the NJCAA Southern Conference Player of the Year award and was named as an honorable mention All-American.

Both are juniors, along with 6-foot guard Antwuan Butler, a coveted transfer from Austin Peay. Butler has yet to receive a transfer waiver that will clear him to play this season, but the Highlanders are waiting patiently on the NCAA. Butler is a steady ball-handler that’s averaged 5.4 assists to 2.4 turnovers in his career and has been practicing well. He would slot into the starting lineup should he be cleared in time for opening night.

Senior guard Zach Cooks is the engine that has powered the NJIT offense the last two seasons. He set a program record by averaging 19.7 points per game last year, becoming the first Highlander to ever lead the ASUN in scoring. The electric, passionate 5’ 10 guard — who models his game after Russell Westbrook — may not repeat as the same explosive scorer this season, as he is instead being tasked with initiating the offense and creating opportunities for his teammates.

“I’m just trying to get better at reading the pick-and-roll and be more of a point guard this year,” Cooks said. “This year I think the ball will be in my hands a lot more, so it may not always be about scoring. I’ll be trying to get my teammates more involved. I’m also working on my shooting percentages, taking less shots and making more of them.”

Luckily, he was able to have consistent gym access in his hometown of Atlanta during the lockdowns, so this extended layoff has provided him with plenty of time to hone his craft.

Cooks and the rest of his teammates arrived back on campus in Newark in early September and had to quarantine for two weeks before being able to play basketball together.

“It was kinda tough sitting in my dorm by myself doing nothing, but once I got back into the gym with the team we’ve been at it. We’re getting our rhythm back, so everything is good right now,” Cooks said.

The main beneficiary of Cooks becoming more of a floor general could be 6’ 8 senior wing San Antonio Brinson. Brinson shot 38 percent from beyond the arc last season, bumped that up to 41 percent during conference play, and set the program record for points in a game with 37 in a win over North Florida. Alongside Cooks, Kennedy is looking for Brinson to shoulder a leadership role as a senior and help the newcomers adapt to the program and the team’s culture.

“One of the things with San Antonio, like a lot of people, is some of his best attributes are his biggest weaknesses,” Kennedy said. “He can be unselfish to a fault on the court, and I’d really like to see him be more aggressive and look for his shot as opposed to just trying to flow in the offense.”

Brinson, who looks the part of a professional basketball player, has been budding with potential since the day he stepped on campus as a freshman.

Cooks’ penchant for getting into the paint, collapsing defenses and finishing amongst the trees is going to be the focal point for opposing teams. Per BartTorvik, Cooks attempted 40.7 percent of his field goals at the rim in 2019-20 with only 25.3 percent of those looks assisted, so he can create for himself.

What happens when a defense collapses, and more than one defender has to focus on the ball-handler? Wide open, spot-up jumpers.

“We have three or four really good spot-up shooters, and when I come off a screen and get in the paint, I think most defenses will just step in and help since they think I won’t be passing it like last year, but this year I think I’ll be able to get my teammates more open spot-up looks,” Cooks said.

The Highlanders had been a competitive ASUN team with Cooks’ aggressive scoring mentality leading the way, but as they add several talented players and transition to the America East, the team’s offense seeks to become more dynamic.

The Highlanders are locked in on the upcoming season — Kennedy used the old adage “only worry about the things you can control” to describe their outlook — but what NJIT’s season will look like is still in question. So far, the Highlanders are scheduled to open the season against Temple in a single-game event at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. on Nov. 25, but the rest of the schedule continues to evolve. Just like everything else has with the program.