The Catamounts Will be Adding a New Conference Rival
Well, itâ€™s official. The NJIT Highlanders (there can be only one) move to become the tenth team in the America East conference has been verified and become the latest to join since UMass-Lowell in 2013. Jeff Goodman broke the news via Twitter last Thursday, seemingly out of left field. As if the sudden jump wasnâ€™t strange enough, Atlantic Sun conference commissioner essentially dropped a â€œhold my beerâ€, as he instantly disputed the move through some truly bizarre tweets. Itâ€™s still not clear if the tweets or even the ASun commissioners account were just some elaborate troll job, as NJITâ€™s transition to the America East went through without any other sort of uncomfortable or persistent hiccups.
As the move itself, NJIT should be a solid addition to the America East. Their level of play has been pretty consistent with that of the majority of America East teams. On the surface this looks like a great fit for both parties. Previously squared at nine teams, it was known that the America East was hoping to expand a bit by adding another team into the mix. Ideally it would be in a fairly close vicinity with the rest of the schools, while also being able to provide enough value through competition and revenue to stay on par with the rest of the programs. Itâ€™s been rumored that NJIT had previously been trying to make the jump to the America East, as their fit in the Atlantic Sun was far from great. While the Highlanders proved that they could compete within the ASun conference, having to constantly travel to the likes of North Carolina, Georgia and Florida for conference games became a financial burden.
Besides the news being broken seemingly out of nowhere, another strangle wrinkle was that NJIT will be joining the America East effective immediately for the 2020-21 season. Typically when any sort of conference realignment is announced itâ€™s at least one year in advance. The immediate move could be due to the lingering effects that Covid-19 has played in teams travel plans. The America East will now jump from a 16 game conference slate to 18, meaning there will be a lesser need to travel for out-of-conference contests. The Highlanders should be a welcomed addition to the America East. Letâ€™s briefly take a look at how they stack up against the rest of the conference.
Introducing the NJIT Highlanders
The Highlanders would finish last year with a 9-21 (6-10 conference) record, before falling to Liberty in the first round of the Atlantic Sun conference tournament. Despite having never made the NCAA Tournament, the Highlanders have come a long way since their embarrassing 1-59 record over the 2007-09 seasons. Since joining the Atlantic Sun conference in 2015, NJIT has finished with two 20+ win seasons, including a 22-13 record in 2018-19. KenPom rankings have NJIT at 296 from just a season ago. To put that in perspective with some of the other teams in the America East, New Hampshire landed at 248, Binghamton 333, Hartford 243, while Vermont sits atop the conference with 76.
While there are plenty of variables to take into account based on any given season, last year’s KenPom rankings should be a good indicator on where NJITâ€™s starting point might be in the America East. It seems reasonable to slot the Highlanders anywhere between the 5th-8th spots for conference play next year. As the new kid on the block NJIT instantly becomes the wildcard of the group. Are they capable of repeating their success as a 22 win team just two years ago, or is their 9-21 performance last year a better indicator of where this team is at?
As for their roster, the Highlanders offense was primarily run through star guard Zach Cooks. The junior guard averaged just a hair under 20 points a contest (19.7), while also finishing first on the team in assists (2.2), steals (1.8) and second in rebounding (5.2). To go along with Cooks, forwards San Antonio Brinson and Souleymane Daikite provide the Highlanders with a strong inside presence. The duo combined to average 18.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game. All three players will be returning to NJIT for the 2020-21 season and are expected to be the Highlanders key upperclassmen. Itâ€™ll be difficult for Cooks to capture the America East Player of the Year nomination, though the electric guard could find himself on the First-Team All-Conference selection if he continues to put up these type of numbers.
Weâ€™ll look to cover the Highlanders more in-depth as the season progresses. They definitely add another wrinkle into what will already be a very interesting season (for better or worse). For Vermont, they welcome in another conference rival, along with a new challenge of breaking their undefeated conference record of 19-0. The Catamounts will still be heavily considered the favorites out of the America East, though the addition of NJIT will mean thereâ€™s now two teams who will be on the outside looking for the America East conference tournament. Looks like the yearly quarter-final match-up against Maine might finally be coming to an end.