Until last Dec. 6, you might not have heard of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Then NJIT beat No. 17 Michigan at Michigan.
One game transformed NJIT basketball from nonentity to what Coach Jim Engles called "a feel-good story." In 40 hard-to-believe minutes, a program that lost 59 of 60 games in a recent two-season span gained something every team wants: credibility.
"Once we beat Michigan, everybody around here and the state saw the publicity we got," Engles said this week. "And it really solidified in everyone's mind, 'Hey, this is a pretty good thing. We need to keep it going.'"
After NJIT beat Michigan 72-70, New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie tweeted, "Congrats Highlanders — making NJ proud!" The feeling was bipartisan as Democratic Sen. Cory Booker also tweeted congratulations.
NJIT broke ground Thursday on a new $100 million multipurpose athletics facility that will include a 3,500-seat arena. The team's current home court seats about 1,000.
"So it was a big deal for everybody," Engles said of the victory at Michigan. "It's tough to put a price on it because the perception of the program has changed in so many different ways."
NJIT, which became a full-fledged member of Division I in 2006, plays at Kentucky Saturday night. The figurative distance the Highlanders have come is much farther than the trip from their Newark campus to Lexington.
When Engles became coach in 2008, he inherited a team that had a 0-29 record the previous season. That team opened the season by losing 70-28 to Manhattan. Its average margin of defeat was 21.1 points.
Engles' first team lost its first 18 games. He recalled walking into St. John's on-campus gym for a game that first season and seeing how the students had hung a banner commemorating each of the 41 straight games NJIT had lost.
"Pretty witty, actually ... ," Engles said. "I sort of laughed. I shook my head. Stuff like that, we had to deal with."
The losing streak reached 51 games. Then NJIT beat Bryant 61-51.
"We were up 16 at halftime," Engles said. "I walked in to talk to my assistants. We hadn't been leading at halftime the whole year, and we're up 16! 'Oh my god. What are we going to do.'"
After beating Bryant, NJIT lost its next 12 games and finished with a 1-30 record.
Losing on such a scale ignited the blogosphere.
"I'd get email from people around the country," Eagles said. "About how I sucked. 'You're an awful coach.' 'You suck.' 'Your program sucks.'
"And I'd be looking at these emails and I'd shake my head. Why? They don't know what's going on here."
Engles, who had been an assistant for 18 years (at Wagner, Rider and Columbia) before being hired by NJIT, believed he and the program had made progress. His third team won 10 games. His fourth and fifth teams each won 15 games. But in the minds of those even aware of NJIT, nothing had changed.
"When you get a label, you're a bunch of losers and we couldn't play, no matter what," Engles said. "We became a pretty solid low-major Division I program. But it was hard to shake that moniker. Whenever anyone referenced anything with losing, especially with Twitter, they'd just say, 'They're like NJIT.' It was frustrating."
Kentucky will face a NJIT team that returns four starters and its top five scorers from last season. The victory at Michigan highlighted a 21-12 record.
Last season, guard Damon Lynn made 126 three-pointers, which ranked second in the nation. Engles called Lynn "a player everything revolves around."
Three other returnees averaged double-digit points last season: Winfield Willis (12.2 ppg), Tim Coleman (11.5 ppg) and Ky Howard (10.9 ppg).
Engles described his players as "New York-New Jersey metropolitan-type kids." They are smart and tough.
The victory over Bryant, the only game NJIT won in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, led the tough guys to show their emotions.
"It was literally like Kentucky's locker room," Engles said. "It was like they won the national championship. There was crying. Everybody hugging. It was a pretty special moment."
Facing the challenge of loss after loss led Engles to try to convince his players that they might look back on the experience as the most rewarding time of their lives.
"The kids were maniacal," Engles said. "They wanted to win one game."
Now, NJIT has a wholly different challenge that Kentucky would recognize.
"Hopefully, we can deal with the expectations," Engles said. "That's the one thing we're trying to deal with."