Yale’s game with N.J.I.T. on Friday will be for the “Championship of the Giant Killers”

(AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

By Joel Alderman

When it was first scheduled, Yale’s coming basketball visit to the New Jersey Institute of Technology seemed  to be just a second to last tune-up for the Ivy League season. For N.J.I.T., which is the only Division 1 team playing without a league affiliation, facing Yale was projected to be an opportunity to knock off an Ivy contender.

While both of those original thoughts about the game to be played on Friday still apply, a fascinating element to the meeting developed because of two events that took place within less than 24 hours in early December. The teams now have something in common that nobody anticipated when the schedules were drawn.

Two upsets of the season involved both teams

There were two games in early December when Yale and N.J.I.T. achieved instant basketball notoriety. They both had momentous upset wins, each on the home court of its opponent. The Bulldogs, as has been widely reported here on Sportzedge, and other media, shook up State of Connecticut fans and garnered sports headlines nationally by beating UConn, 45-44, on Dec. 5th. Yale was a 10-1/2 point underdog.

But that was minor compared to when N.J.I.T. played at then No. 17 Michigan the next afternoon. The Big Ten Wolverines were favored in win by 24-1/2. Instead, the New Jerseyites pulled off the biggest reversal in terms of the spread in several years, since Garner Web beat Kentucky in 2007, as a 26-point underdog. N.J.I.T. beat Michigan, 72-70.

Adding to the shock factor of the outcome of the Highlanders surprising victory was that most typical college hoop fans, including those at the game in Ann Arbor, hardly even knew beforehand what the letters N.J.I.T. stood for, much less that the institution even existed.

Yale meanwhile has been given credit and much publicity for defeating the “defending” national champions, although that is a bit unfair to the Huskies. This year’s roster at Storrs bears little resemblance to the one that beat Kentucky for the NCAA crown last April. But the game at Storrs still went down as a gigantic win for the Bulldogs.

N.J.I.T. head coach Jim Engles, far left, celebrates with his players as Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23) walks off the court after an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. N.J.I.T. won 72-70. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
N.J.I.T. head coach Jim Engles, far left, celebrates with his players as Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23) walks off the court after an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. N.J.I.T. won 72-70. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

About N.J.I.T.

For anyone who may not know, there really is such a place as New Jersey Institute of Technology, and it has been functioning since it opened as the Newark Technical School in 1884. Today, it has an enrollment of almost 10,000 mostly commuting students, or about three times the number that attends Yale. It is comparable in prestige to other technological research universities such as MIT, RPI, Virginia Poly, and Cal. Poly.  The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of High Education has placed N.J.I.T. in the Research University/High Level or RU/H category.

It can be concluded, therefore, that N.J.I.T. and Yale have more than upset making basketball teams in common. So it is good to see that they have been developing a relationship in the sport, especially since the Highlanders have no league affiliation, and finding opponents is not an easy task for them.

For several years, until 2013, N.J.I.T. played in the Great West Conference, even though its location is in the East. The team played schools such as Houston Baptist, Utah Valley, North Dakota and South Dakota.

But its conference disbanded after the 2012-2013 season and for the past two years it has been playing as an independent, with no title to shoot for.

A meager Yale – N.J.I.T history

N.J.I.T. and Yale are far from being traditional hoop rivals. They have played each other only two times, with Yale winning both, 80-51, in Newark, N.J., in 2009, and the following year in New Haven, 79-48.

Although the Bulldogs (now 10-5) are having one of their better seasons, the Highlanders are certainly capable of beating them, especially in their small gym that seats only 1,100. Remember, they did knock off Michigan and Duquesne. Another victim was Central Connecticut, a team Yale occasionally plays, but not this season. Going into Wednesday’s game with Maryland Eastern Shore, the Highlanders were 7-9.

From horrible to respectable

The program hit rock bottom after absorbing a 51-game losing streak over three seasons. It extended into 2008-2009, the first for Coach Jim Engles, when there was only one win. However, there were 10 victories the following season, and 15 in each of the next two. In 2012-13 Engels’ team had a very credible 16-13 record, and last year it picked up 13 wins.

Engles is no stranger to the Ivy League, Yale basketball, or to its coach James Jones. For five years he sat on the bench at Columbia as an assistant to Joe Jones, the Lions’ coach at the time and James’ brother .

Yale bid for another headliner

As for Yale, 10-5, its game last Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., was a strong bid for another major upset. It fell short when Captain Javier Duran missed a jumper in the final seconds of regulation. Instead, Vanderbilt gained a double overtime victory, for which the Commodore’s veteran coach, Kevin Stallings, said he was thankful.

In the post-game press conference, he led off with these words:

“I told everybody that would listen, including my team and my family, and everybody else, that we were getting ready to play what I thought was a hell of a good basketball team today, and I was right.  They are a veteran team with terrific toughness and experience, and a really nice commitment to their system; and they are very, very, very well coached; and it took everything we had to get that done.”

The complexion of Yale – N.J.I.T. has changed

After this coming match-up between Yale and N.J.I.T. was scheduled, and the season got underway, the teams went on a mini-collision course. Friday’s meeting will not be just another typical college basketball game. It will be contested by players on both sides who take their grades and studies very seriously, in most cases ahead of basketball. There won’t be any league title at stake, but the winner will still be able to claim something very unique.

Regardless of who comes out on top, it won’t generate national attention like the two separate games those teams were involved in during that 24-hour span in December.

What will make this game so unique is that the winner will be crowned as the season’s “Champion of the Giant Killers.”

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