19. NJIT (2006-07 Record: 5-24)
Head coach: Jim Casciano
Returning Starters: 3- G Kraig Peters (senior): 6’4”, 191; F Nesho Milosevic (junior): 6’8”, 245; C Dan Stonkus (sophomore): 6’9”, 245.
The Highlanders, entering their second season at the Division I level, have a lot of turnover to deal with this season. Ten newcomers, seven of them freshmen, join a program that only won five games in 2006-07. The growing pains were evident in their first season, even though they did get some nice wins along the way. In order to improve upon last season’s win total, the Highlanders mush become stronger on both ends of the floor (scored 57.1 ppg; allowed 70.6 ppg) and take better care of the basketball (17.9 turnovers per game).
The first task is to find a replacement for last season’s leading scorer, the graduated Clayton Barker (12.6 ppg). Luckily for Coach Casciano, Kraig Peters will be back for his senior season. The guard from Mt. Laurel, NJ averaged 11.0 ppg and 3.6 rpg last season. Now, with Barker gone, a lot of the offensive responsibilities will fall upon his shoulders. With Peters being the only returnee in the backcourt to log major minutes last season, six incoming freshmen backcourt players will have an opportunity to earn minutes. As for the other backcourt returnees, seniors Brett Johnson (6.5 minutes per game) and Courcy Magnus (10.7 minutes per game) will look to increase their playing time.
In the frontcourt, the two leading rebounders for the Highlanders in 06-07 are back in the form of Nesho Milosevic and Dan Stonkus. Milosevic, a sophomore from Montenegro led the team with seven rebounds per game last season. He also averaged 8.3 points per game, making him a likely candidate to score in double figures this season. Stonkus had a decent freshman season, averaging 5.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 06-07. Frontcourt depth will be provided by four newcomers, three of them juniors. There is some size in the NJIT lineup, but they may still have a hard time improving upon their rebounding margin of -2.5 boards per game.
Ten newcomers in all will arrive on campus for the 07-08 season, with six of them having the ability to play in the backcourt. The point guard job is up for grabs, and there are a few newcomers who will compete for the job. Freshmen Jheryl Wilson, Tyler Epps and Brendon Lyn will all look to earn playing time, with fellow guards Rey Jefferson and Justin Garris will look to get some minutes either at the two or on the wing. In the frontcourt, Paulius Skema, who received interest from some mid-major programs before signing with NJIT, is the only true freshman. Johnathan Dixon and Kyle Edwards have both been with the program, but missed last season due to injury. All three will be needed to give Milosevic and Stonkus some help on the block.
As for the schedule, it’s tough to schedule an entire campaign as an independent, but the Highlanders do have a solid schedule that will go a long way in introducing the newcomers to Division I college basketball. After the opener against Manhattan (who they beat last year), NJIT heads to Seattle for the Preseason NIT November 13th-14th (opening with Washington, then playing either Utah or High Point the following night). Other games of interest on the schedule include Vermont (November 20th), at Rider on the 28th of November and games against Army (December 6th) and Rutgers (December 13th) in the new Prudential Center. The Highlanders will also take part in the UCF Holiday Classic to close out 2007. They will play home-and-home against the other Division I independents- Chicago State, Longwood, Texas Pan-American and Utah Valley State.
Given how much the Highlanders struggled offensively last season, combined with the fact that Clayton Barker has graduated, this could be a long year for the young program. They will take their lumps, but they will compete. Whether or not NJIT improves upon last season’s win total will depend upon the newcomers being able to contribute, and the leading returnees stepping up their production from last season. But hey, no one said that the growth of a program would be painless.