NJIT comes to the Palestra tonight to take on Penn basketball on a cold streak, having lost eight of its last 10 games in a jam-packed schedule. We went behind enemy lines with Highlanders coach Jim Engles about the difficulties of being the lone independent program in Division 1 and how he plans to handle the Quakers.
Daily Pennsylvanian: Working as the only independent program in Division I, scheduling is kind of an issue. I know there was a stretch of five games in 12 days [earlier in the year]. How have you guys handled that early-season grind, especially as the season has gone on?
Jim Engles: The schedule hasn’t really helped us in a lot of ways, because I had to sort of put some games in…because everybody’s pretty much in their league [schedule] now. I had to make sure — in order to get the games — I had to do some things to make sure that people are happy. So we start at Penn on Saturday. After the game, we drive down to Delaware State, because the MEAC has unbalanced membership, so they have some times where they can play during the week….we have three games in six days coming up.
DP: How have you handled all that constant traveling?
JE: I can’t tell you there’s actually any perfect formula to do it. We just have to deal with it. I have to sort of make sure that I structure practices correctly and am cognizant and aware of kids physically and mentally, so they’re able to handle the physical and mental rigors of going to school, going to class and playing and practicing and doing so much such a short period of time. It is an interesting dilemma, but it’s what we have to do.
DP: [Freshman guard] Damon Lynn dropped 34 [points] against North Carolina A&T on Saturday. How have you seen him develop over the season as a scoring option?
JE: We actually went on a trip to Europe in August, and he was our leading scorer. I was really trying to figure out what we had to work with this year, and the trip was great…so coming back from the trip, some of the roles got defined by some of the different guys, so he’s really been our leading scorer since he stepped on campus. He’s a very good player. He’s an undersized 2 guard who’s a very good shooter. He’s a freshman, though, he’s got some things he needs to work on, obviously, but he’s got the opportunity to have a really good college career.
DP: Looking at matchups [against Penn], Darien Nelson-Henry in the post and Fran Dougherty are both imposing presences. Considering the size of your lineup, how are you going to try and counter them?
JE: We play a variety of different defenses, so we’re just gonna try and play hard. We do a lot of different things, and hopefully we can change up enough where they can’t get in any type of rhythm, those big kids, but the fear is that once that shot goes up, no matter what defense you’re playing, size neutralizes a lack of size. So no matter what defense we play, we have to make sure that we compete on the glass, and I think our guards are gonna have to have a really good day rebounding in order to compete with these guys.
DP: How excited are you get a chance to see [former NJIT and current Penn assistant coach] Ira Bowman again?
JE: Ira’s the best. He’s a great guy. I haven’t seen him this year, so it’ll be good to see him. I know that he’s busy, they’re obviously trying to do their stuff, so it’ll be good to actually sit down, see him. I think even though their record doesn’t reflect it, I think they’re sitting in an opportunity where they have a chance to be pretty good in the Ivy League. I have a ton of respect for the program, a ton of respect for all those guys down there, I know they do a very good job. It’ll be fun to go down and play in the Palestra.