In March, NCCA Division I Independents are dancing with themselves.
In the Fleischer Center on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the maximum number of actual people legally allowed in the gym probably greatly exceeds the number of seats in the stands.The dimly lit gym’s bleachers barely take up the entire length of the playing surface opposite the benches and scorers table, which is a foot from the red and white painted brick wall. The hundred or so fans who showed up to see the home court Highlanders take on the visiting Longwood University Lancers of Farmville, VA will witness one of the most meaningless college basketball games played in the entire month of March. As Longwood and NJIT are both Independents, their seasons will end tonight, with no hope for either team of earning a tournament bid or even playing in a conference tournament.
“First and foremost it takes commitment,” says Mike Gillian, Longwood’s seventh year Head Coach, who guided the Lancers through their transition to DI from 2003-2007. “It’s easy for people to say they want to play at the Division One level, and you’re not going to have everything you want, but you have to have enough committed people in place to get to where you need to be. ”
Essentially, NCAA Independent DI schools are four-year institutions whose basketball teams (and/or other athletic squads) don’t belong to any conference and are typically “reclassifying” from a lower level (Juco, D2 or D3) of competition. Fourteen schools, stretching from Newark to South Dakota to Seattle, participated as Independents during the 2008-2009 seasons and finished with varying degrees of success.
Reclassification can be a long and complex process. Each institution must meet a set of standards and requirements to become a full-fledged NCAA DI participant. Facilities, scholarships, strength and conditioning services, academic support and seemingly endless amounts of paperwork are all points of interest for the NCAA certification board. After a provisional season, and then a transition year, one in which Independents can play a mixed schedule of DI and DII opponents, teams embark on a three year probationary that excludes them from being eligible for post season or statistical consideration. In that time, despite not being able to partake in March Madness, aspiring division one schools must live and die by the NCAA’s DI rulebook.
“In a three-year period you have to meet all of the criteria set forth,” says Gillian, whose Lancers have reached NCAA requirements and now competes as a true Independent, eligible for post season tournaments and hoping to join a conference. “As a division one program, you have to prove you can follow all the of recruiting rules, rules for both initial and continuing eligibility, and as you go through it, you have to prove you have the structure in place to implement those rules. As a result of meeting compliance for all of these issues, you’re actually putting yourself ahead of many existing programs. ”
Independents operate in just that way, independently. Without a conference to help structure their seasons, Independents make their own schedule, secure their own equipment deals, travel arrangements and other incidental things that a lot of DI coaches rarely deal with.
Success for independents is often measured on a different, more generous scale, than teams competing in competitive conferences. Longwood, which won only one a single game during their first year (04-05) competing against all-DI opponents, has made as smooth of a transition as could be realistically possible. For the first time since reclassifying, the Lancers are over the .500 mark and they’ve notched home victories over George Washington and James Madison. Although Longwood’s probationary period is over and they are a fully active DI team, they are still, along with nearly every Independent, a while away from earning a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
While Independent are not stunning Top 20 teams quite yet, that doesn’t mean the players are any less talented than those at more traditional DI schools. Ryan Toolson, an undersized two-guard from Utah Valley University, scored 63 points in a quadruple-overtime game against Chicago State, but his efforts went largely unseen. Toolson would be tied for 6th in the country in scoring if – Utah Valley’s players were eligible to be included in DI’s statistical leaders, that is. Luckily for Longwood junior Kevin Swecker, the Lancers are beyond their provisional point and their starting combo guard can be legitimately listed as #17 in the country in steals per game. While Longwood, Utah Valley, Seattle and South Dakota have all made impressive transitions to the DI level, others have had more trouble.
In 2006, tiny Birmingham-South College (enrollment: 1,600) aborted their efforts to make their athletic programs to DI after being NAIA for a long time. The school claimed their decision to reclassify again, this time from NCAA DI to NCAA DIII, was based on disappointing returns on their investment. In 2005, the NCAA analyzed 20 programs that moved up to Division I between 1994 and 2002. The study found that schools were generally spending more money than they was being generated by their athletic programs after the switch. The study also showed that most schools didn’t experience a significant enrollment increase.
“It costs money,” Birmingham Southern athletic director Joe Dean Jr. told Rivals.com in 2008. “If you can’t justify putting up those dollars for an athletic program and if it doesn’t benefit your institution, don’t do it.”
After numerous newcomers failed to meet compliance, the NCAA instituted a moratorium that prevented schools from moving up to the DI level. This was the second time that the NCAA blocked schools from reclassifying. The first lasted two years and forced numerous changes in the process of moving up a level. Prior to the first moratorium, schools needed only two years to complete the transition from Division II to the Division I ranks. The NCAA now requires a five-year process, which gives schools more time to meet their budgets and improve their facilities. Despite the miles of red tape and other obstacles associated with reclassification, losing has to be the most disheartening.
“We weren’t just losing, quite a few games we were getting blown out” says Longwood’s Dana Smith, the Lancers leading scorer, who was granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA after losing large chunks of two seasons to injuries. “Being independent and playing against the big schools was a great learning experience. We were 1-30 our first year (04-05) as a full D1 and we played two teams that were number one. But, gradually, we just kept getting better and better at Longwood. We have a winning record and people on campus have really supported us. It felt good to be a part of that turnaround.”
Independents will regularly lose double or even triple the amount of games than they will win in a given season. Last year, New Jersey Tech didn’t win a game and only won their first game as a full fledged DI program by defeating Bryant University in December’08. They didn’t win a game in the 2007-2008 season and by the time tonight’s game is over, the Highlanders will have compiled a 6-83 record through three years competing against DI’s.
At this point, it’s safe to say, even though Longwood and NJIT are both independents, they are at opposite ends of the totem pole. Longwood has improved their facilities, raised money for their program and increased interest in the basketball program on their campus and in their community. NJIT has, though not for lack of effort, taken baby steps and has gone backwards at times. They’ve played some games at the new Prudential Center in Newark, home of the NHL New Jersey Devils, and next year, they’ll be rather riddlingly be joining the upstart Great West Conference, that will include Independents Utah Valley, Chicago State, Texas-Pan American, Houston Baptist, North and South Dakota. While the Great West will have a conference tournament, they will not have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Though NJIT held many leads over Longwood, they still couldn’t manage to close out the season with a home victory. The Fleisher Center allegedly holds 1,500 people, but the Highdlanders home court could easily be mistaken for a mid-major practice facility or student rec center. Though there is DJ, cheerleaders, a radio crew and a t-shirt toss, there is no concession stand, little visible student presence and less than a handful of people wearing NJIT gear. Mike Gillian and Longwood recorded their first .500 season. The Lancers closed out the year with a 17-14 record, their best yet in DI ball, but not without enduring a nothing-to-lose effort by NJIT. The game is a good example of how the process of reclassifying is very much a game-by-game and day-by-day process. Going forward, still without a home conference, Longwood will look to build on this season’s win count and find their place in the division one landscape.
NJIT finishes the season 1-30 and a good distance from being competitive against any tier of DI competition. The biggest accomplishment this season was snapping a 51 game losing streak (Sacramento State is a distant second with a 34 game losing streak from 97-99) that has spanned two seasons and two coaching staffs. Although the season is over for both teams, they must continue to get better.
“The difference with out ream now as opposed to when we arrived is that now we have the knowledge and confidence to finish and win games when we’re not playing out best basketball,” says Longwood Assistant Coach, Doug Thibault, who has spent six tireless seasons bringing Lancer Basketball up to par. “Tonight’s game was a perfect example. Even though our talent has increased, you can’t underestimate how quickly our culture has changed. The guys on our team now believe that they can find a way to win every time we play.”