NJIT struggles along as last winless team in nation

NEWARK, N.J. -- Jheryl Wilson experienced only three losses during his four-year career at St. Benedict's Prep, one of the top high school basketball programs in the country.

This season, his first with nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology, Wilson has endured nearly 10 times that many defeats.

During Kraig Peters' senior year at Lenape High in Medford, N.J., his team went undefeated and won the state championship.

Now, during his senior year at NJIT, Peters and his teammates remain the last winless team in the country.

Nobody on the roster has experienced anything like this before.

"We hit rock bottom," Wilson said after the team's 27th loss of the season. "We can only go up."

The Highlanders, who are in their second season as a provisional Division I team (they play a Division I schedule but aren't eligible yet for the postseason), enter their final game on Saturday at Utah Valley with an 0-28 record. On the same day that No. 1 Memphis will try to remain unbeaten against No. 2 Tennessee, NJIT will be playing to avoid the inglorious distinction of becoming the first Division I team ever to finish 0-29.

Some players concede they had thoughts of transferring, but all of them wound up outlasting their coach, Jim Casciano, who announced his resignation on Wednesday despite plans to coach Saturday's season finale.

"I never questioned why I was here because I'm here to play basketball, I love playing basketball, and I got an opportunity to play college basketball," Peters said. "I tell a lot of people who say you could've transferred after your freshman or sophomore year, 'Yeah I could've, but I didn't.' I can't look at that now like, 'Oh, I can be at such and such school averaging such and such.' At this point, what is that going to do for me? This is who I am. This is what I've got."

The Highlanders haven't won a game since Feb. 19, 2007.

And yes, it's taken a toll.

"It is hard," Wilson said of going through the grind of practice in recent weeks. "Sometimes you wake up like, 'Dang, practice.' But once you step on that floor, you forget about all of that. You've got to practice hard and that mental block has got to fade away. … I'm young and I get frustrated sometimes, but I can't let that get to me."

Following his team's 86-76 loss to Chicago State on Senior Day on Saturday, senior guard Courcy Magnus struggled to explain just how much losing hurt. In the end, he couldn't avoid comparing it to something tragic.

"Basketball was a part of me before anything, really," he said. "…Luckily, I've never had a loss close to the family. I've never experienced anything drastic like that. This is … like something being taken away from you. That's such a tough thing to compare, but that's how I think about it. That's how important basketball is to me."

NJIT's Fleisher Athletic Center seats 1,500 (the bleachers are only on one side of the court) but probably had closer to 300 in it on Senior Day. With about seven minutes remaining before tip-off, the Highlanders jogged onto the court for their last chance to win a home game this season.

People were too busy chatting to notice … or clap. Hip-hop CDs replaced a pep band. And roughly 50 of the fans in the dimly lit multisport gym were there to see Chicago State anyway.

The atmosphere certainly hasn't made the season any more bearable.

"You've got kids here [at school] that just don't understand we have a team," Magnus said. "By the way, we do have a basketball team. You might as well come to the game. You don't have anything else to do. The [makeup] of the school is what is going to help or hurt the program."

Admission to Highlanders games is free for NJIT students -- for the public, tickets are $10 (all general admission) -- but some of their biggest fans on Saturday were their parents and members of the women's team. The moms and dads have suffered through the season, too. Andrew Magnus, Courcy's father, joked he should have a degree in psychiatry.

"It was a great lesson in parenting," Andrew Magnus said. "There were a lot of phone calls, a lot of phone calls. I said, 'Look, you've never given up at any level. You can't give up now. This is just a taste of what the real world is like. Just because you have on sneakers and a uniform, you're not entitled to anything.'"

Not even one win?

Last season, NJIT won five games, including wins against Rider and Manhattan.

"There was no reason to think we'd go backwards," said athletic director Lenny Kaplan. "You always go forward. We just hit a speed bump."

More like 28 of them.

"I don't think anybody went into this thinking that it was going to be easy," Casciano said of the program's transition to Division I. "But I don't think anybody also expected that we would be struggling like we are right now when you look at it from a wins-and-losses perspective."

Part of their struggles might be attributed to Casciano missing more than a month of the season with health issues that forced him to turn the team over to his assistants. But Casciano, who is finishing his seventh season, hasn't had a winning record since his first two seasons with the Highlanders. He is currently 66-130.

"I do think we're going to turn it around," Kaplan said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we will, because we've done it with other sports."

School officials expect to be a certified Division I team in September 2009 and hope to join a conference as soon as possible.

For the four seniors, any progress will come a little too late -- unless it starts on Saturday.

"He"s never given up on anything," said Howard Peters, Kraig's father. "…I think not only him and the other guys, they really have tried to hang in there. They're getting better, it's just tough for him as a senior and the other seniors who are leaving.

"Our son is pretty intense. We realized the losses began to weigh on him a little bit. We just made sure we stayed positive. If he started getting a little negative, let him get a little bit of the emotion out, and then get him to build himself back up and look at the next game and get the last one."

There's only one left to win.

Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.