Need an opponent? NJIT is willing, if not yet ready

The school's name sounds like it's straight out of "Blue Chips." The first call to the athletic department ended up in the voice mail of the ex-sports information director; the receptionist said the new SID was in "another, temporary location." Because of renovations, the coach currently doesn't have a phone or computer in his office.

Welcome to Division I, New Jersey Institute of Technology!

NJIT, located in Newark with 5,633 undergrads, is one of three schools (along with North Florida and Georgia-based Kennesaw State) making the leap to D-I this season. However, unlike the other two newbies, which already are affiliated with the Atlantic Sun, NJIT will be operating, for now, as an independent.

Oh, did we mention NJIT finished its last Division-II regular season at 11-16?

Good luck.

"Obviously, we have some obstacles," NJIT head coach Jim Casciano said. "We're not in a conference [and] we're not eligible for the NCAAs, so we're recruiting 'pioneers' -- players who want this challenge, [who] want to put their footprint on this, that we're a D-I program. ... We're literally starting from scratch, from the renovations to the facilities to the schedule to the recruiting ... it can be overwhelming, but it's exciting. Hopefully in four years, we can look back and say 'remember when...?'"

Four years from now is when NJIT, assuming it makes all the checkpoints along the way, will become a full-fledged member of Division I. Until then, Casciano & Co. will focus on tackling the two biggest challenges of an independent -- recruiting and scheduling.

"Initially, you are trying to recruit the talent level to compete at the mid-major level and not knowing who you are playing against, which is a challenge," Casciano said. "We're trying to recruit players who are capable of playing at the America East level, and if we can do that, we should be able to compete."

In its first year in major-college basketball (the school already has other D-I sports), NJIT will play an exclusively D-II schedule, but Casciano says the Highlanders should be 100 percent D-I in 2006-07.

"We're fortunate because of our location, we're right in the middle of [a lot of conferences]," he said. "We want to make sure we don't overschedule ourselves ... we expect to play mainly Patriot, Ivy and Northeast schools, with a smattering of MAAC. We'll also try to do some A-10. As we get better, then we'll possibly increase the number of teams we play."

NJIT might be well-served in looking at the path another D-I independent has taken.

South Dakota State University came to Division I last season after a terrific run in D-II and went 10-18 -- a reputable finish that included road losses at Manhattan, Illinois-Chicago, Marquette, Denver, San Diego State and UMKC that all were within 16 points. South Dakota State also already has a couple of pieces in place that NJIT will need to secure -- a nice arena (8,500-seat capacity) and a supportive fan base. The SDSU Jackrabbits led Division II in average attendance in 2003-04 (at 3,375 per game).

SDSU is combating its current lack of a conference schedule by trying to land big-time nonconference games. This season, the Jackrabbits open at Rupp Arena against Kentucky in the Guardians Classic before heading to Champaign to help open Illinois' post-title game season. They also lured three top-100 teams from last season up to Brookings, S.D., this year.

"[The Guardians Classic] will be our first time on national TV," head coach Scott Nagy said. "[Games like that and Illinois] help our exposure. This year, we had two scholarships [to give out for next season] and we're done already. Even though we don't have a league, we are able to recruit based on who we were playing. ... Once we get to where we are a full-blown member of D-I, I don't think I would schedule the way we're scheduling right now. We're not able to go to the NCAAs [right now] ... so that's why were doing that."

Still, Nagy realizes that his program's long-term success will be highly dependent on getting into a conference.

"That's a big battle for us, to get into a league," he said. "You need to get into a league to get the auto bid [to the NCAA Tournament]. In terms of recruiting, that's a big deal. It's not a question of kids asking if we can compete for [league] championships ... now the kids want to know if you'll be able to get into a league [so they can play in the NCAAs]."

Still, after a season in which he was forced to play two walk-ons at the starting guard positions due to an illness, a transfer and a couple of redshirts, Nagy is excited about his team's prospects for Year 2 of the transitional period. And despite the news headline on the school's athletics site trumpeting what turns out to be a "four for zero" (all four games on the road) series with regional power Minnesota, the Jackrabbits have 11 Division I home games scheduled for this season. Even that has Nagy a bit worried, though.

The visiting teams "haven't been here yet," he chuckled. "Once we get them here, we might have trouble getting them back" because of the fan support, the quality of his team and the frigid winter weather.

Casciano would be thrilled to have that issue. Right now, he's already scrambling to fill the NCAA-required nine home games for the 2006-07 season, hoping to lean heavily on the "independent conference," where schools like Utah Valley State and Longwood engage in home-and-home series to help fill schedules. Then there's the matter of renovations to the current 1,500-seat gym, the efforts to land a deal as a co-tenant in the new Newark Arena scheduled to open in 2007 and the question of how to brand the school to recruits (Jersey Tech?).

Still, its proximity to the metro New York area gives NJIT a leg up in the development process, one that Casciano is excited to begin exploiting.

"This is the ultimate building challenge, and it's something I enjoy," he said. "I'm welcoming it, although I could be sitting there two years from now seeing that we don't have the personnel to compete at this level yet. But if we see we are starting to get this talent, we'll know it's just [a matter of] time."

Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him with comments.