The New Jersey Institute of Technology’s move to the Atlantic Sun became official earlier this month, leaving Division I college basketball without a single independent school for the first time in its history.
While independence was once a staple of the NCAA landscape — in 1975, over one-third of Division I programs were independent — schools have found value in conference affiliation.
It started with a series of rules handed down by the NCAA in the 1970s.
In 1975, the NCAA decided that each conference could have more than one bid into the NCAA Tournament. This limited the number of independents that could make it, and over the next four years, four new conferences sprang up and the number of independent schools shrank from 83 to 68.
Next came the "round-robin" rule in 1979, where the NCAA decided that in order for a conference to qualify for an automatic bid, it must play either a double round-robin or a single round-robin and a conference tournament. This was a blow to independent schools in the Northeast, which found their bids through a series of regional tournaments that pitted area schools against each other. In order for those tournaments to keep leading to bids, schools like St. John’s would have to play schools like LIU-Brooklyn and Fairleigh Dickinson during the regular season as well, rather than schools competing on the same level.
It was out of this rule that the Big East formed, along with four other leagues by the end of 1980. By 1981, there were only 24 independent teams remaining.
That wave of NCAA legislation encouraged dozens of schools to join conferences, but since then, other incentives for league affiliation have become just as clear.
Joining a conference gives a school exposure through TV deals, which helps recruiting. It also provides a consistent schedule with like-minded schools.
In addition, conferences themselves soon had reason to expand. In 1990, Penn State joined the Big Ten, immediately strengthening the league and motivating others to respond. This is when the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina, while the ACC added Florida State and the Big East began sponsoring football and invited Miami.
Only six independent schools remained by 1994, and the number never climbed higher than that. Independents that remained were mostly the misfits of college basketball, not appealing enough for any league to take.
When the short-lived Great West conference disbanded in 2013 and the national wave of realignment ate up every other school, NJIT was left as the only Division I misfit, putting it at a disadvantage compared to the nation’s other 350 teams. The Highlanders had a solid season last year, but at no point did they have a realistic shot at dancing. They had no league from which to earn an automatic berth, and no real chance at an at-large, no matter how well they played, simply because they would not have been able to amass a schedule strong enough.
The Highlanders instead settled for a spot in the CIT, where they won three close games at home before falling in the semifinals. Earlier in the offseason, the university announced a $100 million plan to bring a bigger, more modern, basketball facility to campus, in hopes of luring a conference that needed a member.
That opportunity arose a few weeks ago when Northern Kentucky announced it would join the Horizon League, leaving the Atlantic Sun at just seven members.
Sure, the Atlantic Sun isn’t exactly the ACC, but it is still a golden opportunity for NJIT. Not only do the Highlanders now have 14 games every year locked into their schedule along with a path to the NCAA Tournament, but also their exposure on a national level will increase dramatically.
The Atlantic Sun’s ESPN3 on-campus initiative has resulted in hundreds of live conference streams on ESPN3.com over the past few years. Last season, every conference game was available on ESPN3 or a televised network, giving teams a national outlet every night.
To compare, NJIT played just four televised games all of last year.
And that improvement doesn’t even factor in the Atlantic Sun Television Network, another site that streams non-basketball Atlantic Sun sports, ensuring the entire NJIT athletic department can benefit.
Geographically, NJIT is an odd fit given the Atlantic Sun’s footprint, but in today’s era of realignment and conference mayhem, that means nothing. The Highlanders have officially entered big-time basketball and have officially ended the era of independents in the NCAA.