A couple of days before the NJIT Men’s Basketball 2020-21 regular-season opener at Temple that was initially scheduled for November 25th but due to both teams having Covid positive test cases pushed the game to December 19th. I had the opportunity to speak with Head Coach Brian Kennedy about the upcoming Highlanders season. The roster, playing in a news conference, and how the team was dealing with the Covid-19 Pandemic. Kennedy is entering his fifth season as head coach of the Highlanders.
Last season NJIT endured a tumultuous season, going 9-21 with a shortened roster due to a number of injuries. Despite the setbacks, the Highlanders still had a lot of positives to fall back on. Zach Cooks leading the team in scoring steals and field goals made. In the ASUN(Atlantic Sun Conference) Cooks led the conference in points and steals per game. For a second consecutive season in a row, Cooks was named to the Lou Henson Award Preseason Watch List and is the Preseason All-America East selection. Souleymane Diakite led the team in rebounds and blocks per game.
There are several returners including senior San Antonio Brinson, Diego Willis, and redshirt sophomore Kjell de Graaf.
In the first round of the conference tournament, NJIT pushed the top seed Liberty University to the brink of elimination before falling 55-49. The Highlanders have some pretty big names to replace from last year’s squad in Reilly Walsh and Shyquan Gibbs. There are several returners including senior San Antonio Brinson, Diego Willis, and redshirt sophomore Kjell de Graaf.
After five seasons in the ASUN, NJIT joined the America East Conference back in July. The 10th member of the conference, the schedule will be very grueling in playing back-to-back weekend series games on Saturday and Sunday starting on December 27th and 28th at Vermont.
EDF and NJIT Coach Kennedy
EDF Sports: Coach Kennedy, can you describe what the past couple of months have been like to reach this point and been practicing?
Brian Kennedy: We came back late in August, began to prepare for the season. During the initial phase in the fall, we had great success navigating the whole Covid situation, and the day before the season was about to begin it hit us as a program. In New Jersey, we had travel restrictions so players coming from different states they were on a travel ban list and had to do a 14-day quarantine. Quarantining is a little different at every university in every state.
We found out through this process that New Jersey has one of the stricter quarantine rules so our players when they quarantine have to be in their dorm room and food is brought to them. Two days before the season we had a positive test and that set us back a little bit with contact tracing and protocols. We’ve been fighting ever since to get through and get a game going. I give the players a lot of credit, they have been great and kept a positive attitude. The ones that have been in the quarantine have come out ready to go and focused and probably would have played this week but we are in our exam week.
NJIT is one of the top universities in the country, academics are first, we have kids taking chemical engineering, computer science, and calculus exams so this period is really for them to stay locked down and study. We get to play a game on Saturday, we’re looking forward to it and that’s kind of been the process I’m taking on as a coach. I’m taking a macro view of the season, I’m not throwing unreal expectations on the kids, we are where are, coaches are usually perfectionists but you really can’t be in this atmosphere. You have to be able to work with the situation that you’re given and our kids have been great.
EDF Sports: I was just wondering how it came about with scheduling Temple for the first game of the season?
Brian Kennedy: The schedule was changed, originally we were going to open up at Indiana but then the NCAA came out and pushed the start of the season back and we were able to get in contact with Temple and going to open up on the 25th(November) as the game grew near we had a positive test and they had a positive test. We were able to find a mutual date after our exams and it worked for Temple. It’s going to be the first game for both teams’ and Philadelphia has got very strict protocols in the city and at Temple University. Both universities have done a great job mitigating outbreaks.
EDF Sports: After many years in the ASUN(Atlantic Sun Conference) you are now playing in a news conference in the America East. Can you talk about how exciting this is for you, the coaching staff, athletic director Lenny Kaplan and NJIT administration?
Brian Kennedy: It’s a great opportunity for NJIT as a university and athletic department and in particular men’s basketball. It’s great to have a regional home where we fit in. The Atlantic Sun was a great conference and we enjoyed our time. There’s a lot of synergies when it comes to the academic and research side of things that work for our administration and it gives us a chance to develop some more locally bases and regionally bases rivalries moving forward. I give all the credit to Dr. Joel Bloom, our President, and Lenny Kaplan our athletic director for giving us the opportunity and setting us up to be in the America East.
EDF Sports: What are your thoughts on playing back-to-back games in the America East?
Brian Kennedy: First and foremost every team has to go through it. I think it’s important that you get your rest in between, but the first game behind you quickly. We’ll take that first as a coaching staff to review the film and make adjustments and see what worked and didn’t work. The next day we have to totally focus on the game. Watching the scores have been interesting, the road team maybe first winning and second day the home team winning.
There are some built-in advantages for the home team, first off they get to sleep in their own bed and shooting at their own rim and home environment even though there are no fans that obviously give an added boost. When you have to travel that far on a bus ride and you are sleeping in a hotel. The America East has done a great job of doing the best they can in having a fair and equitable home and away series.
EDF Sports: Talking about this year’s team, you are coming off a difficult year with injuries and not really having a full roster. Now you have a bunch of guys returning especially Zach Cooks. Moving forward the future looks very bright with the recruiting class you have.
Brian Kennedy: We’re really looking forward to it, excited to have back my two seniors in Zach Cooks and San Antonio Brinson. They both look great and primed for a terrific year. Souleymane Diakite is another captain, a computer science student, and works diligently on and off the court. I thought he took a big step last year.
Two players coming off injuries last year Kjell de Graaf and Da’mir Faison. Diego Willis had a good preseason as well as an influx of new talent, our two junior college players Dylan O’Hearn and Miles Coleman, and then our freshman. It’s really a good mix of guys and can’t forget we have a transfer from Austin Peay Antwuan Butler who adds some quality backcourt play for us.
We haven’t had too many full team practices since November so we have been plugging away doing the best that we can. My philosophy in the program is the older kids lead the younger kids and the more peer leadership we have the better your team is going to be. They have done a great job of leading the younger guys and new guys in this environment.
I told the guys everybody is different coming out of quarantine, to be honest with you and everybody’s in different phases and moving forward the team will be a constant fluid situation so the starters one game might not start the next game and who is available to play one game and be different the next game so we will be learning on the fly.
DF Sports: Covering last year’s team especially Reilly Walsh and Shyquan Gibbs, they represented just not on the court but off the court with leadership and passing that down to the underclassmen and in the classroom with their grade point averages and majors.
Brian Kennedy: We won because of those two guys last year, they’re the greatest example of winners you could go through and never had a single issue with either player. Reilly graduated with a 4.0 and both of them got their master’s degrees and have great jobs. Representatives of obviously the program, the university, and their families. They’re future leaders, that is our job as coaches, so many times people look at the wins and losses and injuries. When they come as successful members of society and with great jobs and being able to help themselves and their families and continue our tradition is what it’s all about here.
Everybody looks at Zach scoring 20 points a game is awesome but he is also an AB student here and working towards his master’s, Souleymane is at 3.89 average in computer cybersecurity/computer science major, Kjell de Graaf a chemical engineer major in the honors department and a whole new group of kids coming up like Reilly Walsh and Shyquan Gibbs, and kids before in Winfield Willis and (Emmanuel)Manny Tselentakis so there’s a great culture here in the program and just really proud to be sitting in the seat I’m in.
EDF Sports: Personally Coach Kennedy, what has 2020 been like for you?
Brian Kennedy: You know I was very concerned first and foremost about my players and getting them ready for the season and our schedule and what our schedule was going to look like. What I’ve learned from 2020 is a day-by-day year in my opinion so things change and it’s so fluid it changes on a dime. We get tested three times a week. So if you get too caught in upswings your mood and mindset are going to be all over the place. Every day we get an opportunity to be on the court it’s better than being in isolation whether at your home or in your dorm room so appreciate it and take advantage of it and bene our motto.
Thank you Coach Kennedy and we wish NJIT a great season!