The theme of Grant Billmeier’s introduction at NJIT: ‘Why not us?’
NJIT is the only D1 program in the state without an NCAA Tournament appearance. New Jersey native Grant Billmeier has raised hopes even higher than that.
NEWARK – Grant Billmeier was 50/50 about taking the head coaching job at NJIT when he headed north to see campus. He and his wife Jennifer had bought a house in Maryland, where he’d just completed his first season as an assistant on Kevin Willard’s Terrapins staff. His daughter and son, Avery and Luke, had been registered for summer camps and school. They were ready to start calling Maryland a home.
Billmeier made it up to Newark, a stone’s throw from where he said he became a man – The Patrick School in Hillside, followed by Seton Hall. He was impressed with NJIT’s facilities and simpatico with athletic director Lenny Kaplan’s vision for how to build a program.
Most of all, the Pennington native knew deep down why the job was calling to him.
“This is home for me,” Billmeier said early in his introductory remarks Thursday.
Kaplan later acknowledged to reporters that NJIT is not an easy job, saying he’s patient with his coaches. Billmeier was hired to replace Brian Kennedy, who resigned after seven seasons and just 34 wins over his final four years.
The Highlanders are the lone remaining Division I team in New Jersey without an NCAA Tournament appearance. They’ve had a rocky path since beginning to transition to D1 in 2005. Despite all this, with new leadership in the building, there was a constant refrain embedded in Thursday’s celebration:
Why not NJIT?
Billmeier, 38, didn’t shy away from mentioning the most recent tournament Cinderella, Florida Atlantic. A more apt comparison might be nearby Fairleigh Dickinson becoming the second 16 seed to beat a 1, or Shaheen Holloway and Saint Peter’s making the Elite Eight in 2022. NJIT president Teik C. Lim “was asking me if in four years I could take the team to the Sweet 16, so thanks a lot for that, Sha,” Billmeier joked to Holloway, in attendance to support his former colleague.
Here is what’s undeniable: NJIT has a better-funded program than any of those schools. One hallmark of FAU’s, FDU’s and SPU’s 15 minutes of fame was how each school’s basketball facilities ranged from tiny to nonexistent. The Wellness and Events Center in Newark, opened in 2017, not only can seat 3,500 for a basketball game but also features state-of-the-art weight rooms and training facilities in the floors below.
“We’ve looked around and seen what everybody else has, and we know we have more than FDU,” Kaplan said. “You know, we’re not rich, but we’re not rubbing two nickels together. Look at FDU and Saint Peter’s — probably not as well-off as we are with budgets and things like that, but you can do it (make the tournament). As I said in my remarks, it’s about getting the right guy to lead the program at the right time.”
The Highlanders also have what Kaplan called “conference stability,” which hadn’t always been a given. Six of their first 10 seasons at D1 were spent as an independent; the other four were in the now-dissolved Great West Conference. Early on they endured a two-year stretch of one win and 59 losses. Jim Engles helped them achieve consecutive 20-win campaigns and got them into the Florida-centric league then called the Atlantic Sun. But in the America East, they finally have a good geographic and competitive fit.
Now NJIT has a coach who knows New Jersey hoops as well as anyone. That bodes well not only for recruiting, but apparently for playing style and philosophy.
“What will NJIT look like?” Billmeier told the crowd assembled at the WEC. “It will look like every other successful team from the state of New Jersey: We’re gonna be gritty, we’re gonna be tough, we’re gonna be disciplined and we’re gonna be unselfish.”
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Billmeier, a 6-foot-10 center in his playing days, was molded by the likes of Kevin Boyle at the basketball giant formerly known as St. Patrick High School. As a coach, he’s the latest product of the Kevin Willard Coaching Tree™, spending 2010-14 as Seton Hall’s director of basketball operations and 2015-22 as a Pirates assistant coach.
He’s already impressed players like Kjell de Graaf, who is preparing for his sixth year of basketball at NJIT thanks to a medical redshirt and the extra “COVID year” of eligibility. (Side note: de Graaf has already earned his master’s in chemical engineering, and in addition to embarking on a year of research, he’ll begin a second master’s, this time in materials science and engineering.)
de Graaf is also 6-foot-10 and has enjoyed the novel experience of being coached by someone he can literally see eye to eye with, who “knows everything about my position.”
“You can definitely feel there’s a new energy in the air,” de Graaf said. “It’s just a new feeling. Everybody’s excited. People from the administration’s been watching the workouts, seeing how the energy in the air is great. It just pushes us so much harder.”
He was asked for his response to hearing Billmeier speak about Florida Atlantic and Saint Peter’s, hinting at lofty postseason objectives.
“I mean, why not, right?” de Graaf said. “You hear him talk about the great facilities we have here, the great leadership in the administration. We got all the pieces, really. … Why not aim high? A Cinderella run like Saint Peter’s had obviously is like the dream, but you gotta aim high. Why not? The league is wide-open. Every year, you see teams pop up and have successful runs that weren’t foreseen.
“So why not us?”
Something the average basketball fan might not know – if it weren’t tipped off by the “Institute of Technology” in the school’s name or de Graaf’s academic achievements – is that NJIT has higher-than-average admissions standards. Billmeier can’t go sign any player he wants, nor does he want to. He and Kaplan are aligned on a student-first approach, with the goal of graduating every player who comes through the program.
For Year 1, Billmeier said roster-building will have to rely on the transfer portal, though de Graaf is one of six players returning from last year’s team, which provides a core to work with. Potential newcomers might be attracted to Billmeier’s reputation for developing bigs like Angel Delgado, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Romaro Gill and Ike Obiagu at Seton Hall.
Billmeier was asked if his players have seen him dunk yet.
“They have,” he said. “Kjell sometimes can be a little casual so I showed him what not being casual around the rim looks like. And he was a little caught off guard.
“I think I only probably have two more years of dunking in me, so I’m trying to get them in now early on the job and let those players pass the stories down for generations to come.”
Hey hoops heads, thanks for stopping by again. I was glad to get out of the house and cover something in person one last time before we put this season in the books.
Loose ends from NJIT:
Billmeier’s top assistant will be RaShawn Stores, who served as the season-long interim head coach at Manhattan last season after the program abruptly fired Steve Masiello. Billmeier said Manhattan’s loss was his gain. “I don’t think I’m going to have RaShawn for very long, but I’m very grateful to have a guy who took over a program during a difficult time and did a tremendous job this year leading his alma mater,” he said.
On scheduling: “Much to might delight, (Kaplan) told me we’re opening the season at Miami, so thanks for that Lenny. No big deal, fresh off a Final Four.” They’ll play Wake Forest and Fordham, and he’s talked to old Seton Hall colleague Tony Skinn, who’s now in charge at George Mason, about playing one another this season. As for facing Seton Hall, Holloway “said he would love to start a series,” Billmeier said. “I don’t know if I want to start a series right now with Coach Sha, but I’m grateful he presented the opportunity, but it is something I would like to get going starting next year.”
I’ll be back next Friday with one more edition to wrap up Season 2 of Guarden State. Till then, take care.