If you were to hear the phrase “We’re No. 1!’’ echoing across the 168-acre campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you might think that the latest issue of the Princeton Review or the US News rankings had just arrived at the admissions office.
MIT is indeed No. 1, but the bragging rights belong to those who ply their trade in the Rockwell Cage on Vassar Street, not in the Mclaurin Buildings on Memorial Drive. As it begins its 102nd season of basketball, the men’s team is ranked No. 1 in the country in Division III.
To quote the great Norm MacDonald, “wait, what?’’
Yes, indeed. That MIT. The one where the students seemingly wear pocket protectors and the alumni fly into space, split atoms or win Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Fellowships. The one that calls itself “the institute” and has an athletics center named in honor of David F. DuPont. Yes, those DuPonts.
They don’t just have a basketball team. They have a really good one.
To co-opt a boxing term, pound-for-pound, the Engineers from Cambridge may be the best college basketball team in greater Boston. Based on pre-season rankings, they most definitely are the only team in the area with any chance at a national title in 2013. (Amherst is a bit out of the region.) They are coming off a 29-2 season where they advanced to the Division III Final Four for the first time. They were anointed by the website D3hoops.com as the Team to Beat before the start of the season.
They have a quiet, classy coach who was raised in Mississippi, attended an historically all-black college, arrived in Cambridge in 1995 and doesn’t even bother to wear a whistle in practice. Larry Anderson has been around longer than Doc Rivers (Celtics), Tommy Amaker (Harvard) and Steve Donahue (Boston College) combined. But in the name-recognition game, he would come in fourth against those three coaches.
Two of their seniors already have graduated and are on the roster while pursuing a Masters degree. One of those is a transfer from Brown. They have players from California, Texas, Utah and Greece. They are fun to watch and, over the past four years, have won nearly 79 percent of their games.
“What does this all mean? If you asked anybody if they know MIT even has a basketball team, they’d probably tell you, `no,’’’ Anderson joked. “Being ranked No. 1 is going to help us get our brand out there and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
It’s not as easy a sell as you might think. MIT has nearly 4,400 undergraduates. It has 33 varsity sports, the most of any Division III college in the country. Several of those varsity sports, from crew (which participates in the Division I Patriot League) to men’s volleyball to water polo compete against Division I opponents.
So can we stipulate that there’s genuine interest in athletics at “the institute?” Fortunately, that interest seems to have spilled over into the stands at the Rockwell Cage as the team was making its historic run last season. There were 125 people in attendance for the Jan. 7 game against Wheaton, which MIT won easily to improve to 14-0. By the end of the year, the team was drawing 800-plus to its last two home games prior to the NCAA Tournament, very good numbers for a Division III team. By the time it reached the Division III Final Four in Salem, Virginia, it had the proverbial busload of supporters.
Let’s hope the support for the Engineers continues in what could be another spectacular season. There are already roadblocks; seniors Noel Hollingsworth (leading scorer) and Jamie Karraker (leading three-point shooter) are battling serious injuries. But Anderson brought in five freshmen and has a pre-season All-American guard in Mitchell Kates to lead the team. Thirteen of the 18 players on the roster are sophomores or freshmen.
Even without Hollingsworth and Karraker, the Engineers gave Harvard a scare last Friday night, opening a 10-0 lead against the Division I Crimson before losing by 15 points. MIT considers that to be a scrimmage. Harvard counts it as a regular-season game.
The Engineers season began Thursday night against Lesley College with a 82-49 victory. It will be the first of many for what not only is the best team in the metro area, but arguably the best story as well.