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Final Four run gives MIT team a crash course

By John Powers
Globe Staff / March 16, 2012
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College basketball teams good enough to play for a national championship usually get perks - separate dorms, lavish dressing quarters, special tutoring. All MIT’s players want is Wi-Fi on road trips. “Because it’s hard to take four or five hours when you can’t get work done,’’ said point guard Mitchell Kates, who is majoring in computer science. “So if you can get two or three hours done on the bus it makes it that much easier. We had one ride last year where we couldn’t connect to the Internet and a bunch of the players were pretty upset.’’

The Engineers, who lost just one game out of 30 this year, may be playing Friday night in the Division III Final Four, the small-school version of March Madness. But, unlike most Division 1 tournament-bound players, they are not getting much of a break from their studies and are still turning in problem sets and taking exams. Noel Hollingsworth, MIT’s strapping 6-foot-9-inch center, had to take an economics midterm last week in Lancaster, Pa., on the morning of the NCAA regional playoff game against Staten Island.

Relatively few of Hollingsworth’s Division 1 counterparts were dealing with course requirements as part of their game-day preparations, but that has been standard practice this month as the players have missed Thursday and Friday classes to travel to postseason games. “Mostly it’s just doing the work ahead of time and getting five days of work done in three days,’’ said Hollingsworth. “You’ve got to cram it in and cram in basketball, too. It’s prioritizing, really. There’s time to do both. But there’s not time to do a lot else besides both.’’

The NCAA is fond of talking about its student-athletes, but the Tech undergrads truly live that dual role as they have since they began playing basketball in 1900. “These are kids who crave the challenge academically and they crave the challenge athletically; otherwise we wouldn’t be where we are right now,’’ observed coach Larry Anderson, who is in his 17th year at Rockwell Cage. “We have two Academic All-Americans [Hollingsworth and guard Jamie Karraker] so they’re in their element.’’

In a year when its Harvard neighbors “up the creek’’ qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology basketball team, at 29 and 1, is making its fourth straight trip to the Division III tournament, but first to the semifinals. “We’ve never made it this far but at the same time we definitely expected to be here,’’ said Karraker, whose team will face the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater at Salem, Va. “It’s been a main goal of ours all season, to win the national championship, We only made that goal because we thought we could do it - and we still do.’’

That possibility seems remote to folks hundreds of miles from Massachusetts Avenue who assume that most Tech students would not know a roundball from a geodesic dome. So burying most of their rivals by double figures has been especially satisfying. “It’s a great feeling,’’ said Karraker, whose team beat Franklin & Marshall on its home court to make the Final Four. “You always hear, does MIT have a basketball team? People don’t really think we’re going to be that good, just a bunch of nerds playing basketball.’’

Anderson, who has become the school’s most successful coach since he arrived from Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., cast a wide net for the small batch of players who can qualify for the world’s most selective scientific institute, 42 percent of whose freshmen were high school valedictorians and 90 percent of whom ranked in the top 5 percent of their class.

“We recruit particular student-athletes to become candidates for admission,’’ said Anderson, whose starting quintet comes from Salt Lake City, Colts Neck, N.J., Morgantown, W.Va., Atherton, Calif., and The Woodlands, Texas.

Hollingsworth transferred to MIT after a year at Brown. Kates, who was considering NYU and Williams, committed without ever visiting. “The basketball team looked like a good fit and they had what I wanted to study,’’ he said. “It was a perfect combination. One thing that I liked was that the basketball team was up and coming, I knew I wanted to be with something that was on the rise. We had the chance to take MIT basketball to places that it’s never been before.’’

The Engineers have done it within the usual academic demands, thanks to “The Window’’ - the sacred hours between 5 and 7 p.m. when no classes or labs can be held. “It’s great to have a break in the day from classes and studies,’’ said Karraker. “If you do anything for too long you burn out, so it’s good to split things up.’’

Anderson has been on the premises long enough that he knows how to run a demanding yet efficient practice that lets his men have time for a hot dinner before heading off to the library. “Time is precious here,’’ the coach acknowledged.

The upside of running a nonscholarship program at a hypercompetitive school is that Anderson’s players come to the gym because they want to, not because they are required to. “We know we don’t have to be here, but every guy who is here wants to be here so we look forward to every opportunity that we get,’’ said Kates.

“I never had a day when I questioned whether I wanted to play basketball here. I think a lot of people go through that at other schools. Guys here really enjoy it and they don’t want to give it up,’’ he added.

This season their desire and discipline have taken this Tech varsity to a place its predecessors never went. “We always talked about doing our best to make everything we do a masterpiece,’’ said Anderson. “because tomorrow’s not promised to us.’’

The Engineers, who play all but a few of their regular season games in Eastern Massachusetts, took their first plane ride of the season Thursday, leaving at 6:30 a.m., when many of their classmates were just going to bed.

Karraker, who made a point of crossing off as much on his academic to-do list as he could, had the unaccustomed luxury of traveling light. “I’ll be taking a laptop with the UW-Whitewater games tape on it,’’ he said. “My focus is on the game. Once I get on that plane, it’s all basketball.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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