MIT hosts NEWMAC playoffs this weekend

Men’s basketball faces Clark in first game, Saturday at 1 p.m. in Rockwell

The bar has been raised, a new precedent has been set, a new sheriff is in town. Whatever cliché you choose to use, there is one undeniable fact: the men’s basketball is for real.

During last year’s improbable run to the Division III NCAA tournament, the Engineers reached an all-time. The 2009-2010 Engineers have reached a new pinnacle of success; they have won the most games, 22, in the program’s history. With only three losses on their slate (one of which came against Division I Harvard) the Engineers have also won their first regular season NEWMAC title.

All this has been accomplished by a very young team. Willard J. Johnson ’09 and Billy E. Bender ’12 are the two returning starters. Seven of the 14 players are freshmen.

Now for the true test: championship play.

The rest of the season will be championship play in one form or another. The Engineers will host the NEWMAC conference championship tournament at Rockwell cage this weekend, where the top four teams will square off to determine the conference champion. The conference champion, regardless of the regular season title, is guaranteed a spot in the Division III NCAA tournament. However, there are also several at-large bids, so teams who lose may still be given a spot based on performance. (That’s where the regular season title comes into play.)

Should the Engineers falter this weekend, their résumé is strong enough to be a favorite to receive an at-large bid. But that’s not the plan. “We don’t want to leave it up to chance,” said Johnson, the captain. “While I think we deserve the opportunity to play in [the NCAA tournament in] March regardless of this weekend, we want to win this tournament and do what no other team has been able to do before us – win both [tournaments].”

To do that, MIT will need to capitalize on their home court advantage and be sound in every aspect of the game. As any sports fan knows, anything can happen on game day, especially in college basketball. After last year’s successes, however, fans are expected to come out in large numbers.

“Come early, unless you want to be standing,” Johnson warned.

MIT will undoubtedly need strong performances all around. Noel Hollingsworth ’12 will need to be a presence in the paint alongside Will Tashman ’13, where the two combine for an average of 28.2 points and 16.1 rebounds per game. Mitchell H. Kates ’13 must also continue to lead the Engineers and maintain ball control. The Engineers’ only blemishes in conference play, two losses against Wheaton, can be blamed on one problem: turnovers. In those two games combined, the Engineers turned the ball over 32 times while taking the ball away only 12. If the Cardinal and Grey want to ensure playing into late march, they need to keep the ball in their position and allow Kates and Jimmy R. Burke ’13 to run the offense and lead MIT Men’s Basketball to new heights.

The Engineers will be playing their first game against either Clark or Wheaton at 1 p.m. at Rockwell Cage on Saturday, Feb. 27. If MIT wins, the championship will be played on Sunday at noon.