MIT enters basketball season ranked no. 1 in Division III

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The news arrived a month ago, courtesy of the website The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known for its astronauts, physicists, and Nobel laureates, was the No. 1 Division III basketball team in the country.

Much has happened to the Engineers since then. They have embraced the national attention while coping with the loss of two critical players, center Noel Hollingsworth G and guard James D. Karraker G. They gave Harvard, their academic equal but basketball superior — the Crimson play in Division I — a scare in an exhibition game last Friday night. They have five freshmen who form what the coach called an excellent recruiting class, despite the institution’s exacting admission standards.

They opened their season last night at Lesley University, hoping to build on the success of last season, when they finished 29-2 and advanced to the Division III Final Four for the first time. MIT returns four starters from that team, which lost to the eventual champion, Wisconsin-Whitewater, in the semifinals.

“We’re honored to be in this position, but we’re humbled at the same time,” said coach Larry Anderson, beginning his 18th year. “We’ve come a long way to get where we are right now. Most people would say they’d rather be ranked No. 1 at the end of the season than at the beginning of the season. I say, how about let’s try to get both of them?”

The Engineers have gone 92-25 in the past four seasons, with four trips to the NCAA tournament. But it was their performance last season that opened eyes beyond their campus across the Charles River from Boston, a 168-acre tract with a football field named for a champion MIT hurdler from the 1920s — the father of the former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

MIT opened last season with 16 straight victories, lost a game to Worcester Polytechnic Institute, then won 13 more games, the last, 69-54, over Franklin & Marshall in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.

Hollingsworth, a 6-foot-9-inch widebody who transferred from Brown, led the team in scoring despite playing with two fractures in his right foot. Karraker, who like Hollingsworth started all 31 games, played with pain in both knees, which Anderson said would each require microfracture surgery.

“It was a special team, and I wanted to contribute to that team,” said Hollingsworth, a senior who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science. He wears a boot with a foot stimulator and said he would be out at least three months. “It doesn’t look too good,” he said.

Karraker, the team’s leading 3-point shooter, is also out indefinitely. Like Hollingsworth, he is pursuing a master’s degree. Both were at practice Tuesday, and while Anderson welcomes their presence and input, he is moving on without them.

“We hope to get them back, but we don’t know,” Anderson said. “I deal with the team that’s here right now. I check in on them to ask them how they’re doing, but not when they’re going to come back. We want them back when they’re ready. We can’t do anything about it, so we focus on the guys who are here.”

The two other returning starters are guard Mitchell H. Kates ’13, who had 20 points in the loss to Harvard, and the leading rebounder, William Tashman ’13, who had 15 points and nine rebounds against the Crimson. He missed two days of practice this week for a job interview in California.

“He’s a senior,” Anderson said. “Everything we’re doing, he knows. We told him to go to the interview.”

Also returning after missing two seasons because of concussions is the senior guard James R. Burke ’13, the team’s second-leading scorer as a freshman. He started against Harvard and had eight points in 39 minutes. Burke is one of five seniors, but 12 of the 18 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores. The team has one junior, Todd Cramer ’14, who transferred from the California Institute of Technology.

“We are transitioning from an older team to a younger team, but I feel we still can be really successful,” Kates said.

Before the Harvard game, Crimson coach Tommy Amaker, noting the strength of the Engineers and his own depleted roster, said, “I think this is the year, if they are looking at a chance to come over here and knock us off, this is probably one of the better opportunities that they will have in front of them.” MIT scored the game’s first 10 points but eventually lost by 15.

Kates committed to MIT before seeing the campus. “It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” he said. “You have everything here — academics, great professors — and you are surrounded by a bunch of smart kids.”

That just about sums up Anderson’s pitch to a very narrow group of prospective recruits. When he calls recruits, Anderson said they might forget his name, but not the name of the institute.

MIT also recruits internationally; it has a player from Greece on its roster and has had players from Finland and Singapore.

For now, the Engineers are the top-ranked Division III team in the country. While Kates noted, “it’s just a ranking; we haven’t won a game yet,” the team also understands it is not just a reward for a job well done. It is also recognition for what many feel the team could achieve — a 23rd NCAA title for MIT and a first for its basketball program.