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MIT Basketball Dances Into History

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Tuesday night, when Harvard University’s Division I men’s basketball team clinched a trip the NCAA tournament — “the Big Dance” — for the first time since 1946, the news made the front page of ESPN.com.

Days earlier, when MIT’s Division III basketball team made the Sweet Sixteen of what’s known as the “Little Dance” for the first time in the program’s 111-year history, the news didn’t even make the front page of MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech.

Late last month, the MIT men's basketball team won its third NEWMAC championship in four years. (Karen Given/WBUR)

Late last month, the MIT men's basketball team won its third NEWMAC championship in four years. (Karen Given/WBUR)

But, students rushing through Lobby 7, the main entrance to MIT, were happy to break the stereotype that geeks don’t pay attention to sports. (And, they might as well crush the notion that geeks don’t date while they’re at it.)

“I’m on the track team, a girl on the track team is dating a basketball player, so we hear about it quite a bit,” said Benji, a freshman.

“I’m in a sorority and one of the sisters is dating a guy on the basketball team, so a couple of the sisters actually went to the game,” added a junior named Bahar. “People are excited. People who know about it, I guess, are excited.”

The Engineers, who play in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference, or NEWMAC, are doing better than all right.

“This is the best basketball team we’ve ever had,” said Bob Ferrara, who played for the team in the ’60s and now works in MIT’s Department of Student Life. “And even if not every student pays attention, at least some of them do.”

When the Engineers won the NEWMAC Championship in late February, the game was played in front of a sold-out crowd of 800 at MIT’s Rockwell Cage, while the university’s provost and chancellor handed out free hot dogs. But, most MIT students prefer to participate in sports, rather than spectate. The Engineers field 33 varsity teams, and a full 25 percent of the school’s undergraduate students are varsity athletes.

As his team captain ran through lay-up and free throw drills on Monday, head coach Larry Anderson looked relaxed on the sidelines. This is Anderson’s 17th season at MIT, and he’s taken his team to the NCAA tournament four years in a row.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun, just trying to stay loose and enjoy this moment because we don’t know when we’re ever going to get back to here,” Anderson explained.

Of course, balancing a championship bid with one of the most rigorous academic schedules in the country can’t be all fun. Those recruited to play at MIT know what they’re getting into.

“Just this weekend on the road, you’d find us all on the bus helping the freshmen with problem sets that we’ve encountered in the past, trying to walk them through it,” said senior captain Daniel McCue. “We had a bunch of guys on the team taking tests at 7 a.m. that were proctored by coach before we’d go to our 9 a.m. shoot-around, so it’s definitely a challenge but it’s one we welcome with open arms.”

As to whether MIT can continue its record-setting run? Alum Ferrara isn’t letting that question concern him.

“I’m not going to think that way, I’m just gonna know that they’re gonna give it everything,” Ferrara said. “You know, if they lose, they’re still the most successful team that we’ve ever had. If they win, more power to ‘em, we’ll be following them to the next level.”

MIT basketball has its own fan club and cheerleaders, but coach Anderson isn’t sure how many MIT students will give up a weekend of studying to make the 6-and-a-half-hour drive to Pennsylvania for Friday night’s game against the College of Staten Island.

Karen Given is a reporter and producer for WBUR’s Only A Game, which is heard every Saturday at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

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