There must be something in the water in Cambridge.
What else could explain the emergence of not one but two basketball powers at traditional academic bulwarks, schools not necessarily known for athletics, across the Charles from the state capital?
Well, you could try talking about talent, hard work and, yes, a little old-fashioned luck.
That’s been the formula at MIT, which on Friday will play in the first Division III Sweet 16 game in the program’s 101-year history.
The Engineers are ranked No. 3 in the country, have won a school-record 27 games and lost only one game to a team in their own division (the other MIT loss came at Division I Harvard in the season opener and doesn’t count against their record).
Coach Larry Anderson’s bunch has won 20 or more games in four straight seasons and has won the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference title in three of the past four seasons.
Though their team name suggests exploiting angles and equations more than athleticism and explosiveness, these Engineers can do both. Their starting front line includes 6-foot-9 Noel Hollingsworth, 6-8 Will Tashman and 6-5 Billy Bender, and their starting backcourt also boasts good size, with 6-4 Jamie Karraker and 6-1 Mitchell Kates.
Hollingsworth averages 17.8 points per game, second in the NEWMAC, and can score inside and out. Tashman has been a double-double machine inside, and leads the NEWMAC in rebounding at 9.5 per game. Karraker leads the league in 3-pointers made per game (3.5), and is seventh in the nation (he also ranks 22nd in the country in 3-point percentage, at 41.8). Kates leads the NEWMAC and is tied for 25th in the nation in assists per game at 5.3.
“Obviously we have talent at a number of positions,” Anderson said.
And they’re student-athletes at a place where “student” definitely comes first, so they understand the importance of time management and hard work.
“It’s just a matter of setting priorities,” Hollingsworth said. “The hardest thing is just the time management and just accepting that you’re not going to have time to do everything you want to do.”
Six members of this Engineers team (Bender, Will Dickson, Hollingsworth, Karraker, Arni Lehto and Cuong Nguyen) were named to the NEWMAC winter all-academic team, meaning they carry at least a 4.35 GPA on a 5.0 scale.
After their work in the classroom, library and lab is done, the Engineers have also put in work on the court.
They rank third in the country in scoring defense, allowing an average of 56.7 points per game. They’re second in rebound margin (outrebounding opponents by 11.3 per game) and seventh in field goal percentage defense (holding opponents to 38.0 percent from the field).
Then there’s the luck factor. MIT got a gift when Hollingsworth, who played in six games his freshman year at Brown, decided to transfer out after the Bears changed coaches.
Anderson originally had recruited the big man from Salt Lake City, and told him after he committed to Brown that, “If things don’t work out, we’ll be there for you.”
The Engineers were there, and Hollingsworth has rewarded them for the support. After missing most of his junior season with an injury, Hollingsworth has been a force for MIT as a senior.
It helps that this group seems to genuinely like each other.
Anderson likes to joke that his favorite thing about his team is that he gets to spend two hours a day yelling at his players -- smart, hard-working and talented people, many of whom likely will find great success in their post-playing careers -- and they can’t do anything about it.
Ask the players what they like best about their team, and they all cite chemistry.
Tashman said a bunch of the players live together in the same fraternity house, which helps them bond off the court. That bond then translates to the court, in things like knowing where each teammate likes to get the ball on offense and how each teammate can maximize his strengths.
“Defense is a big thing of trust,” Tashman said. “If I’m out on the perimeter, I’ve got to know that Noel’s under the hoop ready to take a charge. And I think we’ve developed that pretty well over the last three years.”
“My favorite thing really is just their growth and development over the last two years,” Anderson said. “How they get along on and off the basketball court. This doesn’t come along too often.
“They look like kids in candy stores when they play together.”
And for much of the season, the NEWMAC schedule was as sweet as candy for MIT. The Engineers won their first 16 games before dropping a surprising home decision 80-68 to Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
What happened in that loss?
“It’s pretty simple,” the coach said. “WPI played better than we did. We didn’t come to play that day.”
Anderson said he wasn’t familiar with the team he saw that day, one lacking its usual intensity and energy. And while the coach said he’d prefer to learn from wins than from losses, he hopes the game against WPI served as a wake-up call.
The Engineers certainly seemed to respond to it, finishing the season on an 11-game winning streak that included a road win over WPI in the regular-season finale and a sweep through the NEWMAC tourney and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
A run like the one MIT is on is bound to get noticed. And, yes, at first it was mostly tongue-in-cheek, “I didn’t even know MIT had a basketball team” attention. That doesn’t surprise the Engineers, who have heard their fair share of nerd jokes on and off the court.
Tashman said they’re so used to those predictable barbs that their own student section has gotten into the act, at one point bringing an economics textbook to a game and having one particularly loud-lunged fan shout the text out as the opposing team was at the free throw line.
Truth is, this team expected to do this well.
“I think coming into the year we all had big expectations for what we could do,” Kates, the point guard, said. “I think we expected to do well. We went into every game we played this year thinking we were the better team.
“When you have that kind of confidence, you can put together win streaks like we did.”
So as they prepared to play the College of Staten Island in the Sweet 16 on Friday at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. (5:30 p.m.), the Engineers weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel.
“We’re going to stick with the same things that got us there,” Anderson said. “Basketball is a pretty simple game. You defend, you rebound, take care of the ball.”
While reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history is impressive, it may not have been this team’s biggest feat to date.
Because they’ve been leaving for NCAA tournament games on Thursday mornings, the Engineers have had only three days to do schoolwork the rest of the MIT student body has five days to do. To get the best of both worlds, a top-flight education and a top-tier basketball team, Hollingsworth & Co. have had to work doubly hard.
“Sometimes it’s tough, but you've just got to bear down and do it,” Hollingsworth said.
That they’ve come this far in both respects makes it clear: It’s not that there’s something in the water in Cambridge. It’s that there’s something special in this group of Engineers.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.