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Smart Bombs : Caltech’s Basketball Team Is Awful On Court but More Than Makes Up for It in the Classroom

Josh Moats, Caltech guard, was preparing to throw the ball inbounds against California Lutheran when someone in the stands stood and screamed something last heard at a college basketball game in 1947.

“Shouldn’t you be home doing your homework?”

Moats held the ball a second, then later told teammates why.

“I was thinking, ‘You know, that guy was right.’ ”

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Meet the smartest NCAA basketball team in the country.

Smart enough not to despair that it is also, arguably, the worst.

The Caltech Beavers have a freshman guard who scored a perfect 1,600 on his Scholastic Assessment Test.

A junior guard who is only 17 because he started college as a 14-year-old prodigy.

A junior center who is an accomplished cellist--a 6-foot-10 cellist.

They also have losing streaks stretching beyond the range of the Hubble telescope.

They have not won in their NCAA Division III league in 12 years, a span of 110 games.

They have not had a winning record in 43 years, having gone 155-679 during that time.

That includes a 3-8 record this season, which doesn’t count the one victory that is annually assured them.

That in a game against--who else?--the alumni team.

The good news is, they nearly broke their Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference streak last week before losing to Occidental, 44-40.

The bad news is, three nights later they scored 20 points and were outscored by 47 in a loss to Pomona-Pitzer.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that game, but we asked one anyway.

“Easy,” said Ben Turk, the cello-playing center majoring in mechanical engineering. “It was a combination of really good defense, and really bad offense.”

The administration reacted to that loss, as it does to every loss, with questions.

But not the kind you would think.

Did the players have fun? Are they ridding themselves of the stresses of school? Are they learning about teamwork, about functioning in a group?

“We are not so much about winning and losing here,” said Dan Bridges, athletic director. “We try to create an atmosphere where the student can grow and develop in a different arena from the classroom.”

Check out the reasons behind James Naismith’s creation of this sport nearly a century ago.

Sound familiar?

It’s a policy that fits well here at this tiny Pasadena school, tucked away behind manicured trees and the highest average entering-freshman SAT scores of any school in the country.

There are about 650 males here--out of about 900 students--and each of them is invited to play for the men’s team.

As at all other Division III schools, there are no scholarships.

But unlike other Division III schools, there can be no recruiting because it is so difficult for students to gain admission.

The way Coach Gene Victor figures it, if they are good enough to enroll here, they are good enough for his team.

So, also unlike most schools, nobody is cut.

Not the Beavers’ 5-foot-3 guard. Not their 122-pound guard. Not their 350-pound center.

This season, 18 players showed up for practice, so 18 were given uniforms. No matter that 12 of them had not even played high school basketball.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Chris Miller, the freshman with the perfect SAT score who was never good enough for his high school squad. “I’m writing all my friends, all the ones who used to whip me on the court, and saying, ‘Hey, I’m playing NCAA ball.’ ”

Well, sort of.

When is the last time you heard of an NCAA basketball team that has not been assessed a technical foul in at least a decade? Victor’s team has been T-free since he arrived 10 years ago, and nobody can remember the last one before that.

“One thing we will not stand for here is lack of respect,” Bridges said. “It just does not happen.”

On or off the court.

When is the last time you heard of an NCAA basketball team whose players studied in the stands before games?

Casey Huang, the 17-year-old prodigy who plays on the junior varsity and keeps statistics during the varsity game, recently took it a step further.

He completed an economics problem during a varsity timeout.

“It wasn’t a 20-second timeout, it was a full timeout,” he said, laughing. “Hey, that was one less problem I had to do that night.”

By night, he means early morning. The average Caltech player studies until 2 a.m., then awakes for class by 8.

Perhaps the Caltech players don’t mind the losing so terribly because they appreciate the games so much.

“It’s such a good break from studies,” said sophomore Matt Hall of Ventura, one of only two players on the roster from California. “I don’t know how I could stay here without basketball. It’s so good to get out there and do physical activity and not have to think about physics.”

Hall shook his head while remembering a friend from last year who transferred to Harvard.

“He wanted to keep his grade-point average up,” Hall said.

Imagine that. A school where athletes like sports because they are a complement to academics.

All athletic practices at the school are limited to two hours a day, from 4 to 6 p.m., and basketball is no exception.

These may be the only basketball practices in the country at which, if a player calls in sick, he calls back later to make sure the coach received the first message.

This happened Monday.

“Good thing about these kids is that when you talk, they listen,” Victor said.

Caltech once considered dropping out of the SCIAC and, hence, the NCAA. For four years in the mid-1980s, it even dropped varsity basketball entirely.

“But the students wanted the challenges,” Bridges said. “They wanted to play against the best. And we wanted to give them something to strive for.”

So even though Turk says that, “Winning is not as important as playing as well as we can,” this year he highlighted potential conference victories on his wall schedule.

Everyone on the team knows about the 110 consecutive SCIAC losses.

They can recite the details of last year’s two three-point conference losses . . . and an overtime loss from the season before.

They all know that this is Victor’s 50th year of coaching, the final achievement of a career that began at El Monte High and flourished at Mt. San Antonio College.

They know all the numbers. And if there is one thing they can do, it is add.

“And we know that we are getting closer, that we are on the verge of winning a conference game, that maybe this year could be the year,” Turk said.

He sighed.

“Of course, we said that last year too.”

Before Monday’s practice, Victor gathered the team on the court and gave a speech he has given many times in the last decade.

“Don’t worry about the W’s and L’s” he said. “Be a finisher. Be a finisher.”

The Caltech Beavers then lined up and ran a full-court drill that featured numerous clanked shots, poor passes, and walking violations.

But they continued to run the drill, again and again, unfazed and unwilling to stop.

Funny, isn’t it, that it takes a team of math geniuses to show what can happen when nobody is counting.


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