Harvard hanging with hoops big boys

It’s not exactly Tobacco Road, but Massachusetts Avenue now boasts two schools world-renowned for academic achievement blazing new trails through college basketball.

Finally, the smart kids are winning at hoops.

Deep in Cambridge, it is Harvard University that has generated national interest after its basketball program won the Ivy League title outright and clinched an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1946 after a Penn loss to Princeton on Tuesday night. Just a few red line stops to the southeast, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has also enjoyed a momentous season, advancing to the Division III Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.

“I heard this a long time ago: People follow top dogs, but they root for underdogs,” Harvard head coach Tommy Amaker said. “I think that’s the way it usually works.”

Amaker, hired to jolt the flagging Crimson program to life five years ago, said the games at home had added juice this year from the beginning. That opener at Lavietes Pavilion, against their MIT neighbors, had a comic twist as well. The visiting fans taunted their Harvard counterparts with chants of “Safety school! Safety school!”

Amaker’s club won, 76-49, and while the Crimson (26-4) have enjoyed a more celebrated season on the hardwood, it is the Engineers who have the superior record (27-1).

“Most people think we’re from Mars,” said MIT coach Larry Anderson, now in his 17th season. “Our players are just regular people who happen to be really good at basketball because they put in the time.”

Both coaches’ players are anything but average intellects. Engineers senior guard Jamie Karraker, the team’s third-leading scorer, spent last summer interning at Facebook, his desk less than a 3-pointer’s distance from founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“I saw him every day,” said Karraker, who has a 4.8 GPA (MIT’s scale runs up to 5.0) while maintaining a double major in electrical engineering/computer science and physics. “It’s an exciting place to work. I was working on code that was going live on the site from day one.”

Of course Zuckerberg studied at Harvard, where the current student body is engrossed in midterm exams, the basketball team included.

Senior guard Oliver McNally powered through an all-nighter to write a paper for an American foreign policy course (topic: American history in World War I) due on Tuesday morning, so he actually slept through the first half of the Penn-Princeton contest. Junior guard Brandyn Curry had a sociology paper due, but played “Call of Duty” that night with teammate Dee Giger to take their minds off the game.

When Princeton took a comfortable lead in the final minutes, the trappings of technology, including the social media site created by Zuckerberg himself, made it impossible for Curry and Giger to concentrate on the carnage of their video game.

“My phone went berserk,” Curry said. “Everybody was like ‘up 10, with five minutes left. It’s all good.’ I was like, I don’t want to hear that. Don’t say nothing … But after the final buzzer went off, everyone started calling. I had something like 20 Twitter notifications, some phone calls, text messages, Facebook tags, everything.”

When word spread that Harvard clinched a tournament berth, many of Curry’s dorm-mates visited his room and offered congratulations. The good vibes continued for the next 24 hours at school. During a government class yesterday, one of his professors and the other students gave him a standing ovation.

“It’s a nice little break for people to get their minds off midterms,” Curry said. “Yeah, this week is certainly tough on all of us.”

Senior forward Keith Wright, the team’s leading rebounder, had a more aggressive approach to stress relief. Wright had an exam the following morning on psychology of human sexuality, but once the final buzzer sounded in Princeton, he ran through the campus streets howling in delight for a half-hour.

“Everyone was opening up their windows, and saying congratulations,” Wright said. “People from the library came down and shook my hand. And then, I had to go back to studying.”

Wright and the Crimson now await Selection Sunday for their tournament seeding, obviously a first for these players. MIT, by contrast, is a more experienced group when it comes to the playoff process.

The Engineers are playing in their fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament at the Division III level. They meet the College of Staten Island on Friday in Lancaster, Pa., seeking their first trip to the Elite Eight since the school adopted the sport of basketball in 1900.

“It’s nice to be the first one at this school who has done something,” said Anderson, whose squad has compiled four straight seasons of 20 or more wins, “but it’s a challenge at the same time.”

Harvard’s greatest challenge will be facing blue-blood programs from here, and building an even larger fan base. Despite their recent success and the emergence of alum Jeremy Lin with the New York Knicks, Harvard Square wasn’t awash in NCAA fever Wednesday. None of the square’s clothing stores, for example, had basketball items in it, and the bars were virtually vacant. Overall the campus was fairly sleepy, given the exams, and that next week is spring break.

Still, a run through the tournament will help the cause. Amaker, who had already received well wishes from Harvard luminaries Charles Ogletree, John McArthur, Ronald Sullivan and President Drew Faust, in addition to the virtual Dean of College Basketball, Mike Krzyzewski, said this group is special.

“We didn’t back into this,” he said. “The title goes to the team with the best record, and our kids earned that … We defend, we box out, we sprint, we’re unselfish, and we have fun. No less, no more.”