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Turning Losing Into a Science

At Caltech, the most eggheaded college in America, they love numbers the way moles love dirt, so here goes:

Number of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty: 5.
Number of players on the basketball team who had a perfect SAT score: 2.
Years since the hoops team won an NCAA game: 12.

Forget that. It's been 21 years since Caltech, a Division III school in Pasadena, won a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game. Wouldn't you think just once a ball would bounce off a pocket protector and in for a win?

"We think too much," says Roy Dow, the Beavers' coach.

That's true. Every player on the team can tell you the optimum launch angle, parabola and velocity of a three-pointer. They just can't make one.

Not that Caltech doesn't have a rich athletic tradition. During halftime of the 1961 Rose Bowl thousands of kids in the Washington student section were duped into holding up flip cards that they thought would spell out HUSKIES but instead spelled CALTECH. At the 1984 Rose Bowl, Caltech students hacked into the scoreboard by remote and changed it to read Caltech 38, MIT 9. There is a T-shirt you can buy in the university bookstore that reads CALTECH FOOTBALL UNDEFEATED SINCE 1993. Possibly because Caltech hasn't had a football team since 1993.

But winning games instead of mocking them? They'll find the 10th planet before that happens. (Oops! A Caltech professor just did that.)

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get decent basketball players into a school this hard?

"I search all around the country, trying to find a few good players who could get in here," says Dow, who has eight high school valedictorians on his squad, "but as soon as I hear they've gotten a B, it's, 'See ya!'"

Only six guys on his roster even played varsity ball in high school. Nobody on the team got an offer to play from any other college. None has dunked in his Caltech career.

The team's best player, senior Jordan Carlson, who's a theoretical physics major, figures he does schoolwork 14 hours a day. What's so important at school? "Well," he says, "an interesting question we're studying now is how mass is generated in terms of quantum field theory."

Oh, sure, the Kentucky players were discussing that the other day.

In his four seasons Dow has seen it all. One kid closed his eyes when he shot. One didn't know if he was left-or righthanded. One current player puts topspin on his jumpers. "Must be some sort of physics I'm not aware of," Dow says.

So I went to Pasadena last week to see the Beavers put their epic losing streak on the line against Rivier College of Nashua, N.H. Three things you notice right away:

1)Caltech has the world's most optimistic statistician. The stat sheet has a column titled WINNING STREAK. That's like Paris Hilton keeping track of how many Oscars she's won.

2)Caltech players are so skinny they look like they could be knocked over by a butterfly's burp.

3)Caltech has no cheerleaders. But wouldn't it be great?

Molecules, slide rules
Watt, ampere!
Fill that cylinder
With that sphere!

But the Beavers do hustle, make smart passes and run their motion offense as smoothly as a gyroscope. That's how, with 90 seconds left, they actually led Rivier by four. And the only thing the crowd could think was, O.K., which of these brainiacs is messing with the scoreboard again?

Alas, Rivier started pouring in threes, and Caltech started spitting out turnovers, and when Carlson's last-second 30-footer just missed, Caltech had lost its 181st straight NCAA game 55-54. (The Beavers have since lost two more.)

Hey, at least it was close. Two years ago they lost by an average of 59 points a game. "Winning any single game at Caltech," Dow says proudly, "has gone from impossible to improbable."

Not that it made the pizza afterward any easier to swallow. "I thought we were going to give you something to write about," Carlson said glumly.

You get the feeling, with kids as smart as this, they will. As an opposing player--whose team had just slaughtered the Beavers--said as he shook each Caltech player's hand, "Now go cure cancer for us."

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It's been 21 years since Caltech has won a conference game. Wouldn't you think just once a ball would bounce off a pocket protector and in for a win?