Commentary

Summer session takes on a whole new meaning at Caltech

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The beach is tantalizingly close. West L.A. beckons for some fun, but this is the offseason and the offseason is no time for slacking.

In the offseason, college basketball players set themselves apart and hone their skills by studying the formation of snowflakes, searching for planetoids and asteroids on the Kuiper Belt and synthesizing organic polymers.

What? You thought we were going to say working on the arc of their jump shot?

Every once in a while I stop and think, 'Hey I'm a college basketball player just like those guys.' It's just a little different here.

--Freshman guard Ben Farber

While college basketball ponders the second-semester report cards and class attendance records of the one-and-done hoops Rhodes Scholars jetting in and out of school, things are slightly different at the Division III's California Institute of Technology. Summers in Pasadena are reserved for SURF (summer undergraduate research fellowships) not surfing, and the idea of padding your transcript with easy summer courses is downright laughable.

Ten of the 12 basketball players on the Caltech roster will have some sort of fellowship or internship this summer, each one more impressive and intimidating than the next (in phone interviews for this story, I -- with my journalism B.A. degree -- did a lot of head-nodding and "Oh yes, I see. Really?" while frantically scribbling notes I hoped to translate later).

Befitting a school that boasts 31 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni and faculty, some students will work alongside Nobel winners, others simply next to people who are on the cutting edge in their field. No one is scooping ice cream at the local Tastee Freez.

Five years ago, Dr. Mike Brown's discovery of Eris, a dwarf planet, eventually led to the demotion of Pluto and serious red-penning of science textbooks worldwide. This summer 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Christian Clanton will work in Brown's lab, studying the Kuiper Belt, a region of the solar system outside of Neptune's orbit.

Despite the similar pronunciation, the Kuiper Belt presumably won't offer up any well-coiffed NFL draft experts on the outer reaches of the solar system.

"The orbits outside of Neptune hold vital information as to how the outer solar system formed," Clanton explained.

In layup terms, Caltech is the Kentucky/Kansas/North Carolina/Duke/UCLA of academics, particularly math and science. Annually listed among the top five universities in the country, the school's faculty has been responsible for discoveries including antimatter and the left brain/right brain theory. Of the students whose high schools supplied rankings, 99 percent were in the top 10. The average Caltech student scores a 2190 in verbal on the SAT and 2320 in math. A perfect score these days is 2400 in each.

In other words, that snotty little gym chant -- "That's alright, that's OK, you're gonna work for us someday" -- these guys own it.

Junior guard Wei Li, a computational neural systems major, and junior guard Daniel Cullina, an electrical engineering major, both carry 4.0s at Caltech, which presumably is equivalent to acing your SAT while simultaneously playing virtuoso violin by ear, filling out a tax return and translating the NCAA handbook into understandable English.

This summer, Li will work alongside Dr. Shinsuke Shimojo, who runs the only campus lab that studies perception and cognition in people. Li, who last year did research on the Mars landing site, will track brain response to subtle finger movements.

"I think it's always good to know how the brain works, even in social environments," Li said. (Didn't St. Bonaventure's Jamil Terrell, he of the welding certificate, say just the very thing the other day?)

Cullina -- whom coach Roy Dow calls "one of the very special intellects at Caltech," even among his peers, as he has been known to be able to help students with questions in classes that "he has not even taken" -- will be working in a jet propulsion lab, developing avionics hardware that NASA can reuse on its unmanned missions.

[+] EnlargeCaltech
Mandy Gamble/CaltechThe Caltech basketball team has had no conference wins to celebrate since 1985, but they are all-stars in the classroom.
"I'm pretty excited about it; it's different than most academic work," said Cullina, who clearly never challenged his brain with a Jim Harrick Jr. course at the University of Georgia.

The irony is, if there is a team that needs extra basketball work, it is Caltech. The Beavers haven't won a game in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference since 1985. That's longer than anyone on the current team roster has been alive and is almost as long as Madonna's career and slightly shorter than Dikembe Mutombo's.

The streak, ignominious as it is, stands at 273 games and counting. Caltech got agonizingly close this year, losing twice in overtime.

Caltech won just one game this year and it was against Gallaudet, the nation's leading university for the hearing impaired.

Made up of more guys without high school basketball experience than with, Caltech has that healthy ingredient long lost in college sports: perspective. If you can find the team's Web site, click on a name on the team roster and you're as likely to get a mug shot of the team mascot as you are an actual player. Caltech's annual holiday tournament is nicknamed the Thinker, Tinker and Stinker Classic.

You won't find any one-and-dones here. And unless there suddenly becomes a hot market for early-entry physicists and chemists, there are no Rodney Guillorys lurking in the shadows. The whole notion of one year of college causes some hearty chuckles from people who intend to "pursue my Ph.D." after graduating.

College isn't a ticket to basketball. Basketball is a ticket to breathe. As one cross-country athlete told Dow, "When I cross the street [from campus to the athletic facilities], it's the no-academic zone."

There needs to be one because the academic crunch puts a Billy Gillispie gaspfest practice to shame.

The next time you hear a Division I student-athlete whine about juggling course work and practice, think of Ben Farber. The 6-1 freshman guard, who will spend his summer studying the formation and shapes of snowflakes to better understand how crystals grow and water forms, remembered pulling his first all-nighter, impressed with his ability to stay up and work.

He packed it in around 6 a.m., only to find about 20 other people in his dorm were still awake.

"You kind of feel guilty if you get too much sleep," said Farber, who said he typically goes to bed at 2 or 3 a.m. and gets up at 8 or 9 a.m., a sleep routine he describes as normal. "After one term here, I've learned you have to have a normal sleep schedule to function."

So why bother with basketball? Why, when there is so little time in the day as is thanks to academic rigors, play Division III basketball? Caltech offers intramural sports that give a guy plenty of opportunity to get a hoops fix.

"It's a huge escape, but they also don't want dumbed-down coaching, something that's not a challenge," said Dow, who runs a motion offense and man-to-man defense. "These kids are all about excellence. Most of them will tell you they don't like losing. These guys aren't the Bad News Bears."

We have this miserably bad losing record, but the reality is, it used to be full of impossible. Now it's hopeful and improbable, which is a huge step.

--Coach Roy Dow

While they understand what they're up against -- only eight of the 12 guys even played high school basketball and two of them (Clanton and Farber) hadn't played since their sophomore seasons -- they don't like getting drubbed any more than anyone else.

Things are looking up. As recently as four years ago, the Beavers lost by an average of 60 points per game; this season they halved that to less than 30.

"We have this miserably bad losing record, but the reality is, it used to be full of impossible," Dow said. "Now it's hopeful and improbable, which is a huge step."

But up from the underbelly of the basement is all relative.

Ryan Elmquist, the 6-5 sixth man on a Woodbury (Minn.) High School team that finished 25-5 and went to the state playoffs his senior season, is the only player Dow actively recruited who was both admitted and matriculated last season. The losing is pretty awful, he admitted, and sure, he could have found a Division I school that offered him better basketball.

But it would be more difficult to find a school where he could spend the summer working alongside a guy like Dr. Robert Grubbs.

Two years ago, Grubbs was named a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

"I admit I was a little starstruck at first," Elmquist said. "But now it's more like peer-to-peer. He's a very down-to-earth guy."

Elmquist, who logged the second-most minutes of any player in the conference this season, is Dow's basketball genius. A product of a winning high school program, he's well-versed in offseason training, and Dow hopes Elmquist's weight room pursuits will trickle down to the rest of the team.

The Caltech offseason program isn't structured. It can't be, not when there are organic polymers to be synthesized (Grubb's long-term goal is to make molecules function as muscles; Elmquist's work is the baby step in the process) and snowflakes to be studied and outer reaches of the solar system to be researched.

But a conference win is tantalizingly close and a two-win season more than just a dream. So the incentive to push in the summer is every bit as strong at Caltech as it is at Kansas.

"Every once in a while I stop and think, 'Hey I'm a college basketball player just like those guys,'" said Farber, a native Kansan who celebrated the Jayhawks' title this season. "It's just a little different here."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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