MIDDLEBURY — Once it became clear before Tuesday night’s game in Pepin Gymnasium that injured Johnson & Wales senior guard Lamonte Thomas, the leading scorer in NCAA Division III men’s basketball, would not play against Middlebury College, the focus even more narrowed on the news the Panthers made earlier in the day.
That was when the most recent D-III poll came out, and Coach Jeff Brown’s group sat on top, ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history.
In some ways, it is no surprise to see Middlebury men’s basketball scale those heights. The Panthers have steadily pushed the rock higher up the mountain in the past five years, culminating in an NCAA semifinal appearance, a 28-2 record and a No. 2 ranking this past March.
On the other hand, the program posted only two winning seasons between 1978 and 2002, and its best record between 1936 and 2006 was 17-8.
After the Panthers dispatched Johnson & Wales, 90-46, they talked about their new status, which the members of the team, including sophomore guard Joey Kizel (15 points and five assists on Tuesday), saw as a welcome challenge.
“We’re on the top now, and we know it’s going to be even harder to stay up there. Every game is tough, and now that we’re No. 1, everyone is going to be coming for us, and everyone wants to say, ‘Hey, we beat Middlebury,’” said Kizel. “It’s a great feeling.”
Another piece of good news on Tuesday was the return of senior forward Ryan Sharry to the lineup. Sharry, a preseason All-American pick, missed the Panthers’ first five games after spraining his ankle in a practice before their first two games, road wins over two teams that made the NCAA tournament last spring. After a tentative 11-minute first-half stint, Sharry erupted for 14 of his team-high 16 points in a dynamic six second-half minutes.
Sharry said he knew he was signing on to a program on the rise, and that he is thrilled to see what has happened since.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sharry said. “From where this program has been to where it is now is just an awesome transformation.”
Brown, too, embraced the lofty ranking, even if he is realistic that things can change during a long season.
“It means a lot because it’s the first time, and we’re on a campus where many teams have won national championships and on a year-by-year basis compete for national championships,” Brown said. “But it’s a great feeling to know that at least until we lose our next game we’ll be the No. 1 team in the nation.”
Most importantly, the Panthers said they will stick to the formula that has worked in the past few seasons, has helped them to a fast start this winter, and was on display on Tuesday: unselfish offensive and relentless defense.
In Tuesdays’ first half, which ended with Middlebury ahead, 51-17, eight Panthers scored, they recorded 13 assists on 18 baskets, held the Wildcats to 30 percent shooting from the floor, forced 10 turnovers, and outrebounded their visitors, 21-12.
“We pride ourselves on being an unselfish team. It doesn’t matter who’s taking the shots,” said Kizel. “We just want to get the ball in the hoop, and when we’re moving the ball like that it’s just so hard to guard us.”
The Panthers’ most significant loss to graduation was shot-blocker Andrew Locke, and Brown said the Panthers might adjust their defensive tactics against some teams. But their goal of being one of D-III’s top defensive teams remains unchanged.
“We might have to tweak some things. We might have to double-team a little bit in the post,” Brown said. “But a big part of our early success is we’ve come out energized defensively, and having a defender like (junior guard and co-captain) Nolan Thompson is just a luxury for a coach ... That’s really the stamp of our program. The field-goal percentage defense is really something we talk about every game going in.”
At the same time, the Panthers might have improved in other areas, and not just because players like Sharry, junior guard Jake Wolfin, Thompson, Kizel, junior forward Peter Lynch, sophomore forward James Jensen and sophomore guard Nate Bulluck have been working on their games.
Brown said members of the freshmen class have also stepped right in. On Tuesday forward Dylan Sinnickson shot five-for-eight, scoring 15 points and hauling in five rebounds, and Dean Brierley looked smooth hitting a pair of jumpers in 18 minutes.
“A byproduct of Ryan’s injury is we’ve been able to get some of the freshmen involved quicker than we probably would have,” Brown said. “Sinnickson played a very strong game this evening, and Dean Brierley has made some contributions off the bench. I really have a sense this is the best offensive team that I’ve coached here at Middlebury.”
Also chipping in on Tuesday were Wolfin (a game-high six assists), Thompson (11 points, four boards), Lynch (six points, three boards), and Bulluck and sophomore guard Albert Nascimento (six points each). The Panthers finished with 24 assists on 34 baskets, a 41-28 edge on the boards, and just four turnovers.
And a dozen Panthers scored, not exactly to Sharry’s surprise.
“Team chemistry is just amazing,” Sharry said. “We don’t care who scores ... We just love that anyone can step up on any given night. And we’re all open to sharing the ball.”
Kizel said the Panthers are increasingly confident, especially with Sharry returning — but they have no intention of resting on their new No. 1 laurel.
“He just gives us another element, preseason All-American, that says it for itself,” Kizel said. “We’re just going to keep practicing and keep getting better.”
And Brown said the tough NESCAC schedule lies in wait: Amherst is ranked No. 2, and Williams is No. 8.
“We’re certainly pleased. We’re at a high level for the start of the season,” he said. “But we talk a lot about improving day by day, week by week. And we must be a much better, much advanced team later in the season.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]