Sports column: How good are the Panthers: Terrific

Whenever Middlebury hosts an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game, I buy extra tickets and wait for the phone call that always comes: “Karl, can you get me a ticket to the Middlebury basketball game?”
“Why, yes I can.”
This is a call, not so long ago, I never imagined getting. I love it. In the past, even when the Panthers were pretty good, the team played before mostly empty seats.
There was a basketball culture in Addison County, waiting to be invigorated. Who knew? Now big games in the post-season, or in the regular season, are played in a wonderful positive raucous atmosphere.
Middlebury led the entire NESCAC conference in regular-season attendance for men’s games, averaging nearly 800 fans a game. And why not? The team has been among the few very best in the country in recent years.
The Panthers have qualified for the NCAA post-season tournament for the past six seasons, and have played nine home NCAA tournament basketball games, full houses all. On the door to my study at home is a sign that was posted at the entrance of Pepin Gym three weeks ago: “NCAA Tournament Game Middlebury-Ithaca SOLD OUT.”
After three victories this year in the NCAA Tournament, the Panthers’ loss to North Central College (Illinois) last week in the Elite Eight was a tough one. We should be consoled by the fact that every team that qualifies for post-season play, except one, ends its season with a loss.
The Panthers have had five consecutive seasons with 20 wins or more: in fact, they have averaged over 25 wins a season in that time with a record of 128-18, an 87.5 winning percentage.
Only one school in the country has been more successful in this five year period, St. Thomas of Minnesota, who defeated Middlebury in the semi-finals of the Final Four in Salem, Va., in 2011, before winning the National Championship. They are 135-17 in the last five years, winning about 89 percent of the time.
There are 405 college teams in Division III eligible to play in the NCAA tournament. 405! To be ranked one of the top 10 teams in the country is a remarkable accomplishment.
At the beginning of this year, Middlebury was number four in the country. Last year, number five. During 2011-12 season, the Panthers were the No. 1 ranked team nationally from Dec. 4 to Feb. 5, twelve weeks atop the rankings.
In NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference), Middlebury’s record over five years is 55-9. The record against teams not named “Amherst” or “Williams” is a perfect 47-0. That’s right, they have not lost a single game to Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut College, Hamilton, Trinity, Tufts, or Wesleyan.
Middlebury’s record against Williams over this time is 4-5 and is 4-4 against Amherst. The games against these two hoop dynasties have often been epics: this year the Panthers lost to the Ephs by one point in one game and in overtime in another in the NESCAC Tournament. They lost by three to the Lord Jeffs, 104-101, in a three-overtime thriller. These were the only Panther losses in the regular season. 
In post-season play against top competition in the last five seasons, Middlebury has 20 wins against 8 losses, 11-3 in the NESCAC tourney and 9-5 in the NCAAs. Middlebury was NESCAC Champs in 2008 and 2011.
How ’bout them numbers!
This extraordinary level of success has been accomplished in a manner that has also brought credit to the team and the school. Not only have team members been outstanding players, but they have also been young men of character. 
On the court, they don’t complain about the officiating, or disrespect opponents. Their effort never flags. They are not full of themselves. Character and leadership, combined with talent, has been an unbeatable combination.
They’re good students: The sacrifices they make for basketball are in the social rather than the academic realm. Their behavior, on and off the court, has been exemplary.
This is not accidental: It reflects their coach, Jeff Brown, who personifies balance and humility.
The team will miss the seniors who graduate this year — Nolan Thompson, Peter Lynch, and Jake Wolfin, not only for their ability, but also for their presence.
Thompson is a four-year starter, a 1,000-point scorer, first-team All-NESCAC, and Defensive Player of the Year in the league. Wolfin holds the career assists record (553) and is also a 1,000-point scorer. Lynch was the team’s leading scorer this year with 15 points a game, and was always a formidable presence underneath.
They join Mike Walsh ’08, Tim Edwards ’10, and Andrew Harris ’08, among others, as players who provided for their teammates a powerful model of dedication and poise.
Do not despair for Coach Brown over the loss of these players. College basketball is all about turnover. The cupboard is hardly bare. He has a roster of very talented returning players itching to replace the playing time of the graduating seniors.
Middlebury will be big in the frontcourt, strong and agile at the swing positions, and will have Joey Kizel and mates in the backcourt.
The incoming class includes Vermont’s own Player of the Year, 2,000-point scorer from Missisquoi, Matt St. Amour.
Won’t it be fun to watch him grow and mature in this exciting, positive basketball environment.

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