By Alex Wolff, SI.com
Of all the schools to rise to the summit of small-college basketball, they're surely two of the unlikeliest.
Middlebury, at the foot of Vermont's Green Mountains, has made its mark in ice hockey, lacrosse and the school's world-class Quidditch team.
MIT's most prominent claim to sports fame has been the school's Sports Analytics Conference, the annual nerdfest that attracts legions of acolytes at the altar of Moneyball.
But take a look at the latest D3hoops.com poll and you'll find both in the top five. And once you absorb how Middlebury and MIT have made an impact in basketball, things begin to make sense.
You'd figure that both teams would be smart enough to take good shots, and indeed, the Panthers and Engineers each shoot better than 50 percent from the floor.
You'd guess that both would build failsafe mechanisms into their systems and, sure enough, each features an offense sublimely balanced between inside and out.
And you'd expect both to be devoted to rigor and patience -- to demonstrate a test-and-tinker-and-try-again mindset. And what do you know: Each has made steady progress over the past half-dozen years to assume its station among the Division III elite.
In 2008 Middlebury made its first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly a century of fielding a basketball team. A year later the Panthers won their first New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) tournament title, the ultimate laurel in a league that has produced national champions in Amherst and Williams. In 2010 the Panthers reached the NCAA Regional finals; last season they made it to the Division III Final Four; and this season, again for the first time, they hit No. 1. An eight-week run atop the polls will end as a result of the team's first loss of the season, by a point at Keene (N.H.) State on Tuesday. But Middlebury (18-1) is still tracking an upward trajectory. "Every year there's been improvement," says Ryan Sharry, the Panthers' 6-foot-8 forward and co-captain. "It's pretty clear to me what's next."
Amherst and Williams had long dominated the NESCAC, playing the roles of what Middlebury coach Jeff Brown refers to as "North Carolina and Duke" in Division III's ACC. "We were Clemson," Brown says. "Now we're striving to be North Carolina or Duke."
Meanwhile MIT has traced a similar path, winning its first New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) tournament title and earning an NCAA berth in 2009, then returning to the NCAAs both seasons since. Now 19-1 after a 29-point thumping of Wheaton College on Wednesday, the Engineers are making their case to replace the Panthers at the top of the polls. "They're true students," coach Larry Anderson says of players. "But when they put on their practice gear or game uniforms, they don't want to be treated as anything but athletes."
Other than having produced a rebounding fool named Tom Hart, who during the mid-1950s averaged 28 snatches a game and went on to play a season for the NBA's St. Louis Hawks, Middlebury basketball had been a reliable pageant of mediocrity or worse. In the fall of 2006, as he entered his 10th year at Middlebury, Brown himself could point to only one winning season and seemed fated to continue that middling tradition. "Those years certainly do make this sweeter," Brown says. "There's not a moment I don't pinch myself that we've had this run."
During the early 1980s Brown had been a star forward at Vermont, the D-I school an hour up Route 7 from his current posting, and he went on to join Catamounts coach Tom Brennan as an assistant for nine seasons. "By the time we got 'pretty,' Jeff was gone," says Brennan, referring to the UVM run that culminated in an epic NCAA tournament upset of Syracuse in 2005. "He never got to experience the highs. Now he's getting his.
"When the job opened at Vermont [last spring], I thought it was a no-brainer for Jeff to go for it. But he felt he was in the right place. He's such a good guy and Middlebury is such a hard place to win -- way harder than Vermont. For him to be so happy, and not looking over his shoulder or second-guessing, I'm sure he counts his blessings every day that he stayed."
MIT's hoops history had been similarly undistinguished, marked by the bland TECH that graced its jerseys, as well as the trivia-worthy name of all-time great Dimitry Vergun. Yet Anderson was so excited about the chance to coach at MIT that he abandoned a Ph.D. program at Mississippi's Rust College to accept the job, moving to the banks of the Charles River two years before Brown landed at Middlebury. But Anderson's early Engineers teams had just as difficult a time, reliably winding up with double-digit loss totals.
Both Brown and Anderson use the same phrase, "changing the culture," to describe what has made the difference. And each points to a particular player who flipped a switch.
At Middlebury it was Mike Walsh, a barrel-chested frontliner with short-cropped hair and a big heart who graduated in 2008. At MIT it was Jimmy Bartolotta, a guard who in 2009 swept the four major Division III individual awards, for distinction on and off the court. Both rallied teammates to dedicate themselves to offseason and after-hours shooting sessions and weight-room work, and modeled behavior in the classroom and out.
Both schools play a similar, inside-out style, with shooters arrayed around a couple of post anchors. For Middlebury, Peter Lynch lines up alongside Sharry on the blocks, while guards Jake Wolfin, Joey Kizel and Nolan Thompson test seams in the defense and hunt spot-up jumpers. For the Engineers, Noel Hollingsworth, a 6-9 computer science and electrical engineering major, plays the role of immovable force. Recruited to Brown by First Brother-in-Law Craig Robinson, Hollingsworth transferred to MIT after Robinson left for Oregon State. His presence ensures that teammates Mitchell Kates, Jamie Karraker and Billy Bender get good looks. "The defense has to make a choice," says Karraker, who leads the nation with 4.5 three-pointers per game. "If they double down on Noel, one of our shooters will get open. If they faceguard the shooters, Noel or Will [Tashman, the other frontcourt starter] will get loose."
Furthermore, both schools have benefited from a relatively new recruiting phenomenon: a circuit of exposure camps, many hosted by Ivy and NESCAC schools, where prospects are pre-selected for academic as well as basketball credentials. Says Anderson, "Our programs began to take off at the same time these academic-athletic showcases did."
"Most of the kids at these camps aspire to the Ivies, so they're 'in the ballpark' academically," adds Brown. "It's streamlined our recruiting. And a big part of our approach is to recruit the upside. We try to look into a crystal ball."
Sharry is a prime example. He averaged three points a game as a junior on the Boston College High team that won the 2007 Massachusetts state title. "He's the classic late bloomer," Brown says. "By the middle of his senior year he'd established himself as a quality big, but he really didn't get many Division I looks because he wasn't coming off a great statistical junior year."
Middlebury had another thing going for it: its reputation for foreign languages. Sharry first heard the school touted by his high school Spanish teacher, and today he's a Spanish minor. Kizel, meanwhile, had studied Chinese at Millburn, a public high school in Short Hills, N.J. "People told me I was crazy, that Chinese was too hard and would take up too much of my time," he says. "But I've been able to do it pretty successfully."
Kizel's Sinophilia doesn't extend as far as some Division III fans have been led to believe; during a webcast of an NCAA tournament game last spring, one of his high school buddies placed a prank call to the commentators, telling them that Kizel was "the leading Asian-American scorer in New Jersey high school history." The falsehood was repeated over the Web, and it amuses his Panther teammates to this day. Kizel, who laughs along with them, may minor in Chinese and hopes to land a summer internship in the People's Republic.
For MIT's part, Karraker, a computer science and physics double major, spent last summer at Facebook as a software engineering intern. "I had a full-time engineer's responsibility," he says. "I was committing code that would go live to the site." He left California with both a job offer in hand and a commitment from Facebook to hold the position until he completes the final year of the five-year master's program in which he's enrolled.
Middlebury and MIT aren't currently scheduled to meet, but both teams suspect they'll have to get past the other to reach the Final Four. "Larry and I are tied at the hip," Brown says of himself and his counterpart. "If you look at our career paths, we both did a stint trying to get past .500, and in both cases it took a while. And the last four or five years we've both been strong, and the last three or four at the top of New England.
"It could be quite a matchup in the postseason."
For his part, Anderson is reluctant to look beyond the Engineers' next game. But he does have his feelings about that MIT Sports Analytics Conference, which takes place each spring. Not that the Engineers' coach has anything against it. "We just prefer not to be involved," he says. "Because if we're not still playing at that time of year, we've done something wrong."