Unassuming Thompson lifts Midd on D

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Nolan Thompson's defense got him into the starting lineup as an unrecruited freshman, but his offense has come along to the point where he's averaging 12.6 points per game.
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By Brian Falzarano

In the fall of 2009, Nolan Thompson trekked all the way from Akron, Ohio, to Vermont, hoping to continue his basketball career on the roster of a nationally ranked program that knew nothing of him before his arrival.

“Nolan was a walk-on who I’d never seen play until he arrived on campus,” Panthers’ coach Jeff Brown explained. “So there wasn’t anything in terms of thinking he would be a great defender. He was a totally unknown quantity to us.”

Four years after taking a leap of faith, Thompson is a much more known quantity across the Division III men’s basketball landscape. The 6-3 senior is an unlikely four-year starter, one of the nation’s fiercest defenders, and an efficient scorer who canned six three-pointers as No. 4 Middlebury (25-3) edged Ithaca, 73-72, in last Saturday’s Sweet 16.

Entering Friday’s Elite Eight tip-off against No. 5 North Central (27-3), Thompson is among the biggest reasons why Middlebury is still chasing its first national championship.

Not bad for not being recruited.

“I had to work hard to get them to notice me,” he said, “and it paid off.”

Several home-state, Division III programs recruited Thompson, but Middlebury’s academics offered the most compelling challenge combined with a one of the New England Small College Athletic Conference’s best basketball programs.

When he arrived in northern Vermont, he felt like something of an outsider at the first preseason workouts, providing the inspiration for him to overcome the odds and claim an unlikely roster spot.

“I came in, the team was get together and playing and all the guys know each other, all the freshmen seemed to be friends already. I was looking around and saw I was on my own,” Thompson recalled. “I said I had to be better than at least the four freshman we had that year.”

Although Brown knew nothing of Thompson prior to tryouts, but quickly noticed the effort the unrecruited prospect refined while at the University School in Ohio where dogged defense helped overcome his team’s lack of athleticism.

“His work ethic was something that impressed the coaching staff right away,” Brown said. “He was really one that was very focused, very determined. We really were just impressed with that from the start, but early on were not sure how much of an offensive player he would turn into.”

While defense enabled Thompson to earn starting assignments in 28 of his 29 games as a rookie, his continual evolution on the offensive end ensured he would top the 1,000-point plateau -- he enters the Elite Eight with 1,166 points, including a career-best 12.6 points per game in his final collegiate season.

Thompson credits the Middlebury coaching staff, but Brown quickly expresses his admiration for a young man who spent countless hours refining his shooting touch -- whether a shooting gun or a coach fed him the ball. The results were clear and present last Saturday when he canned six trifectas, the Panthers needing every one of them to stave off Ithaca and reach the Elite Eight for the second time in three seasons.

For all of his improvement on the offensive end, though, Thompson earned his way onto Middlebury’s roster and further developed his reputation for his defensive tenacity. A first-team all-NESCAC performer, the conference defensive player of the year’s efforts helped frustrate Amherst All-American candidate Aaron Toomey into a 5-for-24, 16-point performance in the Lord Jeffs’ 104-101, triple-overtime victory on Feb. 12.

“We can devise the game plan just knowing that there’s a great chance that Nolan is going to be able to deny one individual and have our other individuals help us with matchups on the defensive end,” Brown said. “It’s rare that you get somebody who’s so engaged on the defensive end. He just takes so much pride in be able to stop an individual player. ... His ability to defend is really, really impressive.”

Thompson is Middlebury’s latest defensive standout, following in the focused footsteps of former walk-on Tim Edwards, a senior when the Panthers’ current top defender was a freshman.

Thompson is also one of the feel-good stories of this Elite Eight, four years after taking a leap of faith. “It ended up working out perfectly,” Thompson said. “I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”