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Western guard Kyle Sanders heads down the court against Twin Lakes in a Class 3A Sectional 20 semifinal game last season. Sanders is part of a strong returning group for the defending sectional champion Panthers.

Editor's note: The Western-Northwestern game has been rescheduled for Jan. 12. The story has been updated to remove mention of the game, and the schedule has been updated to reflect the new date.

Western boys basketball coach Michael Lewis has a lot of individual talent to build his team around, but what excites him the most is a collective selflessness.

“I think it all boils down to our team chemistry,” he said. “We have a great group of guys who enjoy being around each other. When your locker room is right, and you have a group of guys who are committed to the cause, then you have a chance to have a good basketball team. There’s no doubt we have those two things with this group.

“I think this group is just looking to carry on what we built at the end of last year and try to get better every day. If we do, I think we have the opportunity to be a really good team come sectional time.”

The Panthers closed the 2019-20 season on a high note by beating Twin Lakes and West Lafayette to win Class 3A Sectional 20, their first sectional title since 2012. Western’s season ended with the sectional celebration as the first wave of COVID-19 led the IHSAA to cancel the remainder of the tournament. The Panthers finished with a 17-7 record.

The Panthers return their top three scorers in 6-foot-1 senior guard Kyle Sanders, 6-1 senior guard Nathaniel Liddell and 6-2 junior wing Evan Kretz.

Sanders made the KT All-Area first team after averaging a team-high 17.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He packaged strong 3-point shooting with an improved mid-range game. He led the area in both 3-point accuracy (43%, 52 of 121) and free throw accuracy (87%, 94 of 108). The three-time All-Area player has 967 career points.

Liddell, an attacking guard, made the All-Area third team after averaging 9.1 points and 5 rebounds and shooting 58.2% from the field. And Kretz averaged 9.5 points and a team-high 5.5 rebounds.

“We expect [Kretz] to just explode. He’s got such a high ceiling,” Lewis said. “We’re really excited about the kind of year he’s going to have this year and next year.”

With the perimeter trio as the core, Lewis likes the lineup possibilities as he enters his fourth season with the Panthers.

“This is going to be a different group in how coaches have to game plan to guard us because we have multiple guys who can drive it, shoot it and pass it. That’s a tough cover,” he said.

“The thing I really like about this group is they’re willing to make the extra pass,” he added. “It all starts with Kyle. He is a kid who scores a lot of points for us, but he doesn’t hunt shots. He’s very efficient in his work on the floor.”

Also returning are 6-2 senior forward Cooper Jarvis and 6-2 junior guard Dylan Bryant. Jarvis averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds last season while Bryant contributed 2.1 points.

Lewis pointed to Jarvis as a key on both ends of the floor.

“He is kind of a point forward or a point center,” Lewis said. “He can do so many different things and so many intangibles that don’t show up in the boxscore. He’s our toughest kid by far, he’s our best post defender and he’s the vocal leader of our defense. But he’s also really good offensively at leading the break. He also really understands offense and spacing.”

The Panthers have 6-9 senior center Dan Marley, 6-3 junior forward Parker Dean and 6-7 sophomore Mitchell Dean as other inside options. Michael Gaines, a 6-0 junior, is a shifty guard who provides backcourt depth.

Parker Dean is back with the team after sitting out last season to concentrate on baseball.

“His energy is contagious,” Lewis said. “He’s a gifted passer who sees the floor well. He’s going to be a nice piece for us. His brother, Mitchell, had a nice growth spurt. He’s a pogo stick. He’s active and can do a lot of different things.”

Lewis is confident his new-look bench will develop as the players gain experience.

“We’re confident in what they’re going to be able to contribute,” he said. “Their confidence is going to grow the more reps they get.”

While Lewis sees plenty of potential offensively, he knows there is a lot of room to grow defensively, especially following the truncated offseason. The Panthers held opponents to 47 points per game last season.

“We graduated kids who were very good on that side of the ball and really helped us establish an identity of toughness. We need the guys [moving into roles] to pick up that mantle and run with it. We can’t have a lapse where we’re just worrying about one end of the floor. It always boils down to, are we being as tough as we can be every possession and are we defending?” Lewis said.

Western opens Tuesday against Kokomo.

The Panthers toughened their schedule by adding Kokomo’s Phil Cox Memorial Tournament on Dec. 29-30. For the Panthers, it replaces their own holiday classic and a single game against Clinton Central.

“I’m looking forward to watching this team grow,” Lewis said.

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