Bruton's Marcus Carter

Rob Ostermaier/Daily Press Photo Marcus Carter of Bruton battles for an offensive rebound with Tyler McMillan of Grafton during the second half Wednesday at Grafton. (Rob Ostermaier, Daily Press / December 5, 2012)

Forecasting the prospects for Bruton High's boys basketball season provided fodder for folks who believe a glass is half-empty or half-full.

The losses from last year's Bay Rivers District runner-up and regional semifinalist would stagger some programs. Three starters graduated, two would-be starters transferred and Scott Joyner, whose 15 years as the Panthers' coach included a Group AA state title, left to coach at Harrisonburg High.

All-district guard Marcus Carter's return was among several reasons for optimism. Three other returners from last year's nine-man rotation and the addition of a hungry young coach, Joyner assistant Joe Dillard, promised continuity.

The glass appears to be half-full and more. The Panthers are off to a 5-1 start — the only loss in a tight game at district favorite Grafton — against arguably the Bay Rivers' toughest schedule to date.

Dillard sounds like a guy who started out as a little bit of both, but ultimately expected the Panthers' cup to runneth over.

"As a new coach, I didn't expect us to do this well with wins and losses this fast," he said. "I expected to see us challenging to win big games right away, but I thought it would take some games to find a rotation."

The players have taken to Dillard's style right away.

"I think he's brought more energy to the program and a greater focus on defense," Carter said.

Dillard continues to employ the trapping pressure Joyner employed but has added a new three-quarter-court trap to the mix. The 2-3 zone he uses in the half-court is designed to put pressure on the ball more quickly than the zone the Panthers used last year.

The Bruton defense has been good, as it long was under Joyner. The Panthers forced 11 turnovers in a span of several minutes in a 63-46 win over Lafayette in Dillard's debut, and held Smithfield scoreless in the first quarter of a 47-34 win Monday.

Offensively, Dillard seems to have found a rotation that works fine. Carter is again leading the way, at 14 points and seven rebounds per contest.

"His leadership and willingness to do everything has been key," Dillard said of Carter. "Last year he got a lot of his points behind the 3-point line.

"This year, he's scoring more off of steals, rebounds and in transition. And he's taking a greater role in setting up others."

It's not necessary for Carter to carry the load alone from the perimeter. Lonnie Swinton (12.0 ppg) has given the Panthers a shooting lift off the bench, while forward Chad Simmons (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) has added an outside game to go with his inside game.

"I think Lonnie is the best sixth man in the district," Dillard said. "He comes off the bench and gives us scoring and a lot of defensive energy.

"I talked to Chad all summer about defining his shot more. Now he's able to pull out the other teams' bigs from inside."

If there was a question mark for the Panthers, it was at point guard, where they lost three talented players: Maine Baker to graduation and Kai Brown (Walsingham Academy) and Jacary Crew (Warhill) to transfer. But Deandre Kissoon's selflessness and ability to see the floor, along with Donovan Wade's cool under pressure, give Bruton two solid options.

The Panthers go nine deep again. Kapri Doucet brings hustle and all-around athleticism to the starting lineup.

Taylor Huber, Bilal Wallace and Deshon Hill have added depth inside for a Bruton team that has been good on the boards, underscored by a 30-16 rebounding advantage in last week's win over perennial power Tabb. The Panthers also have a big win at Warhill, so whatever doubts there might have been in the preseason no longer reside in the Bruton locker room.

"I think we're better than last year," Swinton said. "We've played good, and most of our games have been away from our gym.

"When those teams come to ourhome, it will be our advantage."