Regardless of result, today’s game will look very different from Middlebury’s loss to Stevenson on Friday. Stevenson was relentless in its defensive pressure, so much so that Jeff Brown said after the game that his team wasn’t able to reverse the ball around the perimeter. The Mustangs also essentially negated Middlebury’s transition game, both by crashing the offensive boards and getting second chance opportunities and also by tracking Middlebury exceptionally well in transition. St. Mary’s, on the other hand predominantly utilizes a 3-2 zone defensively that tat times the extend into the backcourt to provide three-quarter court pressure. Cabrini exploited St. Mary’s’ zone in many of the same ways Stevenson did to Middlebury, pulling down 15 offensive rebounds and outrebounding the Seahawks 41-27 in their win on Friday night.
Offensively the Seahawks are very polished and run a number of effective sets that get open looks for a variety of different players. Offensively they don’t look dissimilar from the past two Middlebury teams that relied on excellent offensive execution to score efficiently, if not at a break-neck pace. Middlebury does not want to play a half-court game with a St. Mary’s team that has more experience and has been more effective than the Panthers early in the season. Where Middlebury can exploit the Seahawks is on the boards and in transition, which Cabrini demonstrated Friday night. From the tape, Middlebury appears to be the more athletic of the two teams, which should give them a rebounding edge in a matchup of two susceptible teams in that area. The Panthers have played better defense than many—see our comments—seem to think, but they have not been able to close out defensive possessions by securing rebounds. In Friday’s loss, Stevenson shot 41.7 percent from the floor, a good mark by any defensive measure and one that would be far better if you consider only first-shot opportunities. In so far that rebounding is the final act of a defensive possession, Middlebury needs to improve defensively, but their base defense—and it was particularly notable when they played zone—was very effective.
On the offensive end, Middlebury needs to turn the ball over at a drastically lower rate. 25 turnovers doomed the Panthers as much as the 19 offensive rebounds they allowed and it remains somewhat remarkable that they had a chance to tie the game with 97 seconds left. Leadership, man.
To pull of the upset today, Middlebury needs to get out in transition and execute offensively, both of which can only be accomplished if Middlebury rebounds the ball effectively on the defensive end and doesn’t turn the ball over on offense. St. Mary’s has the size and polish to compete with anyone in the country, but I don’t think they will overpower Middlebury. They have the potential to be ruthlessly efficient on the offensive end and will undoubtedly take advantage of mistakes the Panthers make, but this game is more within Middlebury’s reach than the outlook of many Middlebury fans would suggest.
To Stevenson’s credit, they matched up incredibly well with Middlebury and executed a strong game plan Friday. St. Mary’s does not match up nearly as well and, given their approach defensively, cannot game plan as effectively for the Panthers as Stevenson did. Having Jensen available for this game would help tremendously—the Seahawks are led by 6’5”, 230-pound forward Brendan McFall, who is averaging 25 points per game this year—but with the exception of McFall, Middlebury matches up far better against St. Mary’s from a systematic point of view. Early in the year as the Panthers find their identity on both ends of the floor, playing two vastly different opponents like Stevenson and St. Mary’s will help Jeff Brown and his staff manage the team going forward. Don’t be surprised if today’s result and output from Middlebury looks very different from Friday.