By Kevin Sweeney
A few months ago, Merrimack College head coach Joe Gallo sat down to do a budget forecast for his program for the upcoming year.
One major change from the previous year was the budget for referees– Gallo estimated a jump of about four times the cost for the men in stripes for the 2019-20 season.
Chalk that up as the cost of doing business at the Division 1 level, as Gallo prepares to lead his program up from D2 through a four-year transition process beginning in the 2019-20 season. While increased costs for referees, larger scholarship allotments, summer school, and more may be a change, Gallo strives to maintain a normalcy around the day-in, day-out aspects of his program.
“If you asked my returners what’s the difference between today and three years ago of how we operate on a day-to-day basis, I think they’d say absolutely nothing,” Gallo said.
Changing nothing seems like the right strategy when you consider the success the Merrimack has had under Gallo. The Warriors have won 19, 20, and 22 games in Gallo’s first three seasons at the helm, reaching the NCAA Tournament each season and claiming the program’s first NE10 title in 19 years in the 2018-19 season.
“Ever since Coach Gallo came in, there was more of a culture and a togetherness with the team,” since-graduated forward Ryan Boulter said following the team’s NCAA Tournament loss to Dominican in March. “Every day when we walk into practice we love seeing each other, we love competing, and we love being around each other.”
Merrimack stands to serve as an incredibly interesting test case on how much of a gap there really is between the highest levels of Division 2 and Division 1. When Bryant and UMass-Lowell made the transition up from the NE10 to D1, they entered in a statet of flux. Bryant had to hire a new coach in Tim O’Shea to begin the transition, and UMass-Lowell had went just 15-13 the previous season. Merrimack likely would have entered the season as a legitimate national title contender, returning five of its top six scorers including one of the best D2 players in the nation in point guard Juvaris Hayes. Merrimack having immediate success in the NEC could send a message to the rest of the country about just how good D2 basketball is.
“Any successful program usually has three to four guys who could probably play at a level a little bit higher,” Gallo said. “When you are winning the NEC, you probably have a few guys that could play in the CAA or A10. When you are winning in the Northeast 10, you have guys who can play Division 1 basketball.”
Hayes certainly fits the bill of a player who can thrive against any level of competition. The the 6-foot floor general posted eye-popping stats last season, averaging 19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 3.9 steals per game while shooting 53% from the field. He scored 46 points in the Warriors’ NE10 Championship quarterfinal win over Adelphi in March and is a legitimate triple-double threat whenever he steps onto the floor. Having a guy that Gallo expects to be an all-conference player this season in the NEC there to lead the transition in his senior season is quite a luxury and another reason Merrimack has a chance to compete right away.
In addition to being a high-level scorer and distributor, Hayes also leads the way for the Warriors’ unique defensive style. Gallo’s teams run a heavily extended 2-3 zone zone that attempts to do two main things: force turnovers and limit three-point attempts.
“We are trying to create chaotic possessions, get people out of rhythm,” Gallo said. “It may look a little wacky on film and like we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off, but that’s what we are trying to do.”
The zone worked to perfection last season, with the Warriors winning the turnover battle by an average of five turnovers per game. That ranked in the top 10 nationally last season at the D2 level, and just four D1 teams had a +5 or better turnover margin last season.
One thing Gallo felt like his team lacked before the move to D1 was positional size and length, but a six-man incoming class should help in that regard. From that class, forward Jordan Minor stands out.
“He’s 6-7, pushing 6-8, 225 pounds, super athletic and aggressive,” Gallo said. “We’re going to need him to play some minutes early on because we just legitimately don’t have anyone else like him in our program.”
Landing a recruit like Minor, who was named to the All-NEPSAC Class AA team alongside highly-touted recruits like Brycen Goodine (Syracuse), Symir Torrence (Marquette), James Bouknight (UConn), and Boo Buie (Northwestern), likely wouldn’t have been possible had Merrimack still been D2.
“Just being Division 1 just gets you in the door a little bit quicker in those first conversations,” Gallo said. “I can speak until I am blue in the face as a Division 2 coach about how we have been to three straight NCAA Tournaments and we won the league, but just using the words Division 1 gets you that much further along than how many championships you won in the past.”
While the Warriors will be ineligible for the NCAA Tournament for each of the next four seasons as part of the transition, Merrimack seems uniquely positioned for early success at the D1 level. With a star veteran point guard, a good returning group, a strong incoming recruiting class, and a defensive system that wreaks havoc, the groundwork has been laid in Gallo’s first three years as head coach to have a roster that is competitive in a wide-open NEC.
However, Gallo isn’t worried about about who his team will face next season.
“It’s just business as usual,” Gallo said. “Whether it’s Maine or Saint Anselm… our expectation is to try to win every cut, win every catch, win every closeout, and win every possession.”
The quotes in this article are from a larger conversation Kevin had with Coach Gallo on the CBB Central Podcast. You can listen to the full interview on Apple, Spotify, Google Play, YouTube, and more!