To many, the Merrimack men’s basketball team has been a surprise in the first half of the 2016-17 season. The Warriors are 8-3 at the semester break and enter Friday afternoon’s non-conference game with LIU Post tied for first place in the NE10’s Northeast Division.
(Ed. Note — This story also appears in Wednesday’s Eagle Tribune, which you can read by clicking here)
But the team’s captain, Anthony Barry, isn’t surprised one bit. He’s been around this program for five years now, redshirting as a junior in 2014-15 after appearing in only four games due to an injury, and said that this year everyone on the roster is buying in the program under first-year head coach Joe Gallo.
One of the biggest changes from last year to this year has come on defense. The Warriors switched from a man-to-man defense to a zone, but it’s not a passive mindset. The Warriors attack on defense, forcing 16.5 turnovers per game and averaging nearly eight steals. Both of those numbers are significant improvements over last season.
Merrimack has also been aggressive when it comes to attacking loose balls. They play fast and smart.
The new-look defense has helped make the difference in close games.
“Moving to a zone has been an adjustment but everyone is buying in and the coaches have been great in getting us adjusted,” Barry said. “It’s something we work on a lot in practice. Our practices are really productive. We’re as aggressive there as we are in the games and we work on shooting a lot too, which I think keeps us sharp.”
Down the stretch in the win over SNHU, a nationally-ranked team coming into that matinee matchup, the biggest difference for the Warriors was defensive stops.
“And we finally started digging out some rebounds,” Gallo said. “They were killing us on the offensive glass, which is something they do really well. … We tightened up and toughened up. We started getting stops and when we get stops it usually leads to points because we’ve been really good at getting out on the break.”
Now a captain along with Riley Calzonetti, Barry has helped lead a younger roster through the transition to a new head coach and the changes that come along with such a move. At the same time, Barry is the only returning starter on a team that lost four of its five top scorers to graduation.
“I don’t think our roles as captains are any different,” Barry said. “One thing is just experience and knowing what we need to do in order to be ready. That’s where I think myself and Riley can help guys out, because we are a younger roster and we need to make sure we use our experience to help the newer guys be ready. That’s what previous captains did for me.
“We’ve had guys come in here ready to work,” Barry continued. “Whether it’s the freshmen or other guys who have come back and are in different roles, we came in ready to go and we’ve been working hard to get where we want to be.”
Where the Warriors want to be is atop the NE10. Merrimack was picked No. 7 in the NE10 Coaches Poll earlier this season but sharp shooting and strong defense have helped the Warriors upset beat perennial powers like Bentley and Southern New Hampshire.
The win over SNHU right before the holiday break put the Warriors in a tie for first.
“We’re happy with the start but there is still a lot left in the season,” Barry said. “It does give us confidence that we can go out there and play with anybody.
“It’s a great start, but this league is a game of runs. We can’t get complacent. That’s one thing I’m going to harp on when we get back from break. We need to bring the level of intensity one notch higher because teams will be coming for us now. We’re looking forward to getting back and finishing up strong.”
There seems to be a new Warrior leading the way every night. If it’s not Barry, who has been a force in the paint, it’s been Ryan Boulter, Juvaris Hayes or Troy McLaughlin, who was lights out off the bench earlier this season.
The Warriors regularly rotate eight players, all of whom are averaging double-digit minutes. Against SNHU, every one of Merrimack’s starters scored in double figures.
“Depth is always huge,” Barry said. “For us, it doesn’t really matter if you’re starting or coming off the bench, we rotate guys quickly. That keeps everyone in the game and it has helped keep some guys fresh for the end of the game.
“It makes us tougher to defend when it’s someone difference leading us each night, too. We pick each other up. If someone’s having an off night, someone else is picking it up.”
Gallo said that the depth in scoring, and different players leading them each night, is exactly how it needs to be for this young, budding roster.
“We talk about it before every game,” Gallo said. “Let’s get five or six guys in double figures. When we spread you out and have a guy like Juvaris who can get into the paint, it really helps that we have a couple guys on the floor at all times that can knock down an open shot.”
Merrimack will be coming off a 12-day break when it opens the second half on Friday. Prior to that, the Warriors squeezed in four games over an eight-day stretch and it affected the team, Gallo said.
“The break we just had for finals was huge,” he said. “We had a four game in eight-day stretch and we didn’t really practice that hard, and I thought it made us a little bit soft, to be honest. We had three or four really good practices this week. We just got back to practicing like it was October 16, 17 and 18 this week. Guys were getting after it and competing and I think that’s what we’ll need to do after this layoff. We have nine games in January and now you have to go home for seven days. But it’s great, guys can go home and see their families, rest their bodies, and then we come back with two non-conference games to get our stuff back together before we play the other side of the league.”
Merrimack and LIU Post will tip-off at 3 p.m. on Hammel Court this Friday.