The Merrimack men’s basketball team will take the court at the XL Center tonight in Hartford looking to prove a point. The game against UConn might only be listed as an exhibition on the schedule, but for the Warriors, this is a chance to prove that they are as dangerous as many people believe they will be this season.
The Warriors are ranked as high as No. 14 in Division II, and almost every publication that covers D-II basketball seems to agree that Merrimack is a top-15 team in the country.
“This is a great opportunity for us to showcase who we are,” said senior guard Kyle Howes. “We’re trying to get a win. We’ve been preparing for this game. Obviously, we’re all excited.
“We go into every game thinking we can win and this is no different. This is a huge opportunity, but we’re going into this game thinking we can win. If you walk into a game, and you’re not really sure, it’s going to end badly. We know we can compete and we’re going into this game looking for a win.”
There’s a lot of noise surrounding the program entering Joe Gallo’s second season as head coach. The Warriors were one of the surprise teams in the nation last season, picked to finish near the bottom of the NE10 and instead nearly winning their division and making a run into the NCAA Tournament.
With so much hype on them this season — the Warriors are returning all five starters from their NCAA Tournament games — last year’s expectations compared to its end results aren’t lost on Howes.
“We were picked last in the conference last year, and now we have some accolades, but we’re taking it with a grain of salt,” he said. “We try to stay within ourselves. Last year is a perfect example for us. We were picked last, and look where we finished. Where you’re picked doesn’t mean anything. Last year Franklin Pierce was picked first in the NE10 and didn’t make the NCAAs. Where you’re picked doesn’t mean anything if you don’t get the job done. We’re just trying to win every day.”
The Warriors have been on the court, full-time, with the coaching staff since Oct. 15, and returning the bulk of last season’s personnel has helped them jump start their preseason regimen. Last year, in Gallo’s first season, most of the first few weeks were spent on systemic teaching.
“We’ve all been together for a while,” Howes said. “All the returning guys know where we need to be and what we need to do, and the freshmen have all been involved as well.”
Merrimack is looking for more consistency this season. The Warriors finished last season 19-12, but there were wild aberrations in the results. For example, in the NE10 Tournament, the Warriors lost to New Haven by nearly 30 points, yet earlier in the year had two games where they hit 100 on the scoreboard.
Merrimack ended last season on a 1-5 stretch before beating nationally-ranked Le Moyne in the NCAA Tournament, and that 1-5 stretch came after four-game winning streak.
“Consistency is our biggest thing right now,” Howes said. “Our motto is W.E., win everything. Last year we had opportunities to win more games than we did, but we didn’t capitalize. Our focus right now is on winning every game, every practice, every drill, everything. We were young last year, but we’re a lot stronger now.
“We know what kind of work needs to be put in if we want to go to the NCAAs and have success. My first two years here, we didn’t make the NCAAs so I didn’t understand what it took to get there. Now I know, we all know, and it’s all we want.”