There are other differences for Merrimack that have greater value to the school, and that’s why school president Christopher Hopey made the decision to move all sports from Division 2 to Division 1. The school’s hockey programs have been in Division 1 for decades.
“We did it for three reasons,’’ said Hopey. “First, there are a lot of Merrimack alums and they have a lot of pride in the institution. Second, it seemed like a natural place to go considering that Merrimack has grown. We’re not a small school anymore. We’re one of the fastest-growing colleges in New England and Massachusetts. We’re big.
“Third, long-term it’s about building a stronger brand regionally and nationally on the enrollment side.’’
It takes a financial investment to play at the higher level, though Hopey said, “Not as much as you think.” Still, the men’s basketball team took one flight in the three previous seasons; this year they’ll take five.
“We stayed more nights in hotels in November than we did the whole season last year,’’ said Gallo.
That’s because, as a Division 1 newbie, all but one of the Warriors’ games have been played on the road so far. They’ll play their first home game against a Division 1 team, Army, Wednesday night.
Traditionally, teams moving up to Division 1 have a difficult time with the transition. Last season, California Baptist (16-15) and North Alabama (10-22) were new teams. UMass Lowell was 10-18 in its first season, 2013-14.
So far, Merrimack has done OK with a 5-5 record, including a huge upset of Northwestern, a game for which it received $90,000 just for playing. Gallo said he got more than 300 text messages after the upset.
“It’s almost like free advertising, the ticker on ESPN,’’ he said. “You’re just on a broader stage in Division 1.’’
There also have been some difficult nights, including an 84-64 loss to Maine and an 82-55 drubbing at Brown, but the Warriors have also won three “true’’ road games, which only a handful of teams can claim.
Gallo has hopes that his team will fare decently for two reasons: veteran leadership and a 2-3 zone that’s been really effective.
The starting lineup has three seniors and a junior. This group has won a lot of games in Division 2 the last three years under Gallo, going 66-38 with two NCAA Division 2 tournament appearances.
Juvaris Hayes is a stocky 6-foot guard who Gallo thinks would be a contender for National Player of the Year in Division 2. He’s second in scoring on the team and leads in assists, rebounding, and steals.
His high school teammate at St. Anthony’s in Jersey City, Jaleel Lord, is the top scorer. Outside shooting comes from Devin Jensen, who hit seven 3-pointers in the upset of Northwestern.
“There’s plenty of teams that haven’t experienced winning, and our guys have,’’ said Gallo. “Having some of those older guys, it gives our younger guys, who are talented, some confidence because they look around the huddle and I’m not panicking, our older guys aren’t panicking.’’
The zone is also a big asset. Gallo picked it up when he was an assistant at Robert Morris. Its secrets were revealed to him by R.C. Kehoe, the former coach at Holy Family, a school in Philadelphia. It also has a connection to the infamous zone defense that Syracuse plays.
Gallo brought it with him when he returned to his alma mater as head coach.
“I fell in love with this zone,’’ he said. “I always knew if I got the chance to have my own program, this is what we’re going to play. We had success with it early and I kind of stayed with it.’’
The zone can take various shapes, and the Merrimack defenders are constantly shifting and running at shooters. The goal is to get steals, deflect passes, create confusion.
“We call it making chaos,’’ said Gallo. “It’s ‘MC,’ like Merrimack College. We were the No. 1 defensive team in Division 2 last year. No. 1 in defensive efficiency, points per possession. If we’re No. 1 in Division 2, I know we’re not going to be 353 in Division 1. We have to have some success on the defensive end.
“It’s a 2-3 but it’s really extended, it’s aggressive. We’re not just sitting back, hoping people miss. We’re trying to force the issue, get tons of deflections and steals, run guys off the 3-point line and try to make the offense try to feel uncomfortable and try to do things they’re not used to doing.’’
The numbers reflect it. Opponents make only 42 percent of their shots from the field and 29.8 percent on threes.
Because Merrimack is in a four-year transition to full Division 1 status, the team and players aren’t included in official NCAA statistics. If the Warriors were, they’d be eighth in the country in steals per game at 10.8 and 29th in turnovers forced (17.8).
One thing Hayes has noticed about Division 1 is that the referees let the players be more physical, and that helps him on defense as he constantly looks for steals.
“It definitely has its perks,’’ he said. “They let us play way more than we would have in the NE 10 [Northeast 10].
“Some of the steals I’d try to get last year, they’d call a little tap foul, but now, I guess you could say, they allow me to be more aggressive.’’
On the negative side, the Warriors are not a big team. That veteran starting lineup’s tallest players are Jensen and Idris Joyner at 6 feet 5 inches. Not surprisingly, they’ve been getting crushed on the backboards, with a minus-10 rebounding margin that would rank 340th in the country.
There is some size off the bench in two freshmen, 6-8 Jordan Minor and 6-6 Ziggy Reid. But to compete year-in and year-out in Division 1, the Warriors are going to have get bigger.
Minor is another example of what’s different.
“There’s no chance we get him if we’re Division 2,’’ said Gallo. “You get in the door much faster with kids being Division 1.”
Merrimack won’t be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2024. Until then, the most satisfaction should come from doing well in the Northeast Conference in the regular season and pulling off an occasional upset like the one against Northwestern.
Merrimack was picked 11th and last in the preseason conference poll, but Gallo is hoping for more. LIU, Sacred Heart, and Saint Francis of Pennsylvania are the early favorites.
“I think there’s parity,’’ said Gallo. “No one’s going to win the league by going 18-0; it’s not that type of league. Literally, everyone has a shot to win every game, but you also have a shot to lose every game.
“We’ve played some teams like UMass Lowell and Jacksonville [both victories] who are comparable to some NEC teams, so it’s good to see that when we show up, play hard, and follow our plan, we can be in those games with teams we’ll be seeing in league play.’’