Twenty-four hours — and a $90,000 payday — later, the Warriors walked out of Welsh-Ryan Arena with a 71-61 victory. Northwestern will finish at or near the bottom of the Big Ten, but it was a stunning result for a team 48 hours into its life in D-I.
“We looked at it like this was a chance for us to find out how good we could be,” senior point guard Juvaris Hayes said. “This was a team that had been in the NCAAs a few years ago, a place we can’t go this year. So to beat them, well, it was a very big deal for us.”
Merrimack, which is in North Andover, Mass., about 30 miles north of Boston, is in the first season of its transition to full Division I status. It can’t play in the Northeast Conference tournament or in the NCAA or NIT tournament until the 2023-24 season. For most schools making the switch, that isn’t a big deal because they aren’t ready to compete for a postseason berth right away.
That’s not so for Merrimack. After their 74-71, double-overtime victory Thursday over Fairleigh Dickinson, the Warriors are 7-1 in the NEC and atop the league standings. Overall, they’re 13-8. Under Gallo, a 2004 graduate of the school, they had gone to three consecutive Division II tournaments before making the move up.
After being an assistant at Robert Morris under Andy Toole, Gallo returned to his alma mater knowing that Merrimack President Christopher E. Hopey had been talking about a possible move to D-I since taking the job in 2010. Because so many schools want to chase the NCAA tournament pot of gold — there are 353 teams in Division I — the NCAA has tried to make it harder to move in the top tier.
Since 2010, a team can’t move up until it has been invited to join a conference. Then it has to deal with four years without any chance to play in an NCAA tournament. That’s not exactly a boon to recruiting.
“It’s certainly something we have to address,” Gallo said Friday while driving to Logan airport in Boston to catch a plane to Atlanta to see a recruit play. “We talk about the opportunity a player will have at our school, the campus, the academics, our style of play. And then we say: ‘We can’t compete for the NCAA tournament until 2023-2024. If you’re going to base your college decision on something that six percent of the schools at our level get the chance to actually do, so be it. But we think your decision should be about more than that.’ So far, that’s worked pretty well. And, starting with next fall’s class, they’ll at least get one shot at the tournament as seniors — maybe two years if they redshirt.”
The heart and soul of this team are three seniors: Jaleel Lord, Idris Joyner and Hayes, all of whom played for Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony in New Jersey. Gallo, who is from New Jersey, has recruited in the state everywhere he has worked. He was looking at a couple of other players for Robert Morris four years ago when he spotted Lord.
“He was about 6-3, 145 pounds,” he said. “Made every shot he took. Coach Hurley told me no D-Is were recruiting him, and I thought he’d be perfect at a good D-II program.”
Gallo called his old coach — Bert Hammel, who coached at Merrimack for 36 years (the basketball building is named for him) — to tell him about Lord. That spring (2016), Hammel retired and Gallo was hired to take his place. By then, Lord had committed to Merrimack.
Hayes was a different story. He did have a D-I offer, from Long Island. And he was ready to go there — because of the swimming pool.
“When I visited, we walked through the athletic building and walked past this huge glass window with the pool on the other side,” Hayes said. “I love to swim. I was sold. I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”
He didn’t sign, though, because Hurley thought he should go to Merrimack and because Gallo kept after him.
“When he brought up the pool, I sent him a photo of the YMCA pool up the block from campus,” Gallo said. “I might have forgotten to mention it wasn’t on campus.”
“I was sold by then anyway,” Hayes said Friday morning, laughing at the memory. “When Coach told me, I laughed. I finally got to swim there this year.”
There is still much to be done the rest of this winter. Merrimack’s first goal is to win the NEC regular season title. It is eligible to play postseason ball in the pay-to-play CollegeInsider.com tournament or the College Basketball Invitational because those aren’t sanctioned by the NCAA. Gallo received a call early Friday from the CIT director who told him if the Warriors finish over .500, they’ll be invited.
“Sixteen wins seems like a long way to travel before the season,” Gallo said. “But I told the guys that if we got 16, the three seniors would be the winningest class in school history. To do that against a D-I schedule would be quite an accomplishment.”
Hayes — who has 416 career steals and is 33 short of setting the NCAA all-division record — agrees, sort of. “We’re aware of it,” he said. “But at this point, we want to go past that.”
There are 10 regular season games left. Merrimack has won six in a row to lead the NEC. The Warriors were picked 11th, dead last, in the coaches’ preseason poll.
“I’ve told them, ‘We’ve gone from being the hunters to the hunted,’ ” Gallo said.
Hayes puts it more colorfully. “They might have been sleeping on us early,” he said. “But they’re awake now — wide-awake.”