Two Things That Summarize Merrimack’s Awesome NEC Run

Coming off one of the more memorable NEC Tournament finals we’ve seen in recent memory, now is the time to reflect back on just how dominant Merrimack was during the conference season. Joe Gallo’s group excelled in 2023, victorious in 15 of 18 games while extending their current winning streak to 11 games. It’s the nation’s fourth best winning streak, and if Tuesday night’s championship was the end of their magical 2023 run, they’ll likely conclude with the country’s longest winning streak going into 2023-24.

I’m sorry, but some of the analytic algorithms need to tweak their formulas to properly access where Merrimack stands among their Division I brethren.

Bart Torvik’s ranking feels more correct at 286, but truthfully the overall analytics don’t really matter here. What Merrimack has done, both this year and throughout the entirety of its Division I reclassification process, is remarkable. Two regular season championships. One tournament title in its first ever appearance. And they’ve done it with a lean, but exceedingly efficient coaching staff.

How special was Merrimack’s run in 2023? Allow me to make two points for why the Warriors had one of the best conference seasons in quite some time.

The Defense Was Historically Good

In what many would consider a meaningless game with the regular season championship already wrapped up, Merrimack and Gallo actually had plenty to play for with respect to their last game before the conference tournament. A great defensive effort at the WRAC versus LIU would catapult the program to a new heights with respect to adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s exactly what Gallo’s group did with Merrimack holding LIU to 0.77 points per possessions (their second best effort of the season versus D1 teams), forcing 24 turnovers and generating a starling 34 points off those Shark miscues. Just another day at the office!

With all due respect to the other great NEC defensive units in the KenPom era (21 years), Merrimack’s defense deserves to be recognized as the GOAT when you also throw in these caveats:

  • Merrimack’s turnover rate is currently first in the nation; the Warriors extracted a turnover on an incredible 26% of the opponent’s possessions.
  • Merrimack’s steal rate is also the country’s best with a theft on 16.6% of the opponents’ possessions.
  • Despite the zone’s aggression in forcing live ball turnovers, the team had the 58th best defensive free throw rate nationally with a 26.9% FTA/FGA mark

Gallo and his staff have been offering the college basketball landscape – and the entire basketball world for that matter – a Masterclass in how to run an efficient defense. Please appreciate that we all just witnessed a historically dominant defense that’s currently approaching the top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

Move over Mike Rice, Milan Brown and Dan Hurley, there’s a new sheriff in town!

Merrimack Actually Met Lofty Preseason Expectations

Most of us, myself included, pegged Merrimack as our preseason number one. With accomplished, been-there-done-that veterans Jordan Minor and Ziggy Reid returning, it was easy to talk yourself into Merrimack as the NEC’s premier program going into the 2022-23 season. In Gallo we trust, right?

Some of us may have been nervous after Merrimack struggled through an arduous non-conference season, but eventually Gallo’s unit regrouped and got better as the year progressed.

With Merrimack obtaining both the regular season and tournament titles, the Warriors now become only the second NEC program in 35 years to be the preseason #1, regular season champion and tournament champion. The other program? The great 2012-13 LIU program from a decade ago under Jim Ferry. That team was in the middle of its 3-title dynasty during a breathtaking run that ended with a record of 19-2 versus NEC foes.

When Merrimack can reasonably compare itself to that 25-win juggernaut led by Julian Boyd, Jamal Olasewere and Jason Brickman, you’re doing something right. How’s that for living up to expectations?!

In the end, Merrimack’s awesome second half of the season may not get its proper due because of the non-conference results and the program’s ineligible status with respect to the NCAA Tournament and NIT. Don’t let those two things deflect from the past 10 weeks however, especially given that Gallo brought in 7 newcomers to learn a unique defensive zone that isn’t played much, if at all, at the high school, AAU and prep school levels.

I may not have the time nor the energy to justify calling Merrimack the greatest Division I reclassification team ever, but I feel like this may be true. In four seasons, Gallo and Merrimack have gone 47-25 (65%) in league play. It’s quite simply the best winning percentage of any NEC program in this period.

The rest of the NEC should be terrified if Merrimack returns their full assortment of players going into next year. With a chance to finally qualify for the NCAA tournament in 2023-24, the sky’s the limit for the college hoops team from North Andover. Joe Gallo has built a dynasty up there.

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