The 450-mile bus ride from Emmitsburg to North Andover wasn’t as awful as you’d expect after watching your team get thoroughly outplayed by Mount St. Mary’s in a back-to-back series. Even at 1-3 and near the bottom of the conference standings, Joe Gallo saw clues from his Merrimack squad in their second loss to the Mount, a 63-52 setback that quite honestly was never in question.
The defense showed signs of coming around to the elite level they once exhibited as a 2019-20 juggernaut. 19 Mount turnovers were extracted. Only 17 3-point shots allowed. Less than a point per possession given up. And all of that was achieved despite three subpar defensive efforts to open the season where they allowed opponents to shoot 47% from 2 and 45% from 3.
“I thought we played hard enough defensively in the second (Mount St. Mary’s) game that we finally gave the correct effort to defend the way we defend,” Gallo said reflecting back.
The effort was only possible after the Warriors had a prolonged period of court time to get their legs underneath them. Due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Merrimack had practiced an unfathomable seven times as a team – and four more times if you include individual one on ones – from Thanksgiving break to the end of December. As expected, the energy level was sapped when they returned to the practice court and suited up for live action with Sacred Heart shortly thereafter.
“To be honest we were in an unbelievable place right before Thanksgiving, because we went from September to then without any pauses,” Gallo said about the challenging preseason. “Guys were flying around, guys were in the proper condition… and then the rest is history”
Only after the second Mount defeat did Gallo believe his team was close to their pre-Thanksgiving state. The locked-in practices in the week that followed proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The defensive metrics in conference action illustrate why Merrimack has been victorious in seven of their last eight.
|D-PPP||eFG% Def||Turnover Rate||3PA/FGA|
|First 4 Games||1.07||56.2%||24.5%||41.7%|
|Last 8 Games||0.88||43.3%||21.4%||34.1%|
Of the key defensive indicators, the only stat lagging behind is turnover rate, but some context here is warranted: a 21.4% turnover rate would still place them tied for first in the NEC right now alongside Central Connecticut. Yes, it’s not the elite turnover rate from a season prior (25.9%, 3rd nationally), yet the Warriors are finding other methods to make the 2-3 zone scheme as menacing as possible. Call it an adjustment after the graduation of the greatest theft artist to ever play college basketball.
“We don’t close out possessions as much with Juvaris’ (Hayes) steals or Idris’ (Joyner) charges, but we’re making you take tougher shots and coming up with the rebounds,” Gallo said.
Case in point: with an experienced group of Jordan Minor (21.0% DReb, 4.7% block rate), Ziggy Reid (19.3% DReb, 4.2% block rate) and the grizzled vet Devin Jensen (10.3% DReb, 3.3% steal rate) patrolling the backline of the zone, the Warriors have grabbed 5% more of their opponent’s misses when compared to last season. Even the diminutive yet impressive Mikey Watkins, at 5-foot-11, has improved his defensive rebounding numbers as a junior. And with 6-foot-7 junior Justin Connolly back as a rotation piece, the team’s defensive rebounding rate has ticked up to nearly 73% over the last four contests.
Add it all up and the NEC league play numbers compared to a year ago aren’t all that different, while the metrics continue to trend in the right direction. (I’m not a fan of cherry picking data, but if you remove the first four games of the season, Merrimack’s 3-point defense also vastly improves to 30.5%)
|D-PPP||Turnover Rate||2PT FG Def||3PT FG Def||DReb Rate|
While playing with a cohesive, yet tenacious energy has surely righted the Merrimack defense ship, accountability has also played a big role in the Warriors’ ascension. It’s the coaching staff’s meticulous detail of charting every defensive possession in order to assign praise, or blame, that forces players to be accountable.
“We keep track of who gave up what every game and we don’t always share it with the team unless we really need to make a statement,” Gallo explained. “Sometimes we just share it with guys behind closed doors.”
After Merrimack’s first sobering defeat in Emmitsburg however – the Warriors gave up 77 points on 47% shooting – a group text went out holding players accountable in broad daylight for blown assignments within the zone. “It was like a headcount, like ‘so and so you gave up 17 points’ and no one likes to see that and no one wants to let their team down, so you kind of need it those games to bring in some of that accountability that you can only go so far for practice,” Gallo said.
Now standing alone in first place with two thirds of its regular season in the books, the defending NEC regular season champions are in a position to make history once again. It should come as no surprise with Gallo recently pegged as a revolutionary figure of zone defense, the dean of the 2-3, so to speak. The five-year head coach received a surprising number of messages this offseason asking for his advice in zone defense implementation.
“If you go with e-mail, it had to be 100 (inquires),” Gallo said of the correspondences, ranging from literally all levels of basketball – high school all the way to the NBA and everything in between. Some e-mails, Gallo admits, still need to be answered.
While the questions ranged from all over the map, many were interested in Merrimack’s somewhat mysterious defensive presence on the perimeter. “I think what really intrigued people was that kind of that 3-point number,” Gallo said. “It’s like an oxymoron, everyone wants to know how do you play zone, but not give up 3s.”
While that may have been a legitimate question early on this season after Sacred Heart and Mount St. Mary’s had success scoring from deep, Merrimack has been locked in at running opponents off the 3-point line and into the “dreaded” mid-range jumper. The recent 4-game winning streak over Saint Francis and Central Connecticut, where those schools shot a combined 27.6% from deep, is evidence of that.
With the way Merrimack continues to defend this season, the 41-year coach should expect more advice seekers in the coming offseasons. And the fact that he’s doing it with a limited number of staff – assistant coaches Micky Burtnyk and Phil Gaetano deserve a ton of credit as well – makes this Division I transition journey all the more remarkable.
The Merrimack Warriors aren’t going away anytime soon.
Mount St. Mary’s Using Its Size to Stifle NEC Opponents
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Mount St. Mary’s when it came to elite defense within conference play. Actually, it’s deja vu given that I spoke about both of these defenses in November of 2019! Back then Merrimack maintained its defensive excellence, whereas Mount St. Mary’s, due to depth issues caused by untimely injuries, struggled to defend over the course of the season.
Now, the Mountaineers find themselves atop the NEC in defensive efficiency – one spot ahead of Merrimack – and the sample size of 11 league games is more substantive. The Mountaineers vaulted to the top in large part from the basketball clinic they displayed on arguably one of the NEC’s most talented teams in LIU. In the second game, a 64-46 victory, the Mount held LIU scoreless for 16 of 17 possessions (0.12 ppp) over the course of a backbreaking 24-2 run in the second half. While Derek Kellogg’s group missed some decent looks from 3 during that stretch (0 for 4), the Mount did very well to force LIU into contested mid-range jumpers, and the Sharks came up empty (0 of 10, 3 turnovers).
The two box scores from the LIU games should be framed in Dan Engelstad’s office moving forward – the Mountaineers gave up 106 points on 131 possessions (0.81 ppp) and held LIU to 32.8% shooting in the sweep.
Engelstad’s defensive scheme is different than Merrimack’s in that the Mountaineers aren’t overly concerned with turning opponents over; rather, they are using their size at the wing and frontcourt positions to dare opponents to shoot over them. With a regular lineup that features Mezie Offurum (6-foot-8), Malik Jefferson (6-foot-9) and Nana Opoku (6-foot-9) and well as big-ish guards at the two like Josh Reaves (6-foot-4) and DeAndre Thomas (6-foot-5), it’s been proven effective. Look at how many categories the Mount leads the league in with respect to defensive metrics!
- KenPom Defensive Efficiency (93.3 points allowed per 100 possessions)
- Two-Point Field Goal Defense (43.7%)
- Three-Point Field Goal Defense (28.9%)
- Block Rate (12.7% of opponents shot attempts are blocked by a Mount player)
- Defensive Rebounding Rate (75.3% of Opponent’s Misses are Rebounded by the Mount)
- Free Throw Rate (23.3% FT attempts / Field Goal Attempts)
The numbers really are remarkable – the Mount are the toughest team to score on anywhere on the floor, they limit second chance opportunities AND they aren’t fouling much at all. That’s incredible discipline from the players and a wonderful coaching job by Engelstad and his staff in season number three.
The Mount’s stiffest test against the league’s offenses awaits with showdowns versus Wagner (1st in offensive efficiency), Fairleigh Dickinson (3rd) and Bryant (2nd). It’ll be fascinating to witness coming down the stretch.