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This is Merrimack’s chance to make noise in Division I

The Warriors are moving up to the NEC and might enjoy immediate success.

Jim Stankiewicz

BROOKLYN — The Northeast Conference basketball coaches picked Merrimack to finish dead last in its first year in the league. You can’t blame them either, since the Warriors are entering their first year in Division I and the Northeast 10, their former conference, isn’t exactly on ESPN every night.

As the Warriors begin their transition, however, they might be in a unique position to compete during year one. Even if they’re not eligible for the postseason until 2023-24.

Merrimack went 22-10 last year in Division II, winning the NE10 championship and earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Warriors succeeded every which way, throttling teams like St. Michaels, 104-72 to close out the regular season, and grinding out a 51-46 win over New Haven in the conference title game. They return five of their top six scorers as well, including a trio from the former St. Anthony High School, coached by Hall of Famer Bob Hurley.

Juvaris Hayes, who head coach Joe Gallo found while recruiting Jaleel Lord, is the most accomplished of the bunch. He posted 19.3 points, 6.6 assists, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.9 steals per game. Last year, he became the first player in school history to tally 600 points, 200 assists, 200 rebounds, and 100 steals in the same season.

As he nears his debut as a Division I athlete, Hayes knows the competition is about to step up.

“I’ll have to prepare earlier than I normally would for games,” he said. “Because I know that the speed and strength in this league is something completely different than what I’ve seen before.”

Lord, Hayes’ backcourt mate both in college and at St. Anthony, is also back for his senior season. As a 10-point-per-game scorer, Lord shot 36 percent from three and 90 percent from the line.

Idris Joyner, the final from the St. Anthony trio, is the top returning forward. He was a force on both ends last year, shooting over 60 percent from the field and leading the team in blocked shots.

Those three will lead the way, but Gallo is excited about his newcomers. The program’s first season in Division I has led to a look that Gallo has not had a chance to coach yet. His newcomers are bigger and more versatile than what he’s seen in the past, and he can exploit that with his famous (at the D-II level, at least) extended 2-3 zone.

Gallo learned it at Robert Morris, where he coached for four years alongside Andy Toole. When he got the Merrimack job four years ago, it seemed like a perfect fit.

“[The NE10] was like a man-to-man motion league, so I wanted to be a little bit different,” Gallo said. “It started off as we were just going to play a little bit of both and it just kind of evolved from there. We had some success with it.”

Gallo is careful to make sure his zone can adjust to its opponent, calling it fluid and something that he can tweak game-by-game. He’s confident that his team is capable of crowding shooters, turning them into passers instead and keeping offenses off-balance. His team forced over 17 turnovers per game last year.

The team’s style is a main reason why Gallo is not worried about entering a new league, where his players have not faced the other 10 teams.

“We’re pretty unique on both sides of the ball,” he said. “Talking to coaches in our prior league, they said they spent more time preparing for us because we were so unique on both sides. So we really try to focus on what we do.”

From a pure talent standpoint, it doesn’t feel like Merrimack should have been picked last in the conference. But Central Connecticut coach Donyell Marshall pointed out that mostly, coaches are picking teams based on the personnel they already know. The Warriors, for now, are full of unknowns.

That’ll change on Nov. 6 when they open their season at Maine, then follow it up two days later with a trip to Northwestern. Nobody is expecting Merrimack to make national headlines with an upset, but it’ll be a good early barometer for how competitive the team could be in the NEC. We’ll see how all that talent translates.