Men’s Basketball: Why Friday’s basketball game means so much to Merrimack


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

A.J. Turner waves to the fans. The senior forward and NU will play in the season opener Friday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter

Men’s Basketball

Coach Chris Collins remembers walking into a college arena for the first time on game day, taking in the environment of Cameron Indoor Stadium when his career tipped off in 1992. On Friday, eight Northwestern players will have that same experience.

But their eyes won’t be anywhere near as wide as the players from Merrimack.

The Warriors are the newest Division I team, elevating from Division II over the summer. Merrimack has already made its debut –– a 84-64 loss at Maine on Wednesday. But a program makes a transition like this to compete under bright lights in big arenas against schools with budgets twice their size.

And when the Warriors walk into Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday, they’ll have that opportunity.

“This is huge, to be honest,” Merrimack head coach Joe Gallo told The Daily. “These games are a great opportunity for them to play against guys they watch on TV and read about. They can really see where they stack up.”

Gallo said he expects his players to pose with each other for photos on the floor. It will be the nicest arena Merrimack will play in all season, and Gallo said he’s excited for his players will get a taste of “what Big Ten life is.”

That doesn’t mean they’ll play like a Big Ten team. The Wildcats recruit bigger and more high- profile players than Merrimack, and the score is expected to be so lopsided that there isn’t a betting line listed on multiple outlets. Gallo said he knew junior guard’s Anthony Gaines’ reputation as a high school player but watched him be recruited by bigger schools.

Even though NU finished last place in the Big Ten last year, Merrimack doesn’t have anywhere the same stature in college basketball. Senior forward A.J. Turner transferred from Boston College and used to play just more than 30 miles from Merrimack’s campus in Massachusetts. Turner said he thought Merrimack “sounded familiar” but didn’t know much about the program.

Warriors’ guard Juvaris Hayes, who was a Division II All-American last season, said he’s relishing the chance to prove himself against more popular players like Gaines and Turner.

“It’ll be big-time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a bigger and a better level. I’m just looking forward to the intensity we’re going to be up against tomorrow night.”

Merrimack has been one of the best Division II teams recently, finishing with over 20 wins in consecutive seasons. Last year, Merrimack won its conference behind an active 2-3 zone defense that forces a lot of turnovers.

That defense didn’t translate in the Warriors’ loss Wednesday against Maine, a team that went 5-27 last year. After Black Bears’ forward Andrew Fleming scored 37 points against Merrimack, the Warriors went through an “air-it-out film session” Thursday morning.

Gallo told his players they hadn’t executed their defense the way they had all last season and explained what needed to change for them to compete against a Big Ten program. Since Merrimack has a track record of playing at a high level, though, Collins said he expects the Warriors to look better when they come to Welsh-Ryan.

“What I tried to tell our guys is that even though they’re transitioning from DII to DI, they’ve been a winning program,” Collins said. “A lot of their veteren guys they return won their conference and went to an NCAA Tournament. They’ve been a team that’s won 20-plus, so they have a winning mentality. They’re going to come in here with nothing to lose.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @2021_Charlie