By Jack Lawhorne
The Merrimack College Men’s Basketball season has sadly come to an end. Merrimack’s wavering ineligibility for the NCAA tournament has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Merrimack community, however, there is lots to be excited about amidst the unfortunate controversy. While we would certainly rather see our own players have the chance to upset number one seeded Purdue instead of watching the team we beat in our conference championship get that chance from our dorm room couches, this season was still a positive and uplifting season for the Merrimack basketball program.
The 2022-23 season was an inspiring season for the Merrimack men’s basketball team. In their best season yet since transitioning to Division 1 in 2019, the Warriors defeated Fairleigh Dickenson in the Northeast Conference Championship. Normally winning a conference championship earns you a spot in the NCAA Tournament and the opportunity to play in March Madness. This was the case for every conference championship winner this year other than Merrimack.
The NCAA has a rule where teams must go through a 4-year transition period after joining Division 1 before being eligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament. This rule was put in place to prevent imbalances in competition, rule changes, and overall to make sure new Division 1 programs are fully committed and ready to be a complete Division 1 school.
Back in 2019-20, Merrimack’s first year as a Division 1 program, they were the best team in the Northeast conference, breaking the record for wins for a first year Division 1 team. Although Merrimack was the best team in the NEC that year, they were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament no matter if they won the conference championship or not, due to the NCAA’s transition rule. Furthermore, the NEC decided to exercise their right to keep Merrimack out of the NEC playoffs, since they were ineligible for the NCAA Tournament anyway. Bellarmine University is another school who just last year won their conference but were deemed ineligible because of the transition rule. Although Bellarmine defeated Jacksonville in the 2022 ASUN Championship, Jacksonville State got the bid to play in the NCAA Tournament due to ineligibility.
Merrimack started off the season poorly with a record of 1-10 in their first 11 games and 2-13 in their first 15. The Warriors completely flipped the season around by winning their last 11 games including the NEC Championship that barring the NCAA’s transition period rule, would have sent the Warriors to the NCAA Tournament and given them the chance to upset number 1 seeded Purdue. But instead, conference rival Fairleigh Dickenson, whom Merrimack defeated in the NEC Championship, got the chance to enter March Madness as a 16 seed. Despite not even winning their conference, Fairleigh Dickenson was able to go into the NCAA Tournament and commit arguably the biggest upset in tournament history, only the second time ever that a 16 seed has defeated a number one seed. Overall, rather than complaining about it, the Warriors are more or less embracing all that they can get from it. Even though Merrimack has to accept an unfortunate reality, they still beat the team who won an NCAA tournament game against one of the four top-seeded teams as a 16 seed, and they’ll take the exposure they deserve for it.
I spoke with freshman forward Brandon Legris on what it was like to win a conference championship but not be granted a spot in the NCAA tournament. “It’s all love with FDU”, he made clear. “We know they’re a great team but I feel like we should’ve had the chance to go compete for a national championship.” He added by accrediting veteran presences in the locker room to the team’s success as well as boasting confidence about what is ahead. “Winning a conference championship in year one was great to learn what a championship effort looks like, and our seniors did a great job of showing us how to win in this league, but it was unfortunate that we couldn’t play [in the NCAA tournament] because we know we were the best in our league.”
While extremely confident in the team’s ability, Legris remained humble and understanding of the rule and its existence. “We knew what it came with, coming to Merrimack… we knew we couldn’t compete in the tournament… it’s just unfortunate but we will bounce back next year.” When I asked if the team would come out with a chip on their shoulder next season because of their ineligibility, Brandon met me with a resounding “For sure.” He elaborated by talking about
how they want to “build upon the values and the culture that Coach Gallo has [instilled] here and just work on bringing a championship to North Andover.”
I also spoke with senior forward Ziggy Reid and I asked him how the team was able to flip the season around from such a poor start to such a fantastic finish. He told me “We were able to bounce back by understanding each individual player’s role on the team.. the young guys matured and got used to playing college basketball.” He also accredited the turnaround to “picking up the intensity on defense which became the number one defense in the conference.”
Missing out on the tournament despite winning the NEC undoubtedly left a sour taste in the mouths of the Merrimack community. However, it seems as though the players have been able to accept it and put it to good use. According to the players, they have embraced what they were able to do this past championship season, and moved on to preparing for a run to the NCAA tournament, which they are now eligible for, next season.