Under normal circumstances, the Warriors would be dancing. They won their final 11 games, capturing the Northeast Conference regular season title last month and the conference tournament championship Tuesday.
Despite that success, the school, which made the jump from Division II to Division I in 2019, is serving the last year of a four-year prohibition that bars it from NCAA tournament play following its transition. Fairleigh Dickinson, the team Merrimack defeated in Tuesday’s championship game, will take its place.
“It doesn’t feel [bittersweet] right now, and I don’t really think our kids feel that, either,” Merrimack Coach Joe Gallo said. “It wasn’t like we got the rug pulled out from under us the night after we won. It’s something that we’ve been mentally prepared for. We know what the rule is and we never got into whether we liked the rule or disagree with the rule.”
Gallo, a former Merrimack guard who graduated from the North Andover, Mass., school in 2004, became the head coach at his alma mater in 2016. He was drawn to the school by that personal connection, and in part because of his experience as an assistant at Robert Morris, the 2015 winners of the NEC, to which Merrimack was eying a move.
That transition from Division II’s Northeast-10 Conference to Division I’s NEC came three years after Gallo returned. It provided Gallo three additional scholarships to offer, but at the temporary expense of NCAA tournament participation because of NCAA rules that mandate a four-year reclassification period for schools that jump to Division I.
“I tell people the easiest year of the transition was that first season,” Gallo said. “We were a very strong Division II program. We were coming off a conference championship. We had a lot of older guys who won a lot of games, and they all had a chip on their shoulder. They thought they were Division I players and they were out to kind of prove the world wrong.
“The tough thing to navigate from that point on a little bit was the recruiting piece, because you have to be open and honest with these kids and these families that it’s a four-year period where you can’t play in the NCAA tournament.”
NCAA schools transitioning to Division I were formerly subjected to a two-year reclassification period during which they were barred from competing for national championships to, according to the NCAA, “allow programs to get up to speed, to build the necessary compliance, facilities, scholarship requirements and other standards to satisfy Division I membership.”
That period was extended to four years in 2002, “after teams began to make the jump and were unable to sustain Division I membership because they made the move too soon and could not keep up financially,” according to an NCAA spokesperson. The NCAA declined to share examples of schools that exemplified such struggles, saying it does not disclose school-specific information.
Despite those restrictions, Merrimack, which was picked to finish last during its maiden NEC campaign, won the conference’s regular season title in 2019-20. It has finished no worse than fifth since then, and this year it won another regular season title before besting Fairleigh Dickinson, 67-66, in Tuesday’s conference championship.
For those successes, and the ostensible lack of postseason payoff, Merrimack’s players don’t seem distraught.
Ziggy Reid is one of the team’s four seniors mulling a return to school, enabled by an NCAA decision that granted an extra year of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic. When Gallo told him about Merrimack’s impending postseason ineligibility early in his recruitment in 2018, Reid, who mostly received Division II offers, was far from discouraged by the revelation. It meant he would be a Division I player and could still contend for a conference title.
“We viewed every [NEC tournament] game as a playoff game, so it was a win-lose situation regardless. I don’t think the NCAA tournament was really in our minds,” Reid said. “It is unfortunate that we can’t go to the tournament, but we created a great résumé for ourselves. I just think about what we’ve shown people, and the opportunities we’ve had to gain more attention for the school.”
Gallo hopes Reid and the other seniors return, but in the meantime, he’ll be watching the NCAA tournament from afar, anticipating when his team can make its debut.
“I’d love to have all of the seniors back and it’d be great to now actually be eligible and go to the Big Dance,” Gallo said. “I’m hoping we’ll know one way or the other in the next seven to 10 days, but I feel pretty good about it. These guys are Merrimack guys, and I think as special as this year has been, they would like to stick around and run it back.”