On Wednesday night, Merrimack played its first game as a Division 1 program and it didn’t exactly go well. Maine’s Andrew Fleming went for 37 and 10 as the Black Bears cruised past the Warriors 84-64. While we won’t normally break down four games in two days (or in a week, for that matter), I thought people would want to get a feel for the NEC’s newest program. I’m thankful for ESPN+, as I was able to watch this one on replay because let’s face it, we were all tuned to the Mount St. Mary’s-Georgetown game.
1. Head Coach Joe Gallo and his Merrimack program have built a reputation as a strong defensive squad, employing an aggressive 3-2 zone that looks to pressure the ball and force turnovers (17.4 per game last season). By looking at Wednesday night’s box score, you wouldn’t know it; Maine put up 1.29PPP to go along with a 62% eFG% and just 13 turnovers (20% of possessions). So what gives? I think a lot of it was the match-up; Maine has a roster full of European born players who used ball movement to get the ball inside where they had little trouble finishing (they shot 69% on twos, and MC had just one blocked shot). Is this indicative of what MC should expect at the Division-1 level? Yes and no; there will be many opponents, specifically in the Northeast Conference, that won’t have the discipline to move the ball the way Maine did on Wednesday night. But at the same time, there’s an obvious difference in skill and athleticism between Division 2 and Division 1.
2. There was a massive size difference in this one; Merrimack started no player taller than 6’5”, while Maine started three players 6’7” or taller. This will be an issue for Joe Gallo in 2019-20, as there are a number of NEC teams with significant size on the frontline; SHU (Spellman, Anosike), FDU (Bishop, Williams), LIU (Clark, Flowers), and RMU (Bain, Russell, Bramah) just to name a few. The Warriors allowed Maine to grab 44% of their own misses (Andrew Fleming had 6 of the 11 offensive boards), and the Black Bears were able to utilize lob passes to get the ball to the rim on a regular basis. Not having a rim protector on the Merrimack roster will hurt them on occasion, especially when they aren't able to force turnovers.
3. Yeah, so Juvaris Hayes is going to be a star. He didn’t have his best game; 10 points on 12 field goal attempts, 7 rebounds and 5 assists (1 turnover), but his ability to get into the lane with the dribble is second to none in the NEC, and he just does everything on the floor. NEC fans should be excited to watch him night in and night out. Hayes, Jaleel Lord (12 points, 10.4 ppg last season), and 6’1” junior Khalief Crawford, who wasn’t available Wednesday night, should form a formidable NEC backcourt. Crawford shot 30% from three last season, and gives the Warriors another scoring option (he averaged 8.1 ppg).
4. Last season, the Warriors relied a ton on three-point shooting; 41.5% of their field goal attempts came from deep (that would have placed them 4th in the NEC), and they made 35.1% of those attempts (just three teams; FDU, SHU and SFU, shot better last season). However, in the season opener at Maine, Merrimack made just 6 of their 29 attempts (20.7%), and considering how undersized they were in the frontcourt, that was a deathblow. Lord, who shot 36.6% last season, was just 2 for 11, freshman Ziggy Reid was 2 for 7, and freshman Mykel Derring was 0 for 4. Don’t expect the Warriors struggles from beyond the arc to be a long-term thing.
5. Merrimack played four freshmen last night, all off the bench, in 6’8” big Jordan Minor, 6’6” big/wing Ziggy Reid, 6’5” wing Jordan McKoy, and 6’2” guard Mykel Derring. Minor, in particular, was impressive; the lone rotation player taller than 6’6”, Minor scored 16 points in 25 minutes by getting to the free throw line 8 times (making 7), and going 3 for 4 from the field, including a three-pointer. He also chipped in 5 rebounds for the Warriors.
One for the Road: I’ve gotten a chance to watch this Maine program quite a bit in recent years, as they’ve played Central Connecticut in each of the past four seasons (and will again this year), and I think this year’s team has a chance to be the best since 2012-13, when they went 11-19 (6-10 in the America East) under Ted Woodward. Richard Barron has significant size (no starters were smaller than 6’4”), and they have shooters all over the floor; four of the five starters made at least one three-pointer. Depth will be an issue (they effectively played just six players, though Texas St. transfer Nedejlko Prijovic was unavailable), but they have a star in Fleming, Sergio El Darwich (12 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) is a solid point guard (he reminds me of former UConn Husky Doron Sheffer), and 6’8” Vilgot Larsson (19 points) can score in multiple ways.