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Men's College Basketball

Behind Joe Gallo’s zonal chaos, Merrimack men’s basketball is on the rise again

Joe Gallo is building another contender at Merrimack.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

When Joe Gallo was an assistant coach at Robert Morris University, the Colonials had a perplexingly slow start to the 2013-14 season.

They grew frustrated as referees called frequent fouls and took the physicality out of the game, so head coach Andy Toole and his staff decided to switch to a zone. The decision worked wonders: Robert Morris won the Northeast Conference regular-season title that year and made the NCAA Tournament the next.

Gallo loved teaching the zone and appreciated how it allowed players to grow and flourish both as individual and team defenders. He decided that if he got the opportunity to be a head coach himself, that was the defense his teams were going to play.


When he took over at Merrimack College in 2017, Gallo initially worried that players might question its effectiveness. Once he arrived on campus, however, and saw his plan in action, he realized he and his staff were onto something. Gallo has seen more and more buy-in to his “Make Chaos” zone system over the years.

“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own,” Gallo said.

The Warriors, who transitioned to Division 1 in 2020 and immediately won an NEC regular-season championship, are second in the nation this season with 10.6 steals per game.

Though their overall record sits at 7-16, they’re 5-4 in conference play and have allowed 62 points or fewer in seven of nine NEC matchups.

“We have practices where we do defensive possessions and we really don’t skip past a possession if we don’t think it’s up to par,” senior forward Jordan Minor said. “That’s what’s key for us, knowing that defense wins games.”

Jordan Minor and Merrimack have opened some eyes with their defensive play.Young Kwak/Associated Press

Gallo described Merrimack’s style as “Syracuse zone on Red Bull.” The Warriors aren’t necessarily blessed with the same length as the Orange, but they try to compensate by flying to the ball with tremendous energy.


Guards zoom around like mosquitoes, limit 3-point attempts, and shield the high post. Forwards take away wing and corner 3-pointers and rotate if the guards are beat. Centers see the action unfold and communicate where everyone needs to be.

Freshman guard Javon Bennett said “everybody is on a string” and playing off one another. Though the scheme is technically a zone, Minor doesn’t necessarily view it through that one-dimensional prism.

“People like to mimic our zone, but you can’t really mimic it with the force and intent that we do it with,” said Minor, a Kingston native and Brimmer and May product. “It’s different from any other zone that other teams have seen or practiced against.”

Bennett, who is second in the nation with 63 steals, said Gallo showed him on his recruiting visit how his career could unfold similarly to that of former Merrimack star Juvaris Hayes. The 5-foot-11 Bennett loved the way Gallo brought out the best in Hayes — the NCAA’s all-time leader in steals — and mapped out a similar path for himself.

Bennett called the decision to play for Gallo a “no brainer.” While offensive talent is important, Gallo said much of their recruiting strategy revolves around who will best fit their zone.

“The way he coaches is so intense,” Bennett said. “I didn’t really want to play for anybody else. For him being so hard on players, but also pushing us to be the best we can, I took that into consideration when picking the school.”


Gallo estimates that the Warriors have played 20 total possessions of man-to-man in his seven years – and that’s only because the game was decided and they didn’t have enough bodies.

He said he’s seen just about everything since he arrived, as teams try to get tricky and think of new ways to attack. Opponents rarely present something the Warriors haven’t encountered before.

People can assume that Merrimack surrenders plenty of 3-pointers — in reality, it’s just the opposite. Opponents have attempted and made fewer triples than the Warriors.

Gallo described Merrimack’s style as “Syracuse zone on Red Bull.”Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

“A lot of those possessions where we run you off the 3-point line end up leading to turnovers,” Gallo said.

Merrimack, picked preseason to finish first in the conference, is in fourth place and just two games out of first. Gallo knows this group has a long way to go to reach the same heights as the 2020 team, but he sees similarities between that team’s journey and this team’s ceiling.

“Our defense is going to keep us in every game we play,” Gallo said. “Now we have to do all the other stuff. Hopefully we trend in the same direction as that championship team.”

Trevor Hass can be reached at