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Now eligible for March Madness, Merrimack men’s basketball is on a mission

Merrimack was jubilant when it defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in last season's Northeast Conference tournament final, but that's where its road ended.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

With three minutes remaining in Fairleigh Dickinson’s historic upset over Purdue in last season’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, members of the Merrimack team stopped playing pickup and huddled around a computer to watch the drama unfold.

They felt a tinge of sadness, knowing it could have been them on the grand stage. At the same time, there was a sense of pride, as they witnessed the 16th-seeded Knights stun the No. 1 Boilermakers in thrilling fashion.

The Warriors outlasted FDU in the Northeast Conference championship game last season, yet were ineligible to play in March Madness as they completed their transition to Division 1. Merrimack coach Joe Gallo was happy for his friend, FDU coach Tobin Anderson, yet the bittersweet emotions were impossible to brush aside.

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“I’d be lying if I said I watched every play,” Gallo said. “Sometimes I turned it off and played with my kids, because it felt like it would be cool if we were there. But I was rooting for them.”

Now, the retooled and reenergized Warriors are fully eligible. They’re determined to win the conference tournament again and piece together an improbable run like FDU’s.

The top three scorers from last year all transferred — Jordan Minor (Virginia), Ziggy Reid (Youngstown State), and Javon Bennett (Dayton). The Warriors (3-4) are leaning on returners Jordan Derkack, Devon Savage, Jaylen Stinson, Bryan Etumnu, and Jordan McKoy, plus transfers Samba Diallo (Manhattan) and Jacob O’Connell (Princeton), and freshman standout Adam “Budd” Clark.

This year’s team will rely more on balance, playmaking, and speed, and will continue to trust Gallo’s “Make Chaos” zone system to flummox opponents.

“It’s a group of guys that just wants to win,” Diallo said. “That’s the easiest way to put it. From the first to the last person on the team, everybody has one goal.”

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The Warriors accomplished a goal last season, ripping off 11 straight wins and one-upping the Knights, 67-66, to earn a court-storming in North Andover. It was a night when jubilation trumped the inevitable disappointment that followed.

But the players and coaches knew from the start that this was their fate.

“The guys in the program were at peace with going out on top,” Gallo said.

If FDU hadn’t won two NCAA games, Gallo said, his players probably wouldn’t have even thought about it. Once the Knights knocked off Purdue, with the whole world watching, it “hit a little bit of a sore spot.”

On the flip side, every time broadcasters mentioned FDU, they also mentioned Merrimack. Gallo believes that additional exposure benefitted the program immensely.

“Them beating Purdue just lets us know how good of a team we were,” Savage said.

Now that the dust has settled, the Warriors have their sights set on a similar story with an additional chapter. They don’t want to be known nationally as the little engine that couldn’t go dancing.

Voters picked Merrimack fifth in the preseason poll, which Gallo called “a little bit mind-boggling,” yet he never questioned his team’s potential.

Gallo of course was disappointed to lose Minor and Reid, yet he wasn’t entirely shocked. He still texts both before games and wishes them luck. Bennett’s decision came as “sort of a blindside.”

Fortunately for the Warriors, Clark, a 5-foot-10-inch, 155-pound energizer from Philadelphia averaging 13.6 points and 3.9 assists, has helped fill the void. Gallo called him “stone cold” and believes he’s the favorite to win NEC Rookie of the Year.

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“Once he puts it together, it’s going to be scary,” Savage said. “He’s fearless.”

Having all-league-caliber players in Derkack and Savage, who played key roles last year, is critical to the operation. Derkack, a 6-5 guard putting up a team-high 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per night, and Savage, a 6-4 guard averaging 11.6 points, have taken on greater leadership roles.

Diallo, who started his career at UMass, has seen just about everything in college hoops. O’Connell, a legit 7-footer with solid range, got a taste of the Sweet 16 with Princeton. Together, they bring added experience. Etumnu, a low-post presence, patiently waited his turn behind Minor and Reid and is poised for a breakout season.

Ever since July 1, when they first met as a group, Derkack has felt a sense of chemistry and togetherness that translates on the court.

The Warriors already have a solid win over Maine, and they kept it close into the second half at Ohio State. The battle with the Buckeyes reminded them that they, too, can play with a Big Ten team. Opportunities against Georgetown, UMass Lowell, and Florida await, and league play is on the horizon.

“We’re coming for the NEC this year,” Derkack said. “I feel like we’re the team to beat.”

This time, if they win the league, they won’t have to wonder what could have been.

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Local stars shining

Four local products are contributing on top-10 teams: Southborough’s Alex Karaban (16 ppg, 5.8 rpg for UConn), Arlington’s Bensley Joseph (11.6 ppg, 4.2 apg for Miami), Braintree’s Nick Timberlake (4 ppg for Kansas), and Shrewsbury’s TJ Power (3.7 ppg for Duke). Timberlake’s Jayhawks and Karaban’s Huskies go head to head Friday in Kansas.


Trevor Hass can be reached at trevor.hass@globe.com.