Florida Versus Merrimack Preview

Currently on a two game skid the Florida Gators (4-3) will look to get back in the win column on Tuesday when they welcome the Merrimack Warriors (3-5) to Gainesville. 


Merrimack has only been a division one program for five seasons but they have been a story ever since making the leap. In 2020, their first D-I season, the Warriors won the Northeastern Conference with a 14-4 record. The NEC didn’t have a conference tournament due to COVID, and even if Merrimack won–they wouldn’t have been eligible to make the NCAA Tournament due to the NCAA transition rules. Do you remember Fairleigh Dickinson’s Cinderella run in March Madness last year? Well, the Warriors are actually a part of the story, somewhat. You see–in essentially any other year–Fairleigh Dickinson wouldn’t have been in that 16-seed versus 1-seed game against Purdue. Merrimack actually beat Fairleigh Dickinson in the NEC Championship game, but because the Warriors weren’t NCAA Tournament eligible Fairleigh Dickinson got to go–and we all saw what happened.


As you can see, Merrimack is a plucky team that knows how to win and if not for COVID and NCAA transition rules it feels like the Warriors could have been a team to knock off a high-major giant in the Big Dance. For that reason, the Gators will have to be awfully careful with them.


So far the Warriors are yet to find their footing this year with two low-major wins and one win over a D-II. Their losses have come at the hands of Vermont, Ohio State, Samford, Alabama State, and most recently and notably–a 2-point loss to Georgetown. Merrimack easily could have won this game over Georgetown if not for a controversial technical foul that was called on head coach Joe Gallo in the final minutes of the one-possession game where he wiped his hands with a towel before throwing it towards his own seat–an act deemed disrespectful enough by the officiating crew to “T” him up in the critical moments of the game. 


A big reason that Merrimack has been a force in the NEC and a difficult team for high-majors to play is the innovation of head coach Joe Gallo and the fact that Merrimack plays one of the most unique styles in the country. You see–Merrimack essentially only plays 2-3 zone. If Florida played them early in the season, I actually could have said they “exclusively” play zone, because they went seasons at a time never leaving the 2-3, though this season they have mixed in some man-to-man. If you want the exact breakdown–they play zone 89.6% of the time according to Synergy Sports Tech. Joe Gallo is one of the best zone coaches in the country and his ability to recruit to the zone, teach the zone, and make adjustments with the zone is outstanding.

Part of the reason the Warriors have had to mix in some man defense is the fact they have had massive roster turnover, as is the case for most quality mid and low-major programs. Jordan Minor, a 6’8” forward, went to Virginia while Ziggy Reid, a 6’5” forward, went to Youngstown State, leaving some major holes in the zone. Given the complexity of the strategy the Warriors aren’t where they want to be with the 2-3, though it can still give teams issues due to the unique rotations Merrimack uses within it. Florida will be able to go into this game knowing what to prepare for, and with the Gators having not seen a lot of zone so far this season it will give them a chance to work on their zone offense before they get into league play where several teams will employ it.


Even though the zone isn’t yet as dominant as it will likely be at the end of the season Merrimack’s defense has been stout, and their issues have come on the other end of the floor. They’re currently 342nd in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, punctuated by the fact they are 326nd in the country in three-point percentage. Jordan Minor and Ziggy Reid provided much of the offensive punch last season and they are yet to replace that production, particularly with their inability to shoot.


Sophomore Jordan Derkack has been a bright spot averaging 15.6 points and 1.9 assists per game, largely by getting his 6’5” frame into the paint and finishing with a variety of moves. He has struggled mightily from the three-point line shooting 2-18 so far this season, but he’s always able to get into the paint to make something happen. Derkack isn’t just the offensive engine of the Warriors as he’s extremely impactful defensively with 2.6 steals per game, which shockingly doesn’t even lead the team. Guard Adam Clark is the leader at an astonishing 3.1 steals per game, a product of the disruptive 2-3 zone that allows players like Derkack and Clark to make reads and try to come away with steals.


Merrimack is extremely undersized and due to the nature of the zone they give up a lot of offensive rebounds. The Gators will have a massive size, physicality, and athleticism advantage, and while they could probably win this game just on those traits Florida’s coaching staff will hope to get some offensive rhythm going. Center Micah Handlogten will once again be a game-time decision, but there is a chance the Gators try to give him an extended rest to ensure full health.


Florida and Merrimack will tip off Tuesday, December 5th at 7 PM ET and it will be televised on SEC Network +.

Eric Fawcett
Eric is a basketball coach and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has been found at NBA international properties, ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @ericfawcett_.