NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Jordan Minor lived one of every college basketball player’s dreams on Tuesday night when he helped lead his team to a conference tournament championship and then climbed a ladder to cut off a piece of the net.
Under normal circumstances, Minor and his Merrimack College teammates would have earned the Northeast Conference’s automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament and be looking forward to learning their opponent on Sunday.
What transpired Tuesday was the opposite of everything typical of Division I basketball in March. The team that won its first conference title on national television, the team that celebrated with dancing, championship T-shirts and the traditional cutting of the nets, is not going to the N.C.A.A. tournament, while the team that lost is.
Because the Warriors are in the final year of a four-year transition from Division II to Division I, they are ineligible for the N.C.A.A. tournament. Next year, Merrimack, a private Catholic school of about 5,400 students 25 miles north of Boston, will be eligible. But for this year, Fairleigh Dickinson will represent the NEC in the N.C.A.A. tournament, despite losing, 67-66.
“That’s the goal, to win a championship again and go to March,” Minor, a 6-foot-8 forward, said after posting 19 points and 7 rebounds in the win. “I’m just thankful. We can’t control whether or not we go this year, but next year we’ll be able to be eligible. So I’m just blessed.”
Eleven schools, including Merrimack, are currently in some phase of moving to Division I and subject to the decades-old transition rule. But why isn’t a team good enough to win its conference tournament allowed to compete in the sport’s biggest event? The rationale for the rule, an N.C.A.A. spokeswoman said in an email, is to allow those schools to get to Division I standards for facilities, scholarship requirements and other aspects of their athletic programs.
“Originally, N.C.A.A. members in Division I instituted a two-year process for reclassification, but that was doubled when 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,” the spokeswoman, Meghan Durham, said. “It’s meant to protect universities from taking on more expense than they can handle.”
Merrimack Coach Joe Gallo led the Warriors to an NEC regular-season championship in 2019-20, when they became the first team to win a conference title in the first season of transitioning to Division I. Since joining the NEC, the Warriors have won a league-best 64 percent of their regular-season conference games. Their win over Fairleigh Dickinson was their 11th in a row, and they could add to that total if they chose to play in the College Basketball Invitational, which is not run by the N.C.A.A., but Gallo said, “I think we are done.”
Needless to say, Gallo isn’t a huge fan of the N.C.A.A. transition rule.
“I hope moving forward for the kids’ sake, something is done about it, because for four years what you’re doing is, you’re taking a kid’s whole career out of the equation,” Gallo said in the lead-up to the conference title game. “You’re basically telling a kid, ‘You can’t compete in the postseason for your whole career.’”
Just before he cut a piece of the net and jumped off the ladder into the arms of his players, Gallo added his thoughts on what his team had shown the college basketball world.
“I just tell these guys here, I don’t know if there’s ever been a team that’s transitioned as well as we have,” Gallo said. He added: “I think we’ve just shown the rest of the country who Merrimack basketball is, and we’re going to have a lot of these guys back, and next year we’re going to be eligible for the tournament. We’re really looking forward to it.”
Merrimack is not the first team to have this fate. Last season, Bellarmine won the ASUN Conference tournament but wasn’t permitted to play in the N.C.A.A. tournament because it was only in the second season of the transition period. Jacksonville State, the league’s regular-season winner, went instead.
Last July, Bellarmine guard Juston Betz wrote a letter asking the association to allow the team the chance to qualify for the 2023 tournament. He has an ally in Iona Coach Rick Pitino, who said he believed the N.C.A.A. should change the rule to benefit the players.
“Let’s go back to what the N.C.A.A. always say they’re in the business for,” Pitino said last week. “They always said they’re in the business for the student-athlete, so if you’re in the business for the student-athlete then you’ve got to let Merrimack go.”
He added, “It would be an injustice for them not to go if they’re the best team.”
Instead, it will be Fairleigh Dickinson, which finished tied for second with Stonehill College in Massachusetts in the NEC’s regular-season standings. Stonehill is also transitioning to Division I, but it wasn’t even eligible for the conference tournament. Under a rule adopted before the season, Merrimack was permitted to play in the conference tournament because it’s in the final year of the transition.
Fairleigh Dickinson found itself in this position after a tremendous turnaround. A year ago, the Knights fired Coach Greg Herenda after going 4-22.
He was replaced by Tobin Anderson, who had led Division II St. Thomas Aquinas to seven straight N.C.A.A. tournaments. He brought three transfers, guards Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton and forward Sean Moore, with him to New Jersey.
Before the game, Anderson, 51, conceded he wasn’t as anxious as usual because he and his players knew they were already headed to the sport’s ultimate event. Still, he said, “we want to win.” Some bad blood had lingered between the teams because of an incident in the handshake line at their previous matchup, which the Knights won on Jan. 28 to claim the regular-season series.
“I think we’re the best team, and I’m not taking anything away from Merrimack,” Anderson said. “They beat us tonight.”
The game was a nip-and-tuck affair only decided in the final minutes as Merrimack closed the contest on an 8-0 run that included a layup and free throw by Minor to tie the game at 66. After a free throw by Merrimack’s Jordan McKoy, Roberts missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer.
The Knights are now headed to the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2019, when they beat Prairie View A&M in a First Four game before getting hammered by No. 1 Gonzaga, 87-49. They are likely to return to Dayton, Ohio, to again play in one of the four tournament games that precede the tournament’s first round, as a No. 16 seed.
If there is a silver lining for Merrimack, it’s that the team’s four seniors, including Minor, all have the option of coming back next year because the N.C.A.A. granted players an extra year of eligibility in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Minor said he was still considering his options, but he could choose to run it back next season — when the Warriors would finally be eligible for the N.C.A.A. tournament.
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