The Swarthmore men’s basketball team has been on the rise for years now. In fact, in the 2015-2016 season, the team had its first winning season since the 1996-1997 season. Much of the recent success enjoyed by Swarthmore men’s team has been due to its coach, Landry Kosmalski. In only five years at Swarthmore, Kosmalski has turned around a program that was consistently winning fewer than 10 games for years. Kosmalski brings vital basketball experience from his playing days as a star at Davidson College from 1996 to 2000. Kosmalski returned to Davidson after graduating as an assistant coach for the basketball team and briefly overlapped in his time there with current NBA star Stephen Curry. Kosmalski has brought a winning culture to Swarthmore and is a major reason why the team has advanced this far in the NCAA tournament.
The 2017-2018 squad has been the third team to win at least 20 games in the last three years, something Swarthmore’s team was not able to do for decades prior. Last year the team won the Centennial Conference Championship for the first time in its history, beating Dickinson at Tarble Pavilion. However, no Swarthmore team prior to the 2017-2018 team had ever made it the Round of 16 in the NCAA Division III tournament. Swarthmore’s team travelled up to Wesleyan University’s campus in Middletown, Conn., this past weekend, defeating New England College and the regional hosts Wesleyan to move onto the Sweet 16 of the tournament. The NCAA tournament rewards the best teams from different athletic conferences across the country with the luxury of “hosting” the first two rounds of the tournament. Wesleyan was one of these teams. The early rounds of the bracket are separated by region; this is why Swarthmore travelled to Connecticut as opposed to California or any other campus requiring a flight from Philadelphia. The Final Four semifinals and finals of the tournament are not hosted by a team, but rather a neutral site. This year, that site is Salem, Va.
Last Friday evening, the team suited up against New England College, showcasing its mental strength after sustaining a loss to Johns Hopkins in the Centennial Conference Championship just a week prior. Behind a massive first half, which included a 31-3 run in favor of Swarthmore, the Garnet defeated the 21-7 Pilgrims, 90-63. The team was led in scoring by standout guard Cam Wiley, who scored 23 points in 27 minutes of action. Wiley was efficient from the field, shooting 9-16. Zack Yonda ‘18 rose to the occasion, and shot 70 percent from the field to put up another 20 points for the team. Guard Conor Harkins ‘21 also came to play with 6 three-pointers on 12 attempts, which totaled for all of his 18 points. Harkins has consistently displayed his dangerous ability from three-point range this season, boasting the second highest three-point percentage in the Centennial Conference at 45.3 percent.
The team had little time to celebrate their victory, with the next matchup occurring the following Saturday evening against Wesleyan, playing in Wesleyan’s gym in front of a rowdy home crowd. The quality of the opponent themselves did not make the task any easier:Wesleyan was ranked 15th in the country prior to the NCAA tournament, and finished runner-ups in the competitive NESCAC league, one that includes top Division III programs like Middlebury and Tufts. Wiley once again came to play, and he put up his best statistical game of the year with 27 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. Zac O’Dell ‘20 added 18 points, and Yonda added 13 of his own. Nate Schafer ‘20 had a great defensive game with five blocked shots and eight rebounds, and went six-for-six at the free throw line. Swarthmore’s team as a whole was fantastic on the boards, out-rebounding Wesleyan 44-29. Perhaps more impressive was the Garnet’s free-throw accuracy, which was an impressive 95.5 percent. This was a vast improvement from the Conference Championship game against Hopkins, where the team shot 53.8 percent, and arguably lost the game at the free throw line. The team hopes to continue its good run of form from the free-throw line on Friday during Round of 16.
Swarthmore got a pleasant surprise on Sunday when they learned that they would be hosting the Round of 16 and quarter-finals at Tarble Pavilion. This is the first time Swarthmore has ever made this round of the tournament, let alone hosted it. Many Swarthmore fans believed the team had played their final game at Tarble this year after the demoralizing loss against Hopkins, but the team surprisingly earned itself a hosting position for the next two rounds of the tournament. Swarthmore’s opponent for the Round of 16 is No. 16 Plattsburgh State, who hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament on their campus in Plattsburgh, N.Y. The other game played at Tarble Pavilion will be No. 14 Hamilton College taking on Springfield College, both from New York. If Swarthmore defeats Plattsburgh on Friday, they will play the winner of Hamilton and Springfield the following night. Only two rounds stand in between Swarthmore and the Final 4 in Salem, Va. Notable teams remaining in the tournament include Centennial Conference rival Franklin and Marshall, No. 1 Whitman, No. 6 Emory, and No. 9 Augustana, among several other top 25 teams.
Swarthmore is focused on defeating Plattsburgh State this upcoming week, but they will also have their eyes on the other games taking place. The only team that both Swarthmore and Plattsburgh have played this year is Middlebury College, a NESCAC powerhouse school. Swarthmore defeated Middlebury in January 91-75 when Middlebury was ranked no. 2 in the country. Plattsburgh lost to Middlebury about a month prior, 92-68. This is hardly a credible metric given that both games occurred months ago, but it raises a compelling point. The NCAA tournament gives teams the opportunity to play out-of-conference games that would never occur otherwise. Swarthmore aims to fill their non-conference schedule with challenging opponents like Middlebury. Plattsburgh and Swarthmore would likely never play one another under normal circumstances. It will be interesting to see how these teams handle the game, given that they have no prior experience with each other.
That being said, glancing at the statistics some Plattsburgh players boast, it is clear who Swarthmore’s defense should try to neutralize. Jonathan Patron is a 6 foot-2-inch, 245-pound power forward who averages 24.3 points per game, which is more than any player on Swarthmore’s roster. Robbie Walsh ‘18 and Schafer will have their hands full in the paint with Patron, but both players have performed very well in the NCAA and Centennial Tournaments, so this challenge won’t be anything new. Eli Bryant ‘18 also appears to be lethal from three-point range, averaging 16 points a game. Overall, Plattsburgh averages 88.2 points per game and 74.3 points against per game. For comparison, Swarthmore averages 78.8 points per game and 67.3 points against per game. It’s going to be a great game, and one that Swarthmore will need support from all of its faithful fans to win.
With the team in unfamiliar territory this deep in the tournament, every friendly face in the stands will count. The student-athletes on the basketball team have been working since November toward this game, balancing their challenging classes and grueling practices all year. The team even sacrificed two weeks of their winter break to practice and play games in January. The tournament has provided a wonderful opportunity for the men’s team to show what Swarthmore basketball is all about. While spring break starts this Friday, any students sticking around should make their way to Tarble Pavilion to support the Garnet. I encourage all who can to come support the team at 7:30 pm this Friday, and help the team out in any way possible.