It is said that at Michigan, the head football coach is judged as much on how many times his teams defeat Ohio State as how many Rose Bowls those teams win. At Auburn, a 1-9 season is acceptable—if that win is against Alabama. While Swarthmore-Haverford may not share the same national fame as these rivalries, it is no less storied of a tradition. No matter their records going in, Swarthmore and Haverford can always be counted on for exciting, competitive basketball. When these two teams met last season at Tarble Pavilion, Swarthmore sent its seniors out with its most exciting and well-played game of the season, defeating the Fords 91-80.
Swarthmore entered the teams’ first meeting since that game once again struggling through a difficult season. Again, however, the team managed to put its record behind it, defeating Haverford, 62-59. The victory showcased the steady improvements that Swarthmore has been making during coach Landry Kosmalski’s first season.
Though it has not yet translated into consistent victories, Swarthmore’s improvement under its new coaching staff is clear to even the casual observer. Karl Barkley ’15 has spearheaded an increasingly tenacious defense, energizing his team by taking several charges — a facet that was nearly absent from Swarthmore’s defense last season. The defensive improvements have not been lost on Kosmalski. “Overall toughness and competitiveness has been the emphasis and charges are a part of that,” he said. “We have made huge strides defensively this season and I am proud of our work our players have put in to do so.”
Joe Keedy ’14 agreed that defense has been “a huge point of emphasis this year,” attributing the team’s ability to take more charges to “defending as a team… and tightening up helpside rotations.” Barkley added, “There is a collective emphasis on having your teammate’s back [on defense].” In the win against Haverford, Swarthmore’s improved defense was in full force: the 59 points scored by the Fords are the fewest Swarthmore has allowed this season.
Another way in which Swarthmore basketball has become significantly more exciting to watch this season is the increased pace of play encouraged by Kosmalski. Kosmalski has instituted what he calls “an equal-opportunity motion offense,” emphasizing “passing over dribbling.” The new offense is starkly different from the one-on-one approach of last year’s team, and the result has been easier shots, which has resulted in a higher shooting percentage and more assists. Barkley spoke about the team-oriented offensive approach, noting that there is a “new focus on making ‘next one’ passes,” which he defined as, “If you’re only slightly open, swinging it to the next guy who might have a more open shot.”
Kosmalski has been particularly impressed with the ability of Jordan Federer ’14 to facilitate the offense from his point guard position. Kosmalski pointed out that Federer has posted a 29:8 assist to turnover ratio over his last five games, lauding the 5’11 point guard from New York City for his “outstanding” decision-making.
Federer showcased his passing ability in the win over Haverford. Though he did not tally a single point, Federer made his mark on the game by tallying 6 assists. He and backup point guard Seth Leibert ’16 combined for nine assists, most of which went to one of four Garnet players who scored in double figures for the game: forward Will Gates ’13 (17 points), guard Jay Kober ’14 (17), Barkley (14) and Keedy, who scored 12 and added 11 rebounds. Although Swarthmore did not have its best shooting performance (37%), its seven three point field goals and 11-16 free throw shooting made the difference in the win.
Despite the many improvements Swarthmore has made, challenges lie ahead for the Garnet as they look to build their team into one that competes for Centennial Conference championships. Largely as a byproduct of its higher paced offense, Swarthmore has turned the ball over 17 times per game this season. Kosmalski attributed the figure largely to the adjustment process, saying, “More turnovers will come when you play fast, but they especially come when you play fast without having the experience of playing fast.”
Though Kosmalski has observed improvements as his team has “gotten better at making quicker decisions,” he acknowledged that “it is a tough and painful lesson to learn over the course of the year.” Barkley agreed. “We have gotten a lot better, but it takes time to really feel fully comfortable [with the new system].”
Although Swarthmore’s improvements have not yet translated into consistent victories, the team is clearly headed in the right direction. Improved defense, a faster pace of play, and more ball movement have transformed Swarthmore basketball into a brand that is refreshingly entertaining to watch, especially in comparison to years past.
On Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m., Swarthmore will take on Conference leader Franklin & Marshall at Tarble Pavilion. As Saturday is also Senior Day, Swarthmore will honor graduating seniors Gates, Jordan Martinez, Andrew Greenblatt and Eugene Prymak.