If you take a walk through the lobby of the Fieldhouse these days, you’ll likely hear the sound of a ball repeatedly striking hardwood. That’s right, basketball is back in season, and the Garnet Men’s Basketball team are making a statement to start the season. They’ve so far gone 4-0, averaging almost 95 points a game, the 20th most in the nation, while outscoring their opponents by nearly 15 points a game. Coming into this season, the Garnet were ranked No. 25 in the nation and were the preseason Centennial Conference Champion selections, and now they find themselves at No. 12 in the most recent rankings.
The Garnet reached their first NCAA basketball tournament last season after winning the Centennial Conference for the first time. However, this year’s team only returns six of last year’s players. Key losses include Sam Lebryk ʼ17, career 1000 point scorer Chris Bourne ʼ17, and former starting point guard Matt Brennan ʼ18. However, they retain the services of point guard Cam Wiley ʼ19, who had an absolutely phenomenal breakout sophomore season and was named the first ever Garnet All-American after setting the program single-season record for scoring. He is also joined by Zack Yonda ʼ18, a two-time All-Conference selection. Big man Robbie Walsh ʼ18 also returns for the Garnet as a force in the paint. Last year’s top rebounding team has been well serviced by him so far, along with fellow big men Zac O’Dell ʼ20 and Nate Shafer ʼ20. All three already have at least 20 boards each on the season. Jim Lammers ʼ18, the final returner for the Garnet, has tallied the second most minutes on the team and is perhaps best known for his spectacular defense.
Because of all of those personnel losses from last season, the Garnet brought in a very large first-year class of seven.
“The freshman are doing a good job getting acclimated to our system and have continued to improve as they get more reps in practice and more game experience. Since we only have 6 returners from last year they will have to play a big role since many of them will need to play significant minutes for us,” said Walsh.
Already some of the first-years are having a big impact for the squad. In the first game of the season, when the Garnet blitzed Hood College for 111 points, first-years sharpshooter Conor Harkins ʼ21 had a career performance in his first career game as he scored 27 points, all coming off of three pointers. Abass Sallah ʼ21, another first-year, has already taken on the role of primary ball handler for the Garnet whenever Wiley is off the floor, and he recorded eight assists in the game against Hood. Ryan Ingram ʼ21 has also been playing significant minutes for the squad.
In terms of expectations coming into the season, Yonda’s might have been initially tempered.
“Because we have so many new, young guys, I realized coming into this season that we might have a slower start than past years. It’s a lot easier to start the season strong when we’ve have a team full of seniors and juniors that all have three plus years of experience under their belts. I wasn’t expecting us to struggle at the beginning because we brought back some key guys and brought in a ton of talent, but I was prepared to face some tough ‘learning experiences’ early on,” said Yonda.
However, as the Garnet have opened with a four-game win streak, the team’s performance has surely exceeded his initial expectations.
“The young guys have been doing an incredible job at picking things up quickly and absorbing information and have exceeded my expectations in that regard. Their performance so far is a huge part of why we already have four wins,” Yonda said.
Head coach Landry Kosmalski, in his five years at Tarble Pavilion, has managed to transform the Garnet from the dregs of the Centennial Conference into a regional powerhouse. Last year’s Mid-Atlantic Region Coach of the Year and two-time Centennial Conference Coach of the Year took over a team that had only won three games the previous year and by last year had brought them to NCAA tournament and their most successful season in program history.
The Garnet already have a game under their belt in conference play as they travelled down to Maryland to face the Shoremen of Washington College. Wiley scored a game-high 18 on an efficient 7-of-13 shooting as the Garnet pulled out a 79-70 victory in their lowest-scoring game of the year. Yonda added 17 points, including seven from the charity stripe. Shafer and O’Dell both had near double-doubles as Shafer went for 11 points and nine rebounds while O’Dell scored 10 and grabbed eight boards, in addition to adding four blocks.
If there is anything to complain about in the Garnet’s performance so far, it might be their slow starts. In their game against Albertus Magnus, they trailed at the half before going on to win by a comfortable 10-point margin. In their game against Misericordia, they only scored 33 in the first half to find themselves tied, before going on to score an astounding 60 points in the final twenty minutes. The Garnet have consistently made up for any slow starts with rousing second-half performances and have managed to win all their games by fairly comfortable margins.
“We’re winning games because we are talented and can really turn it on for short periods in games which not many teams can handle. You saw that in the Misericordia game with the second-half run that blew the game open. I think we’re doing a good job right now sharing the ball and getting good shots on offense, and also our bigs are doing a tremendous job defensively protecting the rim,” said Yonda.
The Garnet open home conference play tonight against Muhlenberg at 8:00 p.m. as they hope to keep their hot start going. Perhaps another NCAA tournament appearance awaits later this season. In any case, they’ll surely be an exciting team to watch.