For Swarthmore, this is only the beginning

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Cam Wiley has been at Swarthmore for the entire turnaround of the program, but credits those who helped the turnaround begin.
Swarthmore athletics photo

By Ryan Scott

Swarthmore’s trip to Fort Wayne is both a beginning and an end. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and culture building over a number of relatively anonymous years.

It only seems like Landry Kosmalski’s Garnet burst onto the national stage out of nowhere.

A Division I player and assistant coach at Davidson, Kosmalski took over a Swarthmore program with no real history of success.

“It was all about ‘let’s just get a little better every day,” Kosmalski says. “In those first two years that didn’t really show itself. All the credit to the guys who were here at the time. We were asking them for a different level of commitment, to do things differently, and they bought in. We didn’t have the success then, unfortunately, but their example and attitude brought us to where we are now.”

In senior Cam Wiley’s freshman year, the win total jumped from 11 to 22, but without the foundation behind it, the success current players are enjoying would not be possible. “My teammates before me were the ones who struggled the most and they’re the reason we have so much success today,” says Wiley. “They are the foundation that the current players have built upon. If it weren’t for them sacrificing and doing the little things, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

To describe Swarthmore basketball in one word, would be precision. They play fast and aggressively, but without a lot of the mistakes and recklessness that often accompanies pace.

Towards the end of Swarthmore’s Sweet 16 win in Amherst, Massachusetts, vs. Randolph-Macon, the Garnet, who had trailed most of the game, made four passes with less than ten seconds to play, before finding Connor Harkins in the corner for the game-winning bucket. It’s an impressive patience and decision-making under incredible pressure that only comes from a focus on the little things.

“We have a ‘next one’ drill in practice,” says Wiley, “We’re always encouraged to make the extra pass. We want not just a good shot, but the best shot possible on offense. One of our goals is always to attack with poise; lots of guys could’ve had a good shot, but usually that next pass will make something good happen.”

That’s an extension of Kosmalski, who’s developed a reputation as a cerebral coach, someone obsessed with the little things. Predictably, he downplays this characterization, comparing himself to Bob McKillops, the long-time Davidson coach. “He’s a master of this craft,” says Kosmalski. “He’s very detail oriented. Being with him for nine years as a player and a coach allowed me to absorb so much. It’s the Davidson philosophy, really, to pay attention to the little things, because they add up to big things.”

This is clear in interacting with him. Kosmalski takes a little longer pause than most coaches in answering a question. He thinks carefully about his words and he’s a keen observer of the game. Junior Zac O’Dell says: “He’s the best coach I’ve ever played under. It seems like he’s always right. He knows what he’s talking about. As a team we have so much trust in him.”

It’s a trust that starts in recruiting, where Swarthmore has brought together seven or eight players who could easily be breakout stars on other teams, but have chosen to sacrifice some individual glory for team success.

Says O’Dell, “That’s what makes playing here so much fun. Guys sacrifice shots and minutes because we’ve all decided team success is better than individual success.”

“We don’t recruit jerks,” says Kosmalski. “Obviously, Swarthmore is not a hard place to sell for people who want a good education and be set for the rest of their lives, but I think what’s attractive to players is that you’ll have good teammates who aren’t selfish or out for themselves.”

O’Dell and Wiley perfectly exemplified that in our interviews, turning every question about themselves into praise of teammates. It’s a long list: Harkins, George Visconti, Colin Shaw, and Ryan Ingram are all incredible outside shooters. Abass Sallah backs up Wiley at the point.

What makes the Garnet really unique and dangerous, is the two-headed monster inside. O’Dell is very much an inside-outside presence, with a good shot, an ability to take defender off the dribble, and also an incredible shot blocker. He’s paired with fellow junior, Nate Shafer, who’s much more of a traditional post player, with great footwork and ever-improving defense.

“Their size and athleticism is really great for us down low,” says Wiley. “Their ability to rebound is an asset for our team, but their ability to see the floor, to pass out of the post, and make the right decisions is a real benefit for us.”

Like a lot of top programs, the culture begins with elevated expectations. “We don’t have to look over anybody’s shoulder,” says Kosmalski. “Guys at Swarthmore are driven and motivated.

“We don’t sugar-coat things. We’re brutally honest that it’s going to be a challenge every day in the classroom and on the court.”

This is why this weekend is just the beginning. A shot at the national title is evidence Swarthmore has arrived at the level to which they aspire, but that’s really just the culmination of the foundation. There are aspirations for this success to continue moving forward.

The Garnet lose just one player from the rotation to graduation. Granted, that one player is Wiley, recently named Middle Atlantic Player of the Year by, but there’s a ton of talent spread across the three classes behind him and, with the success of this season, even more reasons for recruits to sign up.

Approaching the end of his basketball career, Wiley reflects on that future and his part in it: “My goal at the beginning of my senior season was to enable my teammates to be better off than we are this year. We want to maintain, if not get better; that means teaching them how to lead in the right way, setting an example, like those who went before me.”

Swarthmore showed a glimpse of what it can be when hitting on all cylinders during the first half of their second-round blow-out win over No. 12 ranked MIT. The Garnet hit their first 13 3- pointers in the game and went a ridiculous 24-for-27 from the field to earn a 68-43 halftime lead that only expanded from there.

“I didn’t even realize until late in the second half just how much we were up,” says Wiley. “What I appreciate most about [Kosmalski] is his focus on the details. In games it’s never about the score or how much time we have left; we’re just going to execute well and live with the result.”

Kosmalski sums up Swarthmore basketball this way: “Our players take a lot of pride in playing the game the right way and doing it in a way where they’re being good teammates. We just want to stick to our principles and our philosophy and play through to the final buzzer.”

Win or lose this weekend, the Garnet will do it with precision and with a firm belief that this is only the beginning.