Landry Kosmalski calls a timeout and brings his team to the bench amid the echoing din of the compact Tarble Pavilion at Swarthmore College.
Things aren’t going all that well. A very good Ursinus zone defense is flustering the offense, forcing shots that are taken either too quickly or from bad spots, and the Bears have picked away at the game to build a 10-point lead midway through the second half.
“We just need to settle down,” Kosmalski tells the team. His instruction goes deeper than that — this screen here, this pass there — but settling down is the real message. Do what we do.
What Swarthmore does, and what it has done, under Kosmalski is remarkable, particularly since it is somewhat unremarkable from a basketball standpoint.
His teams employ very fundamental concepts that are executed at an extremely high level. If the expectation is that an academically exceptional school would provide the environment for a program built on fancy schemes or innovative deception, nothing could be further from the fact.
“Keep it simple,” Kosmalski says. “When I was growing up, I read the books on the Boston Celtics and, when they were doing well with Red Auerbach, they had seven plays. The same seven plays every year. These are our seven plays. Stop them.
“We’re trying to perfect what we do. We call it The Karate Kid method. Wax on, wax off. There’s some monotony to it, doing the same fundamentals, but we believe what [Celtics coach] Brad Stevens says, ‘Champions do ordinary things at a championship level.’ We want to do that. They are ordinary things, but we want to do them better than everyone else.”
The work has paid off. It paid off against Ursinus on Wednesday as Swarthmore trudged back, one fundamental step at a time, doing what it does, to win the Centennial Conference game. With that win, and another on Saturday against McDaniel, the Garnet remained undefeated this season, and the No. 1-ranked Division III team in the nation with a 17-0 record.
This season’s success hasn’t come out of nowhere. The team has won at least 22 games every year since 2015-16, and is on track to do so again. Including this season, Swarthmore is 116-24 in the regular season over that span.
In 2015-16, Kosmalski’s fourth season, the team finished second in the conference, and broke an 18-year run of losing records. The following season, Swarthmore won the conference and went to the second round of the NCAA postseason. Then, in 2017-18, the Garnet advanced to the final eight of the tournament. Last season, the team went all the way to the NCAA championship game before losing to Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
The program has been so consistently good during this five-season run that it is hard to remember that Swarthmore finished with a winning record only seven times in the 65 seasons that preceded it.
The arrival of Kosmalski and the turnaround are not coincidental. With the trend of recent success, the obvious question is whether a national championship this season is the logical next step. It’s a dumb question, because sports don’t work in a linear fashion, but the question is there.
“Look at Duke. They’re so good every year, but they don’t go to the championship every year, because it’s so hard,” Kosmalski says. “You run into a hot opponent or you have an injury, there’s just so many things that have to go your way. So we don’t think, ‘It’s championship or bust this year.’ It’s a goal. It’s always a goal. But at the same time, we just want to keep getting better and see where it takes us, and we do a pretty good job of staying focused on that.”
Kosmalski, 41, came to Swarthmore from an assistant’s position at Davidson. He played there under coach Bob McKillop, then played overseas for several years before returning to the U.S., eventually settling in back at Davidson.
McKillop, at academically demanding Davidson since 1989, has taken his team to the NCAA Tournament nine times. He preaches the simple-is-better philosophy that Kosmalski adopted as his own. Davidson also gave Kosmalski a good background on how to recruit basketball players to fit the demands of both the school and the program.
“Schools like ours seek out the people that can play at our level and be admitted. The pool is very selective and very small,” Kosmalski says. “It’s like combing the desert to find the unique fit. It takes about 90% of my coaching life.”
The average SAT score of an incoming Swarthmore freshman is 1417, and the average high school grade-point average is 3.9. Approximately 10% of applicants are accepted.
Kosmalski and his staff haunt the tryout camps run by Ivy League schools, including Penn, looking for prospects who might be not quite good enough to play at those schools, or might be happier in the playing rotation of a smaller school than they would be on the bench for a bigger one.
“The kids come to those camps and 150 think they’re good enough for the Ivy League, and the reality is maybe there are two or three,” Kosmalski says. “Generally, there are 40 of them that could play at our level, but how many can get admitted? Based on all that, there are five or 10 we can go after. It’s fertile ground. We get a lot of names.”
Zac O’Dell, a senior forward from Schenectady, N.Y. who leads Swarthmore in points, rebounds, blocks, and steals, was identified at a tryout camp hosted by Columbia. He had never heard of Swarthmore, but came for a visit, liked what he found, and along with fellow-senior Nate Shafer is a bedrock of the Swarthmore team now.
O’Dell, a chemistry major, recently published an article in the academic journal Environmental Science & Technology titled “In Situ Quantification of Silver Nanoparticle Dissolution Kinetics in Simulated Sweat Using Linear Sweep Stripping Voltammetry.”
“Sometimes, there are conflicts,” O’Dell says of balancing school and basketball, “but Coach works around our schedule, and my chemistry professor is very flexible about when I can come to the lab. We all work together to make it work. You put the team first, and if you have to stay up a couple extra hours to get everything done, you do it for the team.”
O’Dell presents a prototype of the characteristics Kosmalski prizes in a player: smart, tough, unselfish. The roster, which contains 18 players, 10 of whom are in the regular rotation, is full of that.
“We don’t want to deviate from finding our kind of guy. That’s all caps,” Kosmalski says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”
The team’s success has led a more varied group of potential recruits to be interested in Swarthmore, but Kosmalski is wary of straying too far from the concepts that built what the program has achieved.
“We’re not always the best team on the floor,” O’Dell says. “Not the tallest, not the strongest, not the quickest. But we believe we’re the tightest. We believe we do things the right way, the best way. What we do isn’t complicated, but we do the details, and we do it better, and usually that’s enough to get the job done.”
The job that has been done over the last five seasons speaks for itself, and represents quite a ride for the school and the coach.
“My wife wants me to sit back and think about that all the time,” Kosmalski says, “but as a coach, you want to stay in the present.”
He lives in Swarthmore with his wife, Lauren, and their three children. It is logical to assume Kosmalski’s success at this unlikely place will give him opportunities to coach elsewhere. Maybe he will. For now, however, at this school and with this team, he remains in the present, where simple is better and, at the moment, simple is also undefeated.