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It’s just nuts: Swarthmore basketball team No. 1 in country in Division III | Mike Jensen

Rest on their laurels? Forget it. How about 40 minutes of hell.

The Swarthmore bench reacting to a play during the Garnet's home opener against the College of New Jersey.
The Swarthmore bench reacting to a play during the Garnet's home opener against the College of New Jersey.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Don’t worry, old Swarthmore grads, those of you who say that your dear, old college should be a place most of all for learning for learning’s sake, that athletics certainly has its place, but kind of hidden on campus, down on the other side of the train tracks.

Don’t worry about this Swarthmore men’s basketball team, old grads. Yes, your hoops team now is gaining attention. You’ll be relieved to know, there also is a whole lot of learning going on down there across the SEPTA tracks.

Wednesday’s season home opener still was free-admission, diehard students in place, one guy wearing a Dr. J Sixers jersey, another in a replica Swarthmore hoops jersey, except it must have been the real thing, an old one, since there can’t possibly be replicas. Other sections of the grandstands provided legroom. Most of the student body must have been up across the tracks.

What’s going on in there … completely nuts.

If you had said 10 years ago that:

1. The Eagles would win a Super Bowl. (Sure, bound to happen.)

2. Villanova would win two NCAA titles. (Sounds like a reach, but OK.)

3. Swarthmore would be the top-ranked Division III men’s hoops team in the nation. (C’mon, stop.)

Yet here we are, a Wednesday night in November, just off Route 320, inside one of the more fascinating laboratories in all of college hoops. Looking for individual stats pregame, you hit a wrong button on your phone and end up with stats from 2008-09. Let’s see, 3-21 overall record. … Definitely, wrong season. Also, yet another reminder of how completely nuts it is, since a decade later this same school reached the D-III Final Four, and won again to advance to the championship game.

Unfair to pick out that one down year? No, hit 2011-12 … 3-22. Up to 7-18 the next season, then 8-17 — not hitting the promised land of double digits until 2014-15, at 11-14 in the third season under a head coach who had arrived from Davidson, where Landry Kosmalski had been a player and an assistant.

The upturn quickly became dramatic. The high point had to be a Centennial Conference title in 2017, right? Nope, onward and upward, to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2018, then last season’s new heights. A loss in the national final didn’t change the depth of the turnaround. At a Coaches vs. Cancer breakfast the next Monday, the City Six coaches all got up on the dais and gave their own six-coach standing ovation to Kosmalski, sitting at a table on the Palestra floor.

So this season begins, and the preseason poll on has Swarthmore No. 1. Wisconsin-Oshkosh, defending champ, the only school to finish above the Garnet, lost more players, so the poll ranking made sense.

So, rest on your laurels, figure you’ve found the recipe, just keep stirring? Not how it works. Whatever your notions of how Swarthmore plays basketball, put most of them away. You want a new wrinkle? How about a full-court press? How about 40 minutes of hell?

“If we just play the full length of the court, which I wanted to do for years,’’ Kosmalski said, “I think you have to have the number of guys to do it. Just use the full court. I think that’s how our game should be played. It’s just kind of hard, when your rotation is seven or eight, to do that.”

His point guard was hurt for this game against the College of New Jersey, which proved to be a most-worthy opponent -- a veteran, athletic, well-schooled group that jumped out to a 12-4 lead.

“Their guys were hitting from three, deep shots,’’ said Swarthmore forward Zac O’Dell, who scored 22 points in last season’s NCAA title game. “They were ready to play. It showed. They come out, punch us in the mouth. Had to make some adjustments and kind of fight back into it.”

Counterpunches were followed by more punches. Hard to use your press when you’re not making shots. Swarthmore got back to tie it at 17, and TCNJ scored 8 more straight. Eventually, the punches just went back and forth, before Swarthmore got to halftime ahead, 44-41.

The high level of this game maybe was best shown by the fact that both these teams were playing legit D, and still, points went up on the board. At the break, Swarthmore had committed just one turnover, to 10 for the other guys, overriding TCNJ’s shooting and even rebounding advantages.

By the end, players running up to the scoring table to sub in at practically every whistle, Swarthmore had ground out an 88-81 win to get to 3-0. Kosmalski thought the pressure wore TCNJ down a bit, but also wore down his own group. Long way to go.

“Awesome competition,’’ Kosmalski said. “We know it’s going to be a round-by-round battle. I don’t think we get tight. I don’t think we worry about failure or look at the score. We just keep doing what we do. It’s a little cultish in that way.”

Upsides and downsides of that No. 1 ranking?

“Let everyone else expect what they’re going to expect, and ignore all that,’’ said O’Dell, who had 12 points and 13 rebounds.

“I think a lot of teams would allow there to be pressures,’’ said sophomore guard George Visconti, who had 24 points and hit four three-pointers, including a late dagger after a miss was tipped out to maintain possession.

“We have a strong culture. We just tell ourselves that last year’s team is last year’s team. We have a totally new team, different personalities. Be the best version of this specific team. Not try to replicate anything previously.”

Yes, the players talked a lot about learning from the ones who came before, veterans teaching youngsters, etc. History isn’t lost on this group. They’re just saying they decline to be burdened by expectations.

“We took it head-on,’’ Kosmalski said of the preseason ranking. “Hey, it doesn’t change — we’ve been practicing really well. Some people are going to expect things. The most important thing to us at the end of the day is be who we are and do what we do.”

A little recognition is all right.

“Yeah, we definitely use it in recruiting,’’ Kosmalski said.

But anyone who texted him congrats — “I just said, ‘It’s speculative horse manure,’ ’’ Kosmalski said. “It’s great. People get into it. But we can’t get into it. What’s the date on that? It’s October 29th. We want it to be in March.”

It’s November now. Still No. 1. So, congratulations.

“Yeah, thanks,’’ Kosmalski said with a laugh. “Appreciate it.”

It’s still nuts, the whole thing.