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Swarthmore (and Neumann) play some big-time small-college basketball | Mike Jensen

Swarthmore starts the season ranked eighth in the country in NCAA Division III.

Once again Swarthmore College enters a season as a highly ranked Division III basketball team.
Once again Swarthmore College enters a season as a highly ranked Division III basketball team.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

On the list of important things to worry about on this earth, the NCAA Division III men’s basketball preseason rankings probably don’t make the top billion.

However …

Really, Swarthmore is only ranked eighth nationally? Wasn’t that squad ranked first nationally the last time Landry Kosmalski’s squad took the floor in March in 2020? Didn’t they make the national title game the year before that? Aren’t a bunch of those guys back, now two years older and maybe wiser?

“We lost two All-American big guys,” said Kosmalski, probably just fine with not having such a huge target to carry into the season.

At Swarthmore’s home opener Wednesday against Neumann, you saw what Kosmalski meant. Swarthmore still looked like Swarthmore, with five substitutes headed for the scorer’s table to check in just 2½ minutes into the game. A panic move? Hardly. Swarthmore was already up 10-0.

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So that was it? Nah, Neumann came to play, too. It was 10-8, timeout Swarthmore, before the subs made it into the game. Soon to be 10-10. Try to forget the D3 label. This is good hoops, with Neumann pressing advantages of its own, especially around the basket.

“I told our guys, when I watched film of [Neumann] Tuesday morning, I must have said ‘Oh, my God,’ 20 times -- this is a great challenge,” Kosmalski said. “They’ve got physical guys. This is an early season NCAA-like challenge.”

Sure enough …

“I told our guys later, I wasn’t trying to scare you,’’ Kosmalski said.

Being able to go 10 deep with talent, new and old, may have been the difference, as Swarthmore eventually pulled away to an 85-68 victory.

“When you have five or six guys in double figures, where you have to pick your poison, the margin of error is so small,” said Neumann coach Jim Rullo.

The first half had four ties and four lead changes. In the last minute, a Swarthmore vet, George Visconti, got loose for a three-pointer, and then another one, Conor Harkins, got fouled taking a three up top, made his free throws, and Swarthmore had a little 41-33 cushion at the half. Neumann also missed enough free throws that you had to mark the first half down as an opportunity lost.

Trying to press its own current advantages, Kosmalski has put aside the motion offense they’d been using before the pandemic.

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“Harry Perretta could be a little disappointed with me,” Kosmalski joked, talking about the retired Villanova women’s coach, since Kosmalski had gotten so much of Swarthmore’s offense from Perretta.

Such an offense is especially great for teams that maybe don’t have the athleticism to match up. That’s not the current Swarthmore group.

“We want to use the depth to our advantage,” Kosmalski said. “To make the game as fast and physically challenging on our opponent as we can. … We still have to share it, get the best shot. Hit singles, not home runs.”

Kosmalski (who still uses a version of Perretta’s zone offense) talked about reverse-engineering his own roster during the pandemic. What could work best? He landed on opening up the offense more to let their guards make plays. They’ve got good ones, led by Vinny Deangelo. Rullo was happy with how his team defended Deangelo, but you heard Rullo yelling “shooter” each time a new Swarthmore guard got the ball. Freshman Matt Mulvey showed up from Massachusetts ready to put the ball in the net.

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An interesting aspect of this matchup was that while the teams played different, and the colleges they represent are different, the coaches have all sorts of similarities. Kosmalski had played D1 ball (at Davidson), had been an assistant at his alma mater, had coached high school ball, and comes from a hoops family, with a father who had played in the NBA. All that also is true for Rullo. (Drexel, Malvern Prep, father played for the Warriors.)

“It’s fun, it’s a chess match,” Rullo said of this battle of Delaware County. “The one thing I didn’t want to do in the scouting report is make them invincible. I said, ‘If you do this, play at this tempo,’ you have a chance here. We were able to do that for 15 minutes.”

His team has more new guys, but they’ve already played a big-time schedule, including against Drexel.

“We only have so much time to correct bad habits,” Rullo said of having a lot of new players. “But I don’t want to take away their aggressiveness.”

With his defense missing the big guys it used to have protecting the rim to allow the guards to gamble, Kosmalski said Swarthmore guards can’t take as many chances. “Those guys bailed us out a lot,” he said.

Maybe it isn’t an equal opportunity offense, but eight different Swarthmore players tried a three-pointer, and six made at least one. That was a big difference, Swarthmore making 10 to just one for Neumann, although when Tyler Norwood gets going, Steph Curry would be impressed. Norwood had 29 against Drexel.

Five Neumann players hit double figures, led by Jalen Vaughns and Kyson Rawls with 16. Visconti had 26 for Swarthmore.

“There was a little rust, not as much as I thought,” Kosmalski said of Swarthmore not playing in 2020-21. “I think talking to other coaches who went through the same thing, the excitement for being back compensates.”

Preseason rankings? Caring about such a thing is fairly far down even Kosmalski’s list. Also, times are certainly different when you’re wondering whether a top-10 Swarthmore national ranking is high enough.

“I think it’s fair,” Swarthmore’s coach said of where they start out.