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Poised underclassmen helping continue winning culture at Swarthmore

12/07/2017, 1:00am EST
By Jeff Griffith

Zac O'Dell (above) is one of several underclassman who have chipped into No. 14 Swarthmore's 7-0 start. (Photo: Simona Dwass/Swarthmore Athletics)

Jeff Griffith (@Jeff_Griffith21)
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SWARTHMORE, Pa. -- Landry Kosmalski has more freshman — six, in total — on his Swarthmore basketball roster than seniors and juniors combined.

Throw in a pair of sophomores on a roster of 13, and you’ve got a significantly young, inexperienced Garnet squad.

But they’re 7-0 and ranked No. 14 in all of Division III.

How?

It certainly helps that the Garnet returned several key pieces from a team that notched a Centennial Conference and title a year ago. Junior guard Cam Wiley and senior forward Zack Yonda comprised nearly half of the scoring that led Swarthmore to its first NCAA tournament appearance and victory last season, and are once again major contributors.

But there’s no denying the Garnet are benefitting from the play of their youth — which was on display in Wednesday night’s 67-60 home victory over Ursinus — as they try to turn recent success into a long-term winning culture.

“You see it around the country, freshmen aren’t ready because they don’t have the experience,” Kosmalski said. “But our guys got ready pretty quickly. And our sophomores are probably playing like juniors because they got a lot of experience last year as freshmen.”

Wiley (17.1 ppg) and Yonda (14.5 ppg) are once again the top two scorers for the Garnet so far this season. Aside from senior forwards Robby Walsh and Jim Lammers, every other major contributor to this point has been a freshman or a sophomore.

Sophomore forward Zac O’Dell has been the most important underclassman, averaging 12.7 ppg and 6.4 rpg.

Last season, he averaged less than five in both of those categories.

“Last year, I was playing behind some very good bigs,” O’Dell said. “They worked me in practice and made me better. This year, we’ve got five very good bigs again, so we’re just getting better every day, I’m feeling good.”

Out of the freshman class, 6-foot-3 wing Connor Harkins has been a perimeter threat since the season opener, when he hit nine 3-pointers in a sound defeat of Hood College. His 51 percent clip from deep — coupled with a 40 percent mark from fellow freshman guard Ryan Ingram — makes for quite the outside threat in a pair of newcomers.

Abass Sallah, a 5-11 freshman guard out of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. — the same school which produced recent Villanova star Josh Hart — hasn’t particularly stuffed the stat sheet, but has shown flashes during his 14 mpg in two specific areas where Kosmalski expects him to make his presence felt.

“He’s a spark because he pushes the ball,” Kosmalski said. “We think he’s a game-changer defensively and we think he’s a game-changer in facilitating. He’s a little fast at times, taking some quick shots and making some turnovers, but... we’d rather them be aggressive than passive, and Abass is being aggressive, which is great.”

This year marks the first of Kosmalski’s six at Swarthmore where he’s received solid contributions from members of every class. When this year’s seniors were in their freshman season, the top three scorers were all either freshmen or sophomores, with Yonda leading the bunch even then.

Having held major roles for all four years of their college careers, Yonda and his fellow seniors have become instrumental leaders in terms of helping development the younger talent on their team.

“Our sophomores and freshmen are very good,” he said. “I think part of the reason they’ve been brought along so quickly is because our senior leadership is excellent. Robbie, Jim and Zack have been excellent.”

As Kosmalski knows full well, the key to putting together long-term, sustained success isn’t just winning seven games.

Having seen the Garnet suffer their first loss after opening the season with the same number of consecutive wins a year ago, he’ll be looking for continued improvement has his team prepares for a visits to a pair of fellow undefeateds, York College and Middlebury College.

Games like that will continue to test Kosmalski’s team — and, in particular, his developing freshman class — as they look to build upon another strong start.

“It’s encouraging, but as a coach you always want more,” he said. “I want them playing like sophomores as soon as possible, so we’re going to keep getting after it in practice, holding them to a high standard and holding them accountable, and trying to get them better, because they need to be better.”


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