Jensen: March Madness hits Swarthmore, Neumann

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Neumann players pose after winning the Colonial States Athletic Conference title game on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.

So 64 schools make the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament, and 16 get to host first- and second-round games, and two of those 16 are about 15 minutes apart in Delaware County if you catch all the lights right from Swarthmore to Aston.

Maybe Swarthmore College and Neumann University don't have much in common - except in basketball, they do. Neither had much of any reputation in the sport, and now they do. Each hired coaches who had played Division I basketball and clearly know what they are doing. Each saw the benefits of supporting the sport. Each got good pretty quickly.

Again, different schools, going after different kinds of students, playing different styles. A third Delaware County school, Cabrini, up the Blue Route, also made the 64-team field. Cabrini figured out a long time ago that hoops was a fit and has a D-III final four under its belt.

Neumann reached the NCAAs two years ago and bowed out on the road. Swarthmore is in it for the first time ever. A victory for either on Friday night would be another first.

"I was surprised," Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said, sitting in his office Thursday morning. Not about making the field - the school had an automatic bid - but about his 22-5 team's hosting the College of Staten Island Friday at 8.

"Christopher Newport [University] is here," Kosmalski said, referring to one of the teams in the other first-round game at Swarthmore. "They would have been hosting probably, but their women are hosting, and in odd numbered years the women get it."

That's D-III, too. The commitment is real, but there's a need to acknowledge the world doesn't stop for your NCAA tournament appearance. If you said one of these schools had to find another place to practice Wednesday because the gym was hosting a science Olympiad, maybe you would have guessed Swarthmore?

"I would say the Vegas odds had Swarthmore," agreed Neumann coach Jim Rullo, in his office over in Aston later Thursday morning.

No, the science Olympiad had the gym at Neumann. That's a big event, with a lot of middle-school children invested in their projects.

"That's their final four," Rullo said.

So Rullo called Penn coach Steve Donahue and asked if the Palestra was available for a couple of hours. He appreciated Donahue's making it happen.

"We got down there, practiced from 1:30 to 3:30. Guys got to float around. Some guys, unbeknownst to me, had never been in the building, which was an education for me. You take it for granted," Rullo said. "We headed over to John's Roast Pork afterward. We were after the lunch-rush crowd."

He thinks his own team is in the right frame of mind, mentioning how they held both opponents in the conference tournament to 20 points less than their average. Neumann has proven to be the real thing, 25-2, only a one-point loss and an overtime loss from perfection, hosting Nichols at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

"You see the facility like this and the proximity to Delaware and South Jersey and to Philly and, obviously, Delaware County, I just thought the opportunity was worth the risk," said Rullo, a former Drexel player who had been coaching Malvern Prep. "I can compare it to when I was at Drexel. There's always the Big Five plus us. I know in the grand scheme of things, it's Division III basketball, and it's Philadelphia, and we're probably at the low end of the totem pole. At the same time, there's talent in this area."

Over at Swarthmore, the roster includes players from nine states.

"Our academic peers have done it," Kosmalski, himself a former Davidson player, said of how Swarthmore saw this level of success could be achieved. "Williams has won national titles. Amherst has won national titles. Middlebury has been to the final four. This is all recent history. So it can be done. . . . There were programs here that had been successful."

You could see games they won this season came about, Kosmalski said, because of games these same juniors and seniors lost as freshmen and sophomores. "Like we beat Dickinson at home when we were down four with six seconds left," the coach said.

Huh? What happened there?

"We got fouled on a three. Made the first one. Missed the second one. Purposefully missed the third. Kicked it out. Got a three at the buzzer," Kosmalski said. "Won in overtime. Looking back, that should have told us it was going to be a pretty good year."

Last season ended in the ECAC tournament, sort of a regional NIT for D-III schools, with a loss to Neumann, as it happens.

Given that the two schools are close in proximity but on opposite halves of the NCAA bracket, both coaches would take a rematch this season. No questions asked. Just get on the bus. Is there a gym in Rose Valley?

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus