Thanks to a strong combination of teamwork, leadership and a newfound explosive offense to match the best defense in the MIAC, St. Olaf men’s basketball is returning to the conference playoffs as the second seed for the fourth time in five seasons. Following a first round bye awarded to the top two seeds, the Oles will begin their pursuit of yet another NCAA tournament appearance when they take the Skoglund court this Friday.
For longtime head coach Dan Kosmoski, the resurgent effort after last winter’s developmental season comes as no surprise due to the rich camaraderie the players have built throughout their time together.
“This team genuinely is one of the closest teams I’ve ever coached,” Kosmoski said. “They genuinely care and love each other, they support each other. Everybody wants to play, but those guys that aren’t playing are the biggest supporters and cheerers out there.”
“As in anything, it’s a confidence game.You build up that confidence and it’s hard to be beaten,” he said.
The tremendous improvement culminated in a nine-game winning streak near the end of the regular season, including a convincing 75-62 victory over St. John’s, the top seed in the MIAC. Not only was this stretch impressive and exciting, but it also carried historical significance for Kosmoski himself. The Oles’ 82-59 rout of St. Mary’s on Jan. 24 marked the veteran coach’s 300th career victory, becoming only one of seven MIAC coaches in history to eclipse the fabled mark.
However, the records and glory aren’t as appealing to Kosmoski as witnessing his players grow, both as athletes and people. If anything, he notes, the achievement is a reflection of the extraordinary young men whom he’s coached throughout his career.
“It tells me that I’ve been here for a number of years,” Kosmoski said. “The number really reflects to me the number of kids I’ve had and the successes that they’ve had throughout their careers and their lives. The wins are fine, but that’s just a small part of it.”
To ensure that the team builds the necessary chemistry to put together a championship caliber team in addition to crafting well-rounded personalities and skillsets, Kosmoski encourages activities beyond the basketball court for team building. Developing versatile people with varied life experience is always emphasized beyond simply winning basketball games.
“There are other things you do as a group that bonds the team together,” Kosmoski said. “We went to Greece a year and a half ago. Basketball covers second semester, interim and first semester, so it’s challenging for those players to travel abroad, so this [gave] them an opportunity to see another part of the world and continue to grow.”
“He [Kosmoski] uses basketball to teach us how to grow as people,” forward Austin Korba ’19 said. “Perseverence, hard work, not giving up on anything, believing in yourself … he’s preparing us for how to conduct ourselves and teaching us those traits that you learn from basketball and how to apply them to the real world.”
As a result, St. Olaf has blossomed into one of the MIAC’s top tier threats. With a rigid defense that surrendered 65 points per game in the regular season, the best total in the conference, the Oles always gave themselves a chance to win. However, it was the emergence of the offense during the final half of the season that proved to be the difference in giving St. Olaf the vital extra push.
“Defense has been our anchor,” Kosmoski said. “We started out the season holding UW-Stevens Point to 45 points on their home court, and they’re ranked in the top 20 right now, so that gave us a little indication of what we can do.”
“Offensively, during the last 10 games we’ve shot 50 percent over nine of those 10 games. It’s been a combination.”
“Our defense is always something we can hang our hat on,” Korba said. “we’ll always have that defense there, so even if we’re not making our shots, we’re still in the game because the other team isn’t scoring either.”
Preparation off the court is just as essential to perform admirably, and the players have taken it upon themselves to closely examine scouting reports and game footage. By examining tape as a team over interim, the Oles were able to give themselves a mental edge.
“This [Kosmoski’s] office was pretty full over interim for a good part of the time during half-hour or one hour stretches,” Kosmoski said. “They came in here and I was with them, usually it was a pod of two or three but sometimes we’d cram five in here.”
“We spend a lot of time together,” Korba said. “we’re really close outside of the basketball court, which I think is really helpful. Being able to communicate with each other off the floor helps build that relationship that you have on the floor, especially the trust aspect.”
Being a younger team with only one senior on the roster, the limelight of the playoffs is a new, bigger stage that the majority of these players haven’t faced before. A strong class of junior starters may have tasted the as first years, but now, as starters, they face a completely different role. In order to counteract nerves, Kosmoski is taking efforts to maintain a relaxed environment while not attempting to alter team mentality or practice routines too drastically.
“Probably the best thing to do is to bring more of a relaxed approach, because everyone’s adrenaline is going to be flowing for both teams,” Kosmoski said. “You just have to do the best you can to approach things in a consistent way, doing what you’ve done all year. We’re going to be no different. We usually take two days to prepare for a game. I’ll give the guys Tuesday off so they can concentrate on their studies and then we’ll practice on Wednesday and Thursday, so we have the same routine.”
The Oles will face either Bethel, Augsburg or St. Thomas as their first matchup of the postseason, teams they went 2-0, 1-1 and 1-1 against in the regular season, respectively. Though some matchups are inevitably more dangerous than others – Augsburg in particular gave St. Olaf difficulties even during their win streak – Kosmoski and his players are confident that they can beat any team as long as they keep a level head and continue playing strong, balanced basketball.
“You know, this is a special, special team,” Kosmoski said. “I’ve had some teams in the past that have done extremely well, but there’s just something unique with this group. The closeness, the determination, watching them grow. That nine game winning streak was something to behold, something special. They showed me a lot in relation to where the season began … They’re just a special team.”