The summer of 2011 will feature a huge meet in the FINA World Championships, but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to begin looking at the 2012 NCAA season. Over the next few months, we will count down the top 12 teams from last year’s NCAA Championships, along with a few teams that we expect to break through, until we finish with the two defending National Champions from Berkeley. To keep track of all of our season previews, we’ve added a link in the menu bar, just click “College Previews” at the top of the page (now located under the “In the News” menu).
Key Losses: Ivan Tolic (1 NCAA Point, 1 NCAA prelims relay), Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or (16 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Relays – redshirt year)
Key Additions: Kevin Cordes (breaststroke), Giles Smith (Fly/Free – Tennessee transfer), Sam Rowan (IM/breast – Wisconsin transfer)
2010-2011 recap: The 2010-2011 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year. After graduating nearly 200 points from the year before, nobody was sure quite what to expect from these Wildcats. Everyone knew that Cory Chitwood would be coming back as one of the best backstrokers in the nation (a mantra that he lived up to), but overall Arizona was a young, relatively inexperienced team.
In typical Frank Busch fashion, though, it didn’t take long for the Wildcats to reload. They brought in a powerful freshman class, and had a number of their upperclassmen step up with unexpectedly good performances (specifically Mitchell Friedemann).
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, you could basically take the 2011-2012 recap, copy and paste it, with a few tiny changes. For starters, they graduated only a single NCAA scorer in Ivan Tolic, who placed 16th in the 100 back after qualifying 9th after prelims. That’s it. They bring back 17 out of 20 relay swimmers from a very strong group that averaged just above a 5th place finish at NCAA’s (including putting all five relays in the top 8). The result of that is that instead of being an inexperienced squad, this now becomes a veteran group with 12 seniors on deck.
The only other change is the addition of freshman Kevin Cordes from my hometown: Naperville, Illinois. He is one of the top three breaststrokers in an incredibly strong breaststroke class nationwide, and is NCAA-ready. He brings in bests of 53.67 and 1:56.18 in the 100 and 200, respectively, which probably are good enough already to make B-finals next year. Not only that, but he’s huge for a breaststroker at about 6’5, as compared to your typical elite breaststrokers who max out around 6’2 and usually much shorter than that. That height might limit him long-term in the 200 (at least based on precedent), but it could be a real asset in the 100 (think 6’7 Damir Dugonjic), which seemed to play out at USA Swimming Nationals when he was in the A-final in the 100, but outside of the finals in the 200.
Not that breaststroke was a big need spot for Arizona. They bring back multiple scorers in both NCAA distances. They will have four swimmers at 53.5 or better in the 100 – Kevin Steel (53.58), Carl Mickelson (53.37), Kelley Wyman (53.05), and Kevin Munsch (53.03); and another three at 1:55 or better in the 200 – Munsch (1:55.32), Austen Thompson (1:55.2), and Mickelson (1:54.85). This breaststroke group is incredibly packed, and it will be fun to see what their daily battles in practice will look like.
So their big freshman pickup didn’t meet the program’s big need, but then again they didn’t really have a big need, at least immediately. Their relays are pretty well set, though they’ll be hoping to emerge another 200 freestyler to let Chitwood off of that 800 free relay. Maybe another distance freestyler (a miler) would be nice, but in terms of this year, picking up one star freshman who can make an immediate scoring impact is all they needed to do. This fall, new coach Eric Hansen will get an early test of his recruiting-power at a top-5 school (Arizona has huge needs headed into next season, especially in the freestyles), but this year they are a very well-balanced team.
The Alpha: As we mentioned above, this team gets its cues from senior Cory Chitwood. Like the 2010 NCAA’s (you’ll recall that was the delayed Norovirus meet in Columbus that hit this Arizona team pretty hard), Chitwood started off a bit slow with a 6th in the 100 backstroke in 46.10. From there, however, he took off like a rocket and won his second consecutive title in the 200 backstroke (1:38.84) and placed 2nd in the 200 IM, which was a bit of a revelation from him, in 1:42.28. He will head into 2012 NCAA’s as the favorite in both the 200 IM and the 200 backstroke, the latter of which where he’s the only returning swimmer to clear 1:40. That, combined with anticipation of another A-final in the 100 backstroke, will make him one of a handful of swimmers nationwide who could be 50+ point scorers next season.
Beta Backstroker: A great addition to the Arizona lineup last year was sophomore-to-be Mitchell Friedemann. The former Junior National teamer was expected to be good, but I don’t know if anyone expected him to be as good as he was and as fast as he was. He placed 8th in the 100 backstroke individually on 46.32 (on a 46.0 from prelims), and also impressed in the sprint freestyles with a 19.74 in the 50 and a 43.15 in the 100 freestyles. Friedemann is a superstar in the making, and by the time he’s a junior, he’ll be one of the best-known college swimmers in the country. As for this year he’ll be a part of at least three Arizona relays (200 free, 400 free, 200 medley), and could be a 45-mid backstroker. Any bonus points in the sprints (I think he’s a B-finalist in the 100 free) are icing on the cake.
Free Relays: Speaking of the sprint freestyle relays, Arizona will have among the best in the country and should compete for national titles in both distances. The top sprinter is senior Adam Small. He made a massive leap forward last season. After not scoring a single individual NCAA point in 2010, he touched 4th in the 50 free (19.03) and 11th in the 100 free (42.74). That’s from a guy who was going 44’s a year earlier. He made more strides in the offseason, including a medal at the World University Games in the 50, and if the Wildcats can count on him to get his flat-start in the 100 closer to a 42-low, then they can expect no less than two podiums from those two relay quartets. (An individual national title in the 50 is also within reach for Small).
Both freestyle relays should include two seniors and Friedemann, which will make them very experienced. Likely joining those two, in some combination, are Wyman (19.62/43.53) and Cameron Owen (18.77/43.03 relay splits). Also look out for sophomore Tommy Gutman. As a freshman last year, he went 19.9/43.6 in the sprint freestyles, which are great marks for a newcomer to college swimming, and he followed that up with a fantastic summer (22.85/51.0). Incidentally, he’s also a 54-second breaststroker, but that group is so deep for Arizona, he won’t get much of a sniff there until his junior year.
The 800 free relay finished 8th at NCAA’s last year, as the Wildcats’ lowest finishing relay, and will do well to place top 8 again. Sophomore Matt Barber could make the difference on that relay this year – he missed his taper a touch at NCAA’s, but has B-final times in the 500 free – if he goes a best time in March.
As we mentioned before, Arizona would probably like to be able to get Chitwood (1:36.4) off of that relay to focus as much as possible on his individual events. Austen Thompson and AJ Tipton are the best candidates to make that move with 1:37’s each in pre-taper meets.
Transfer Giles Smith: Giles Smith could be one of the big darkhorses in all of college swimming this year. He didn’t swim at NCAA’s as a freshman at Tennessee, and transfered to Arizona this year. As one of our readers pointed out, after only two months of working with the Arizona coaching staff, he already earned himself a 7th-place finish in the 100 fly in 52.5o (LCM) to earn a spot on the US National Team. He’ll come to Arizona with a best of 47.0 in the 100 fly in yards, but his Nationals time converts to a 45.5. He could also make a big impact on the free relays if he can translate those monster improvements there, though those didn’t kick in like his 100 fly did at Nationals. Still, his yards bests are 19.7/43.7/1:37.6, and small improvements off of those times could make a big difference for Arizona, especially in the 800 free where they’re trying to replace Shapira Bar-Or.
Butterfliers/IM’ers: Last year, AJ Tipton hit right at the target we set for him preseason with a 46.5 to make the B-Final. In that consolation race, he ran out of gas on his final length, but still picked up a point for 16th. He had a much better result a day later when he took 12th in the 200 fly in 1:44.01 – though a season-best (1:42.67) would have put him in the A-final. Still, he’s very good at all three butterfly distances (50 for the medley relay on up to 200) and will be a keystone to the medley relays. If he performs well, they have all of the other pieces in place to have top-3 medley relays.
Besides Chitwood, Thompson will be another great IM’er for the Wildcats. He scored A-finals in both distances with an 8th in the 200 IM (1:44.2 in prelims) and a 4th in the 400 IM (3:42.3 to take the top seed after prelims). That 200 will be a battle for him to stay in the A-final, but with a lot of 400 IM talent graduating, a podium seems probable there. He had a great summer, including a 5th-place finish at USA Swimming Nationals in the 400 IM where he broke 4:20 for the first time.
Add into that mix Sam Rowan, who came down from Wisconsin with coach Hansen. His bests in the IM’s are 1:47.0/3:47.8, and in the breaststrokes he goes 56.5/1:58.76. He’s going to be a junior this year, and he’ll bring some great depth to the program.
Diving: Like we saw on the women’s team, diving is not a big focus of this Arizona team, which is made even more apparent by the fact that they have still not officially named a program diving coach (though the new coach has been hired). Senior Andres Guerra led the way last year, with a couple of top-8 finishes at Pac-10’s. Ben Grado missed all of last season after having surgery, but is expected to return for his final season of eligibility. If he’s back to full strength, he’s a difference maker as the 6th-place finisher on the 3-meter at NCAA’s in 2010. His performance from USA Diving Nationals is encouraging that he could be better than ever – he placed 4th on the 1 meter, 8th on the 3 meter, and 3rd on platform. He could be in store for a huge performance at NCAA’s this year, which might encourage Arizona to invest more resources into the diving program.
2011-2012 Outlook: Things look very, very good for the Wildcats in 2012. They’re going to have a fairly small window of opportunity this year before having to go back into rebuilding mode the next, and they are lined up to make a big impact. My opinion of this team after really digging into their roster is much higher than before I started – I was shocked at the fact that seemingly every event had a high-scorer for them, and at just the mass number of big names that will emerge from this program this year. Because this team is so well-rounded, they can absorb a bad meet at NCAA’s by a swimmer or two, which makes me pretty confident that their “floor” is pretty low – the propensity for disaster in a team as deep as this one is pretty low, as we saw at the illness-plagued 2010 meet.
I’d like to see Barber step up in the middle-distance frees. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he came in with a lot of accolades and simply didn’t hit his taper, but they’ll need him to help replace Shapira Bar-Or. Continued development by Small, and trying to find one more freestyler (probably Smith, the transfer), just for depth, will also be important to this team’s chances. I see this as a top-3 team, and maybe even top-2 depending on how quickly Stanford’s freshmen adapt. They are an incredibly deep adn well rounded team. this combined with those 20 returning relay spots and the fact that their experience a the college level will be second-to-none makes this team dangerous.
They almost remind you of last year’s Cal team that took the National Title – great breaststroking group, a top-flight sprinter (though Small is certainly not Nathan Adrian), two good backstrokers, and they return effectively all of their relays. Smith even gives them a Tom-Shields-esque butterflier/freestyler, though -like Small- he’s not quite to that level yet. They also bring an additional element to what Cal had with Grado’s diving. Coach Hansen walked into a great situation down in Arizona, and this group’s year-1 performance will go a long way to establishing him as the new face of Arizona swimming.