The defending champs and sustaining just one graduation out of four spots, Auburn has to be the favorites in this event. The Tigers come in with the top seed as well as a strong contender for the top overall 50 freestyler in the nation with senior Marcelo Chierighini. He’s joined by returners James Disney-May and TJ Leon, and the departed Kyle Owens has been replaced admirably by stud freshman Kyle Darmody, who looks like he could be the next great Auburn sprint star once the first three graduate.
The two spots behind Auburn are occupied by the two biggest surprise teams of the conference championships, North Carolina State and Alabama. They both occupy the same boat at the moment, dealing with questions aplenty about their ability to stay red-hot through the national championships. It’ll definitely take a great all-around effort at NCAAs for both teams to silence the majority of skeptics, but the very first event in the meet could go a long way in proving if the Wolfpack and Crimson Tide are for real this season.
NC State is loaded with great sprinters – David Williams was the star of ACCs for the Wolfpack, but Simonas Bilis and Jonathan Boffa also have some elite speed, though they’ve both shown a little more aptitude for the 100 than the 50. On top of that, backstroker Andreas Schiellerup rounds out the relay admirably. There really isn’t a weak link of this crew, but the questions about their extended taper will continue until they provide an answer in the pool, potentially with this race.
Alabama blasted to a second-place finish at SECs, right behind in-state rival Auburn by just three tenths. Freshman Kristian Gkolomeev is their top threat, holding the 10th seed in the open 50. BJ Hornikel, Vlad Caciuc and Brett Walsh were the other legs on the relay at SECs, and all four men were really on for this relay relative to their open swims. Gkolomeev was 19.2 leading off, just as he was in the individual 50. Hornikel split 19.1 compared to his 19.4 in the individual. The two splits that might be hard to repeat are the last two. Caciuc went from 19.9 in the open event to 19.1 on the relay, and Walsh topped even that, going an astounding 18.7 compared to 19.8 individually. Two competing theories: 1) repeating those crazy splits will be a tall order, and Alabama will come back to earth a bit, or 2) The Crimson Tide sprinters have proven that they can really key on relays, and with two of the four swimming relays only, they’ll be fresh and ready to go for this race.
The best bet to move up and pass one or both of those teams is probably Cal, the 4-seed. With the Pac-12’s propensity to save rest for NCAAs, its a safe bet that Cal can find some more speed in their foursome. Tyler Messerschmidt can probably improve on his 19.4 leadoff leg from conference. Ryan Murphy is an immense talent, but how well does he fit in the 50 free after presumably spending the year focusing on backstroke? Cal will need quicker than his 19.3 to move up and contend in this one. Seth Stubblefield already split 18.8, and it’s hard to ask much more from him, though Tony Cox could join him under 19 at NCAAs.
We’ve already had some spirited comment-section conversation about the Amazing Bearded Brad deBorde and how much to read into his SEC shave status. It’s hard to imagine he’ll go much faster than 18.8 regardless, but if he can do that leading off this relay, Florida will immediately drop three tenths. Corey Main blasted an 18.7 at SECs, and it’ll be up to the rest of the relay to keep things going from there.
Texas should have that post-Big 12 boost going while finally swimming with some competition. They’ll look for big splits out of Matt Ellis and John Murray, and coach Eddie Reese has plenty of options on the back end including Tripp Cooper, Caleb Weir, Clay Youngquist and maybe even Jack Conger.
Arizona seems like a group with potential to rise. Giles Smith is only entered in two individuals, meaning he could possibly swim all 5 relays. That makes this seem like an obvious entry for him, and he should be an instant improvement from their Pac-12 lineup (if he’s fully healthy). Brad Tandy can improve his leadoff leg; he was just 19.1 at Pac-12s. And the whole crew will benefit from the relay opening up the Thursday night lineup instead of coming directly after the open 50 free like it was at Pac-12s.
A sneaky team to watch is Texas A&M. They’ve got the 7th seed, and while most of the Aggies were likely fully primed for SECs, new sprints coach Ryan Mallam is well-versed in getting the most out of athletes at nationals – he coached Tandy to the Junior College national title and has also coached a national 50 free champ at the Division II level. A&M will hope for a big swim from senior Kyle Troskot, who had a breakout regular season but a bit of a disappointing SECs.
Seeded just ahead of the Aggies is Tennessee, led by freshman Luke Percy. Percy was 19.4 leading off this relay, but a guy flirting with 41 in his 100 would seem to have a bit more speed up his sleeve. Sam Rairden doesn’t have an individual event Thursday, so he’ll be fresh, and the other two legs will likely be relay-only swimmers, so the Vols have a shot to put together something big if that rest can bring out any more speed.
Top 8 picks with seed times:
1. Auburn, 1:15.98
2. NC State, 1:16.16
3. California, 1:16.67
4. Alabama, 1:16.26
5. Florida, 1:16.88
6. Texas, 1:17.41
7. Arizona, 1:17.65
8. Texas A&M, 1:17.32
Darkhorse: Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have got one of the best in the business in Derek Toomey, and potentially overlooked is the fact this crew actually finished first at Big Tens before being disqualified for a false start. It’s a trio of freshmen behind Toomey, so this crew could swing any which way depending on how they each respond to the spotlight. Consider ‘Sota a talented wild-card with top-8 potential.