Michigan’s 800 free relay at the Big Ten Championships was probably the most impressive single swim of the men’s conference rounds anywhere in the nation. It was the only NCAA record to go down at a men’s conference championship and knocked off a super-suited Texas squad featuring multiple Olympians off the books. With that being said upfront, Michigan has to be the heavy favorites in this race at NCAAs, but the length of the relay and the NCAA Championships event order makes seed times mean perhaps less in this event than any other.
At the conference level, the vast majority of teams competed in a 4-day (or more for you SEC folks) meet format that puts the 800 free relay on day 1, allowing most relay members to be completely fresh for what is likely their first swim of the post-season. At NCAAs, the game changes as the lineup is condensed into 3 days and the 800 free relay added to the end of Friday night’s session. That means any 200 freestyler making the “A” or “B” final will likely swim three all-out 200 frees that day between prelims, finals, and the timed finals relay at the end of the night. Don’t underestimate the wear-and-tear on a swimmer from pulling that combo – it’s the reason why so many 800 free relays failed to match their seed times at NCAAs in 2013.
It should be noted that all four of Michigan’s U.S. Open record-setters on this relay are swimming the open 200 free, and three of the four are seeded to make the final with the fourth, Connor Jaeger, a strong possibility after taking 8th last year. Still, Jaeger, Anders Nielsen, Michael Wynalda and Justin Glanda have enough of an advantage on the field, they should still likely win the event, but expecting them to match their U.S. Open record time might be a stretch. Michigan probably new this way back at Big Tens, which explains why they went after that relay so hard there. At NCAAs, a good guess is that a national record matters less to the Wolverines in this event than a key win that could serve as the centerpiece for a second-straight team title run.
This is an interesting event in that the defending champs, Florida, return all four members on this relay but are still considered underdogs. The Gators are the third seed, but didn’t use perhaps their best 200 freestyler, Pawel Werner, on the relay at SECs. On top of that, Florida is helped by the versatility of its relay pieces as only a few of their relay possibilities will have the potential for that triple-200 combo. Their top SEC splits came from Dan Wallace and Sebastien Rousseau, both entered in the 400 IM. The 400 IM isn’t any less taxing than the 200 free, but it does allow for a little more prelims coasting among top-level talents, and it comes earlier in the meet order, giving a longer break between it and the relay. Marcin Cieslak swims the 100 fly and could be a fresher possibility. Plus the Gators have freshman Mitch D’Arrigo and sophomore Corey Main, so coach Gregg Troy has the ability to go with the hot hands on the relay and sitting anyone who fails to extend their taper.
USC’s got tremendous talent in this event, but they’ll have to go up against that triple-200 combo as much as anyone. Cristian Quintero is likely among the 3 best 200 freestylers in the nation, and Dimitri Colupaev is the defending NCAA runner-up. Freshman Dylan Carter has come up big and is seeded 8th in the 200, and fellow first-year Reed Malone had a breakout Pac-12 meet. But all four are entered in the open 200, so it’s going to take some grit for the whole gang to show up big again come relay time.
The Trojans’ Pac-12 rivals California come in with the 5-seed and some definite time to drop, as do the Texas Longhorns, who won the Big 12 title unchallenged. Cal got solid conference performances out of sophomore Trent Williams and junior star Seth Stubblefield, but can probably get better splits from Long Gutierrez and Will Hamilton at nationals. Texas is looking to freshman sensation Jack Conger to blow up on the national stage, and also have Clay Youngquist to boot. While Youngquist will be coming off his own 200 free, Conger will only swim the 100 fly that night and should be relatively fresh.
Perhaps the biggest surprise out the conference rounds was NC State, which absolutely crushed the relays in what was a huge step forward for the program. They come in with the 4th seed, and the only major question still dogging the Wolfpack is how much more they have left in their tanks after going berserk at ACCs. They’ve got 3 guys ranked in the top 21 in the open 200 free (David Williams, Simonas Bilis, Jonathan Boffa), so the talent and depth are both there. Ironically, the biggest boost for NC State in this event might be if two or three of those guys miss the final in the individual race and stay fresh for the relay. Obviously the Wolfpack would rather score points in the individual event and the relay, but it might be kind of fun to see these Wolves fully fresh and hunting down their fatigued opponents at finals of the 800 free relay.
Auburn’s got an interesting mix of distance types like Zane Grothe swimming down the 200 and sprinters like James Disney-May swimming up from the shorter events, and they’re seeded 7th with a time that will likely score if they can repeat it. Plus, Grothe is the only one swimming the open 200 that day.
Tennessee was 7th last year and returns its entire relay, but they’ve got some interesting odds to overcome. Sam Rairden is slated to swim the 100 fly/100 back combo that day, and is seeded to get a second swim in both. Sophomore Sean Lehane had the split that carried this relay at SECs, but he’s swimming a brutal 200 free/100 back with just one event in between that day, so expecting another world-beating split might be a little steep. In addition, Tristan Slater is in the 400 IM Friday, though he’s got a ways to go to get a second swim there.
Don’t count out Louisville with stud 200 freestyler Joao de Lucca, but hedge your bets, as de Lucca will go ham in finals of the individual 200 and will be on his third race of the day by the time this relay rolls around. Indiana’s a trendy pick to move up, and they’ll be swimming several relay-only guys who should be fresh for this event. Big Ten opponents Wisconsin and Ohio State look like teams in the hunt, too, with Nick Caldwell leading the Badgers and Michael DiSalle heading up the Buckeyes’ team.
Top 8 picks with top times for the season:
1. Michigan – 6:09.85
2. Florida – 6:13.03
3. USC – 6:12.54
4. Cal – 6:16.41
5. Texas – 6:17.24
6. NC State – 6:15.58
7. Auburn – 6:17.36
8. Louisville – 6:19.25
Darkhorse: Stanford. The Cardinal is seeded 15th at the moment, but they’ve got some big names on this relay who should be fully primed for NCAAs if they weren’t for Pac-12s. David Nolan continues to come up big for Stanford when they need him (assuming he swims this relay), and Tom Kremer looks like a guy with time left to drop. Knowing how the Stanford women showed up big for their relays last weekend, maybe the Cardinal men will be inspired to do the same.