College Previews: #5 Louisville Men Soaring After Winning ACCs, NCAA Relay

After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews are back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. 

#5 Men: Louisville Cardinals

Key Losses: Mihalis Deliyannis (1 NCAA relay), T.C. Smith (NCAA qualifier)

Key Additions: Denis Loktev (Israel – free), Murilo Sartori (Brazil – free), Gustavo Saldo (Brazil – fly), Eli Shoyat (KY – free), Tommy Bried (GA – fly)

Returning Fifth Years: Nick Albiero (51 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Evgenii Somov (15 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Nikos Sofianidis (NCAA qualifier),

GRADING CRITERIA

Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.

Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.

  • 5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
  • 4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
  • 3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
  • 2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
  • 1 star (★) –  an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it

We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.

2020-2021 Lookback

The Cardinal men continued their slow-but-steady rise during the long tenure of head coach Arthur Albiero, as Louisville notched a number of program bests in Albiero’s 18th season.

In typical Louisville fashion, they didn’t show their hand early in the season, although there were a few flashes. Instead, they brought the thunder at the ACC Championships. They took the lead early with a strong victory in the opening event, the 200 medley relay. A strong sprint group, medley relay sweeps and individual victories kept them in the hunt against a solid NC State crew. When the Wolfpack DQ’d their 400 medley on the third night, Louisville took the lead and never relinquished it, snapping NC State’s six-year streak and earning the Cardinals their first ACC Swimming & Diving team championship.

On top of that success, Louisville qualified 12 swimmers and a diver for the NCAA Championships. If you’re a glass-half-empty type (or perhaps a disappointed fan from an ACC rival?), you might focus on the fact that only three of those 13 men scored at NCAAs. But Louisville gave their fans plenty to cheer for at NCAAs (virtually, since fans weren’t allowed in the venue).

Their 400 medley relay took fourth in 3:01.52, setting an ACC conference record. The next day, though, the Cardinals really erupted, as the same quartet threw down a 1:22.11 in the 200 medley relay to win Louisville’s first NCAA relay title. Three of the four men on that relay — Nick Albiero, Evgenii Somov, and Mitchell Whyte — each also scored on that third day.

On the last day of competition, Albiero captured his first individual NCAA title with a 1:38.64 in the 200 fly, and the 400 free relay finished third, ahead of more-vaunted sprint powerhouses like Texas and NC State.

All told, the Cardinals’ fifth-place finish matched their program-best ranking from 2019, with their 211 points in 2021 falling just one point shy of their 212 in 2019. Still, given their ACC championship and NCAA relay title, it’s not difficult to argue that the 2020-2021 season was the most successful in team history.

SPRINT FREE: ★★★

Louisville wins the 2021 ACC Men’s Swimming Championship in Greensboro, N.C. Friday, Feb. 27, 2021 (Photo by Jaylynn Nash, the ACC)

The Cardinals’ sprint crew is led by Egyptian national Haridi Sameh. As a sophomore last season he went 19.14 in the 50 free at ACCs, then finished 26th in prelims at NCAAs with a 19.50, but both his 19.14 and his NCAA 200 free relay leadoff time of 19.34 would’ve scored had he done them in prelims. Similarly, he finished 17th in the 100 free with a prelims time of 42.48, but his 42.03 from ACCs would’ve put him 9th in the heats. He anchored both of the medley relays as well, splitting 18.45 in the 200 and 41.72 in the 400.

This is one of those instances where our rating metric doesn’t really capture just how impressive Louisville has become in the sprint freestyles. They won the 200 free relay at ACCs with a 1:15.00, thanks to a pair of 18.89 relay splits from the duo of Tanner Cummings and Michael Eastman. Cummings arrived as a freshman with a lifetime best of 20.92 in the 50 free, and Eastman came in at 20.65. In addition to their relay success, both men made the ‘A’ final at ACCs, as Louisville put four up. Neither one is in NCAA scoring range—Cummings’ best is 19.45 and Eastman’s is 19.50—but they’re a key example of how Louisville does a great job of developing swimmers. Eastman also split 1:33.71 on the 800 free and 42.0 on the 400 free relay at NCAAs.

Nick Albiero is tremendous at all three sprint freestyle distances, owning lifetimes bests of 19.69/42.36/1:32.31, but all three of those bests came from relay lead-offs, as he focuses on fly and back at championship meets individually.

2020 ACC 200 free champion Colton Paulson owns a lifetime best of 1:33.94 and split 1:32.77 at NCAAs. He finished 23rd at NCAAs with a 1:34.25 in the 200 free and 25th in the 100 free with a 42.72, along with a 41.90 anchor leg on the 400 free relay.

Kyle Worrell hit lifetime bests in all three sprint free events last season, going 20.16/43.35/1:36.08 at ACCs. He earned a swim on the NCAA 800 free relay, splitting 1:34.93.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Cardinals’ freestyle core is getting buoyed by the arrival of two international Olympians. Brazil’s Murilo Sartori owns a lifetime best of 1:46.64 in LCM, which converts to roughly a 1:33-low yards, and his 49.4 LCM 100 free converse to roughly a 43.0. Israel’s Denis Loktev, who’s slated to arrive toward the end of the calendar year, has remarkably similar times to Sartori. At worst, they should provide a boost to the 800 free relay. At best, they could quickly develop into NCAA scoring threats.

But wait, there’s more: Vladimir Dubinin is the latest swimmer in the Russia-to-Louisville pipeline. His freestyle SCM times of 21.69/47.50/1:46.25 convert to roughly 19.54/42.79/1:35.72 in yards, meaning that he could very easily become an impact swimmer immediately, adding to the Cardinals’ impressive freestyle relay depth.

DISTANCE FREE: ★

There’s a lot of potential here, but the Cardinals didn’t pick up any points in the distance events last season.

Hayden CurleyT.C. Smith, and Ilia Sibirtsev all qualified for NCAAs. Sibirtsev had the best individual finish of the bunch, placing 21st in the 1650. Curley has lifetime bests of 4:17.18/14:52.19 and Sibirtsev has lifetime bests of 4:18.60/14:51.33, which puts both of them not too far outside scoring range in the 1650, although it’s hard to project either as a scorer. Smith has graduated, but the Cardinals bring in Eli Shoyat, who’s already been 4:24.39 and 15:17.63 and seems like a solid developmental piece.

BACKSTROKE: ★★★★

The Cardinals are one of only a handful of teams that have two guys sub-45 in the 100 backstroke. At NCAAs, Nick Albiero matched the second-fastest time of his career with a 44.85 in prelims, then went 44.86 in finals to take 5th. His lifetime best of 44.75 came at the 2020 ACC Championships.

Mitchell Whyte struggled a bit in this event at NCAAs, missing scoring with a 46.27 effort in prelims, but he did hit a 45.03 leadoff on the 400 medley relay. His lifetime best of 44.64, like Albiero, came at ACCs in 2020. Whyte was also a bit off of his lifetime best of 1:39.46 in the 200 back, a time which would’ve put him in the A-final, but he did win the B-final with a 1:40.00.

Nikolaos Sofianidis also qualified for NCAAs. He finished outside of scoring in both events, placing 23rd/33rd with times of 46.43/1:43.22. His lifetime bests of 46.00 and 1:41.57 come from 2019 and 2018, respectively.

BREASTSTROKE: ★★★

Evgenii Somov
Courtesy Louisville Athletics

Saved by the Somov? As a senior last year, Evgenii Somov swept the ACC titles in the breaststroke events, going 51.03 to set the ACC record in the 100, and clocking a 1:51.26 to take the meet record in the 200. Somov has won the 100 breast at ACCs each of the last four years. He couldn’t quite match his 100 breast time at NCAAs, settling for a fourth-place finish with a 51.17 in finals. He also skipped the 200 breast in order to head back to Russia for their Olympic Trials, but his time from ACCs also would’ve taken fourth.

It’s a good thing Somov chose to come back for a fifth year, because the Cardinals don’t have anyone close to his times. Their only other ACC scorer in the 100 breast was Tanner Cummings, primarily a sprint freestyler, who made the C-final and hit a lifetime best of 53.52.

Aidan Kreiley arrived at Louisville with a 100 best time of 55.72, hit 54.12 in the fall, and then dropped to 53.64 at Louisville’s invite after ACCs. He also improved from 1:59.30 to 1:55.95 in the 200, winning the C-final at ACCs. Freshman Luke Shrouds provides additional depth with best times of 54.56/2:01.17.

BUTTERFLY: ★★★★

NCAA Photos

Nick Albiero led the NCAA in butterfly points this past March, racking up 37 in between a second-place finish in the 100 and a first-place finish in the 200. Those finishes came with blistering times of 44.32 and 1:38.64, which make him the t-6th and 5th-fastest performer ever, respectively. On paper, he and Virginia Tech Youssef Ramadan should contend for the 100 fly title (Ramadan was 44.32 at ACCs to win, but was DQ’d in prelims at NCAAs), while Albiero will likely face some stiff competition from Trenton Julian, Antani Ivanov and Luca Urlando in the 200.

Regardless, Albiero returning for a fifth year means that the Cardinals are all but assured at least 30 points in this discipline, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Albiero sweep the fly events in his final season of competition.

Last year, Dalton Lowe came to Louisville as a relatively unheralded freshman, but he developed and threw down some blistering fly times, including some 20-low fly splits on medley relays. In the 100, he clocked his best time of 45.76 at the Louisville Invite in March, then went 46.18 at NCAAs to finish 22nd in prelims. He seems like he’s in prime position to develop into an NCAA scorer, and provides a little relay depth should Louisville need to reshuffle their medleys.

Gustavo Saldo comes to Louisville from Brazil and should prove to be an immediate help to a Cardinal fly group that didn’t have anyone besides Albiero score in the 200 at ACCs last year. Saldo’s LCM best of 1:59.95 converts to roughly a 1:45.79, which would be enough to put him in the ‘B’ final at ACCs.

Freshman Tommy Bried has been 48.76 and 1:46.65 in the fly events. That 200 time comes from almost two years ago, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him drop some time quickly.

IM: ★★

This is yet another group that gets a boost thanks to a returner. Daniel Sos sat out last season, but is back this season and already put up some solid times at the SMU Classic. As a sophomore in 2019, he made the 400 IM ‘B’ final with a 3:44.23, and owns lifetime bests of 1:43.27/3:42.68.

Evgenii Somov has a lifetime best of 1:43.24 in the 200, a time that would’ve placed him 18th at NCAAs. We may not see him swim the event, as Louisville may opt to keep him fresh for the 400 medley relay.

DIVING: ★

Diving hasn’t been a strong suit for the Cardinals, but Kivanc Gur became the first Louisville man to dive at NCAAs since 2016, and responded by placing 20th on the platform, his only event.

The Cardinals brought in several freshmen divers, including USA Junior Nationals semi-finalist Che Stephens and Austrian national champion Nico Schaller.

RELAYS

The Cardinals’ relays are in really, really good shape. Next topic.

Okay, fine, we’ll elaborate a bit. They’re returning 19 out of 20 NCAA relay legs, with Deliyannis’ free relay leg split being the only spot they’ll need to fill. And sure, guys who can split sub-19 don’t exactly grow on trees, but there’s a lot of flexibility here, especially thanks to Sartori, Loktev, and Dubinin. For instance, they could shift Albiero from either the 200 medley relay or the 800 free relay to the 200 free relay if necessary, or Dubinin looks like he may be able to fill Deliyannis’ slot.

All four legs return on both the 400 and 800 free relays, and any of those three international guys could end up on either of those relays. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a relay of Albiero, Paulson, Sartori and Loktev all splitting under 1:32, threaten to break 6:10, and vie for a top-three finish at NCAAs.

The dynamite medley relays also bring back all four swimmers (Whyte, Somov, Albiero and Sameh), and there’s no reason to expect them to take a step backward this season, meaning that they should once again be among the top relay teams in the NCAA.

2021-2022 Outlook

Under Arthur Albiero, the Cardinals have really perfected the strategy of a small core of individual scorers to complement stellar relays. That strategy looks like it would’ve taken a big hit this season had Albiero and Somov in particular not been able to return for a fifth year.

But, they’re back, and when you add Loktev and Sartori, plus the fact that Somov, Whyte, and Sameh all left possible points on the table, it’s not difficult to see Louisville at least competing for third and fourth place at NCAAs.

What would truly help them, both for this year and for the future, would be for some of the dozen guys who qualify for NCAAs to step up and score. You have to imagine they’d especially like to see the beginnings of the next core emerge this year — guys who could replace Somov and Albiero on the relays after this season.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Louisville appears primed to remain in the middle of the top ten at NCAAs for the foreseeable future.

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Say's Phoebe
1 month ago

Robert

Sameh also led off Louisville’s 400 free relay at NCAAs with a 41.94. (8th was 41.83, 9th was 42.09) There’s a caveat, though, that the relays splits were next to open lanes last year.
Also worth noting that Sameh won the B final of the 100 fly at ACCs with a 45.82 but chose to scratch at NCAAs.
Louisville does tend to scratch down for relays at NCAAs, but it’s worth noting that Albiero has been a seven event scorer all three years.

Saldo’s best 200 fly (LCM) is 1:58.76 from last March.

Will NCAAs return to a trials/finals format for relays this year. In the past that has been a hard format for squads shaped… Read more »

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
1 month ago

Robert – can you consider making a note that 1:33 is a slow conversion for a 1:46 LCM 200 free. I think that we can reasonably convert that to a 1:31.

Sartori and Loktev are massive pick-ups. This Louisville team is really good.

Hannah
Reply to  SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
1 month ago

Sartori has also already gone a 1:34 flat start at SMU

Say's Phoebe
Reply to  SAMUEL HUNTINGTON
1 month ago

I agree.

Checking the SWIMS database, here are some comparable 200 LCM free times in the US from last year (US rank, swimmer, time):

6) Callan 1:46.49
7) Pieroni 1:46.57
8) Dressel 1:46.63
9) Carson Foster, 1:46.67
10) Heidtmann 1:46.73
11) Urlando 1:46.93
12) Grothe 1:47.26

Sartori and Loktev are incredible recruits. Loktev’s best flat start is 1:46.64, Sartori’s is 1:46.81. Sartori split 1:46.7 in prelims, 1:46.09 in finals for Brazil in Tokyo.
Sartori went 1:34.59 at the SMU invitational a week ago. His splits were 46.92/47.67.

Rafael
1 month ago

Sartori have a very good 400 also which can impact the Middle distance and saldo has a.good 400/800 so he can go also.focus on middle to long

ThisGuy
1 month ago

Has there been a more consistently improving program over the last 15 years from where they were? NC State is probably the one that comes to mind the quickest but they had a much higher floor 15 years ago (better team/history) and Virginia has always been very respectable but lately obviously shown to be a powerhouse, at least on the womens side right now but expect the men to keep getting better. Interestingly enough, all ACC teams. Any others out there that come to anyones mind or would Louisville be considered the most impressive turnaround of a program in the past 20 years?