We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2018-2018 season – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more in-depth college swimming coverage, including a bird’s-eye view of the flood of coaching changes and our ever-popular rankings of the top 50 individual swimmers in college swimming.
#5 Michigan Men
As the NCAA finish order is determined by points, we base our grading scale on projected NCAA points. Versatility and high ceilings are nice, but they don’t win you NCAA titles unless they bring points with them. Bear in mind that all of these grades are projections more than 6 months out – and as none of us has a working crystal ball, these projections are very subjective and very likely to change over the course of the season. Disagreeing with specific grades is completely acceptable; furiously lashing out at a writer, commenter or specific athlete is not.
- A = projected to score significant (10+) NCAA points per event
- B = projected to score some (3-10) NCAA points per event
- C = projected on the bubble to score likely only a few (1-2) or no NCAA points per event
- D = projected to score no NCAA points
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200 plus the 200, 400 and 800 free relays), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.
2017-2018 Look Back
Mike Bottom‘s Michigan Wolverines had an objectively successful 2017-2018 season, culminating in an 8th place finish at the 2018 NCAA Championships – improving upon their 17th place finish from the year before and their highest finish since 2015 (3rd). On top of that, the Wolverines finished 2nd in a fierce battle at the Big 10 Championships behind Indiana. Leading the way individually was Felix Auboeck – who finished 2nd at NCAA’s in the 500 free (4:09.03), 16th in the 200 free (1:34.98, 1:33.70 prelims), and 2nd in the 1,650 free (14:29.42). Ricardo Vargas (8th – 500 free: 4.17.23, 4.12.87 prelims), Charlie Swanson (6th – 400 IM: 3:39.93, 3:39.51 prelims), PJ Ransford (6th – 1,650 free: 14:38.23), and Tommy Cope (7th – 200 breast: 1:52.84, 1:51.87 prelims) all scored A-final NCAA points for the Wolverines as well. Michigan also scored top 16 in 3 relays (800 free relay, 200 medley relay, and 400 free relay) and top 8 in the 200 free relay.
Sprint Free: B
Losing 2 of their top 4 fastest 50/100 freestylers in Paul Powers and James Peek delivered a substantial blow to the Michigan sprint group. Last year, Powers and Peek were critical legs on the Wolverine’s NCAA-scoring 200/400 free relays and Powers scored B-final points in the 50 (15th – 19.39, 19.08 prelims). Without those 2, Michigan will lean heavily on sophomore Gustavo Borges – son of 10x NCAA Champion and 4x Olympic medalist (also named) Gustavo Borges – and junior James Jones to carry the load. Borges was 19.2/43.0 flat start last year and Jones was 19.8/42.9. While their 3rd and 4th men up in the 50 are questionable at this point, the outlook for becomes brighter when looking at the 100 and 200.
In the 100, after Borges and Jones, Michigan had another pair of 43-second freestylers in Mokhtar Al-Yamani (43.33) and butterflier Miles Smachlo (43.73). Throw in freshman Patrick Callan who has been 43.90 flat start and the Wolverines have options for a solid 400 free relay – likely in the B-final range at NCAA’s. The addition of Callan (and his lifetime best of 1:33.52 in the 200) makes the Wolverines immediate contenders to score 2 in the 200 free with the aforementioned Callan and Auboeck. While Auboeck’s 200 wasn’t as strong as his 500 and 1,650 last season (16th – 1:33.70), he has a lifetime best of 1:32.0 from 2017 and should score A-final points next season. Throw in Al-Yamani (1:34.33) and Vargas/Borges and Michigan has a formidable 800 free relay capable of scoring A-final points.
Distance Free: A+
Even though they will be without distance ace PJ Ransford – 12th in the 500 and 6th in the 1,650 at NCAA’s last year – they are returning two A-finalists in both the 500 and 1,650 in Auboeck and Vargas. In the 500, Auboeck finished runner-up to Texas’ Townley Haas with a monster 4:09.03 – just off his lifetime best of 4:08.95 from 2017 NCAA’s. As a freshman last season, Vargas put up an eye-popping 4:11.11 to finish 2nd at the Big Ten Championships. In prelims at NCAA’s, he snuck in 8th with a 4:12.87. While he fell off to 4:17 in finals, he still secured A-final points for the Wolverines. The freshman Callan has a lifetime best of 4:13.7, which would have qualified to swim in the B-final last year.
In the 1,650, Auboeck again finished runner-up – this time behind NC State’s Anton Ipsen in 14:29.42. He has a lifetime best of 14:22 from 2017, in a race where 4 men – Clark Smith (14:22.41), Auboeck (14:22.88), Akaram Mahmoud (14:22.99), and Jordan Wilimovsky (14:23.45) all broke the previous NCAA record of 14:24.08 held by Georgia’s Martin Grodzki. With Ipsen and all of the aforementioned swimmers out of the picture, Auboeck is the undisputed favorite going into the season. Vargas proved to be dangerous last year as well, finishing 7th with a 14:40.27 – a lifetime best. Michigan will need these 2 races to be a major source of point production if they want to improve upon their NCAA finish last year.
Last season, the IM group was a fairly solid source of production for Michigan at NCAA’s. Evan White (a senior last season) and Cope finished 14th and 15th, respectively, in the 200 IM with times of 1:42.63 and 1:42.94. While the Wolverines are losing White, the junior Swanson should be able to fill that gap nicely as he finished 19th – just a few spots outside of a B-final appearance – with a time of 1:43.15. Speaking of Swanson, the 2018 Big 10 champion finished 6th in the 400 IM at NCAA’s with a a time of 3:39.93 in a tightly bunched field – only 1.3 seconds separated 2nd through 6th. Cope, who finished 19th, narrowly missed qualifying for the B-final by 8 tenths of a second. The distance freestyle specialist Vargas will also be a factor – he finished 3rd behind Swanson and Cope at Big 10’s in a time of 3:43.73, which is just on the bubble of NCAA scoring. The Wolverines gain several strong IM’ers with their freshman class – such as Will Chan and Ian Miskelley, but nobody that is likely to produce NCAA points in their first year. If all goes according to plan, they have the potential to pick up 1 up, 1 down in the 200 IM and 1 up, 2 down in the 400 IM.
Losing their fastest 100 butterflier from last season with White stings a little bit, but there isn’t much cause for concern as the junior Jones will jump right in as the next man up. Jones fired off a swift 45.89 last year at the mid-season Georgia Invite, a time that would have been just on the bubble to qualify for the B-final at NCAA’s. His biggest asset, however, comes on the relays. Jones split a 20.29 butterfly leg on Michigan’s 11th place 200 medley relay last season – the 2nd fastest split in the field by an underclassmen. His classmate Smachlo, who was 46.16 last season in the 100 fly, will be a contender to score at NCAA’s as well if he can drop that down a few tenths to the 45-mid range. Smachlo’s primary value comes in the 200 fly, though. As a sophomore last year, he finished 16th in the B-final with a lifetime best of 1:42.03. If he can get into the 1:41-low/1:40-high range, there is no reason to doubt he couldn’t sneak into the A-final.
The backstroke events were a weakness for the Wolverines last season and there isn’t any tangible evidence to suggest that will change this year. Michigan didn’t qualify an individual swimmer at NCAA’s last season in either the 100 or 200 backstroke. Their fastest 100 backstrokers – Sanders (47.02), Peek (47.42), and Powers (47.52) – have all exhausted their eligibility. Additionally, Sanders was also their fastest 200 backstroker with a time of 1:42.16 from Big 10’s. Their fastest returners in the 100 are Alex Martin (47.55) and Rob Zofchak (47.59) and their fastest returners in the 200 are Zofchak (1:43.16) and Kai Williams (1:43.38). While those are respectable times, they aren’t in the conversation to score at NCAA’s. They have a pair of freshman backstrokers in Miskelley and Eric Storms, but neither are at the NCAA-scoring level just yet.
Next to their distance freestyle group, the breaststroke crew is arguably the most productive from a point-scoring standpoint for the Wolverines. In the 100, they are returning a pair of B-finalists in Jeremy Babinet (14th – 52.69, 52.29 prelims) and Jacob Montague (16th – 52.85, 52.36 prelims). While they finished toward the bottom of the B-final, they were 0.01 and 0.08, respectively, away from qualifying for the A-final with their prelims performances. With the freshman standout Chan – lifetime best of 53.45 – in the mix, Michigan could see a pair of A-finalists and a B-finalist in a best-case scenario. The 200 is just as strong, if not stronger, of an event for the Wolverines. They return Cope (7th – 1:52.84, 1:51.87 prelims), Montague (13th – 1:54.72, 1:54.02 prelims), Swanson (18th – 1:54.59), and Babinet (23rd – 1:55.14). Had Swanson and Babinet matched their season-best times of 1:53.49 and 1:54.27, respectively, they would have qualified for the B-final as well.
Michigan’s 2018-2019 season looks bright thanks to some powerhouse returners like Auboeck, Vargas, Cope, and Swanson. A few major keys to matching (or bettering) their 8th place NCAA finish from last year include: finding a solid backstroker to bolster their medley relays, maintaining productivity from upper-echelon swimmers like Auboeck, and finding ways for their bubble swimmers (either at the top end of the B-final or alternates in the 17th-20th range) to make the next step. At the conference level, Michigan will again likely find themselves in a heated battle with Indiana for the title.