It’s that time of the year again. SwimSwam will be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s teams (and then some) from the 2023 NCAA Championships. Follow along with the College Swimming Preview Channel. Want to read even more? Check out the latest edition of the SwimSwam magazine.
#7 Tennessee Volunteers
Key Losses: Lyubomir Epitropov (4 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay, 44 SEC points), Jarel Dillard (29 SEC points), Michael Houlie (1 NCAA relay, 28 SEC points), Aleksey Tarasenko (2 NCAA relays, 9 SEC points), Jack Little (23 SEC points, NCAA qualifier), Scott Scanlon (1 NCAA relay, 11 SEC points)
Returning Fifth Years: None
Over the years, we’ve gone back and forth on how to project points, ranging from largely subjective rankings to more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points.’ We like being as objective as possible, but we’re going to stick with the approach we’ve adopted post-Covid. The grades will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have posted 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.
Also, keep in mind that we are publishing many of these previews before teams have posted finalized rosters. We’re making our assessments based on the best information we have available at the time of publication, but we reserve the right to make changes after publication based on any new information that may emerge regarding rosters. If that does happen, we’ll make certain to note the change.
Heading into the 2022-23 NCAA season, the Tennessee men were on an upward trajectory after their showing in 2021-22. Jordan Crooks had emerged as a star, becoming the fastest freshman ever in the 50 free and scoring 30 of Tennessee’s 76 points at the 2022 NCAA championships to help them towards an 18th-place finish. The Volunteers were not a top team by any means then, but they just needed a few more names to stand behind Crooks in order to rise up the rankings—and that’s exactly what happened a season later.
Of course, Crooks just got better and better, etching himself into the history books during his sophomore season. His in-season times turned heads, and eventually, he became the second swimmer to ever break 18 seconds in the 50 free when he went 17.93 at the SEC Championships. He was the highest-scoring swimmer at SECs, and then he went on to back up that conference performance by also winning the 50 free at NCAAs—becoming the first male swimmer from Tennessee to win an individual NCAA title since 2001. He was far and away his team’s top scorer at NCAAs, earning 48 points. For his efforts, he was named the 2023 SEC Male Swimmer of the Year.
However, what allowed Tennessee to move up from 18th to 7th at NCAAs last season was not just Crooks—his teammate, Gui Caribe, also played a big part. Coming into the last NCAA season, Caribe wasn’t on the radars of many, but he exploded to set best times of 18.79 and 41.43 in the 50 and 100 free respectively. He scored 20 individual points at NCAAs and also was a huge boost to Tennessee relays. Because of him as well as Crooks’ improvements, the Volunteers were able to place four different relays in the top eight. They also scored 108 points from relays alone, which accounted for nearly half of the team’s points.
Beyond Crooks and Caribe, several other Tennessee men shined. Diver Bryden Hattie scored 30 NCAA points and earned a 2nd place finish in the ten-meter. Freshmen Nick Simons and Martin Espernberger saw massive drops to score at NCAAs, as did transfer Landon Driggers.
From a conference perspective, Tennessee wasn’t able to match their second-place finish from 2022 at SECs, falling to third behind Auburn. However, that speaks more to Auburn’s rise than it does to any of Tennessee’s shortcomings, as Tennessee was clearly the better team in an NCAA Championship format.
After scoring their highest team finish since 2016 and their second top-ten finish in the Matt Kredich era, Tennessee enters the 2023-24 NCAA season as one of the top teams in the nation.
Sprint Free: ★★★★
Crooks comes into the NCAA season as the fastest-returning 50 freestyler (17.93 PB) and the 3rd-fastest returning 100 freestyler (40.92 PB). He is no doubt a top-three sprinter in the nation right now, and even if he doesn’t defend his 50 free NCAA title, he’s bound to earn at least 25 points from the 50 and 100 free alone. Last year, from finishing 1st in the 50 free and tying for 5th in the 100 free, he scored 33.5 points.
It will be interesting to see how Crooks’ long course developments this past summer helped him in the short course pool. After primarily being known as a short course swimmer who has incredible underwaters, he exploded at the World Championships this July, setting massive 50 and 100 free best times of 21.73 and 47.71 respectively to make the final in both events.
Caribe will be making big contributions to the Tennessee point total as well. By finishing 8th in the 50 free (19.16) and 9th in the 100 free (41.54) at NCAAs last year, he amassed a total of 20 points. However, his best time of 18.79 in the 50 free from NCAAs would have placed 5th and given him an additional three points. In the 100 free, his personal best of 41.43 is also from SECs and would have been 0.09 shy of what it took to make the ‘A’ final, so 9th was arguably the best that he could do with his capabilities at that point. However, if he can drop just a little bit more time, he’ll be able to contend in the ‘A’ final in the event.
With the sprints getting deeper every year and Caribe’s times being on the periphery of that ‘A’ final cut line, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to place top 8 at 2024 NCAAs with his current times. However, it’s almost certain that he’ll be able to score double-digit points on a good day, and he’s got the whole year to improve (look at how Crooks developed from freshman to sophomore year, it’s very possible that Caribe could develop the same this year.)
Aside from Crooks and Caribe, the only Tennessee swimmer who competed in the 50 or 100 free at NCAAs was junior Björn Kamman, who finished 44th in the 100 free with a season-best of 42.88 and is the fastest returning 100 freestyler behind the dynamic duo. With PBs of 19.85/42.53, he’s not going to be a factor in terms of scoring at NCAAs, but will be important for relays and SEC points. The same goes for senior Micah Chambers, who has a best time of 19.43 and is the team’s third-fastest returning 50 freestyler. With 200 and 400 free NCAA relay members Scott Scanlon and Aleksey Tarasenko gone, Kamman and Chambers will have to step up big time for the Vols—but we’ll talk more about that in the relay section of this article.
Tennessee doesn’t have many big recruits coming in this season, but one of them is Nikoli Blackman from Trinidad and Tobago. He holds best times of 21.92/48.98 in short course meters, which convert to times of 19.80 and 44.12 in yards (using SwimSwam’s classic converter). He also was recently crowned a World Junior Champion in the long course 50 free, posting a personal best of 22.33 which converts to 19.45 in yards. Those are some pretty good times for an incoming freshman—could he be the next international Tennessee sprinter to be developed in Knoxville?
Unlike the 50 and 100 free, there’s not much to talk about in terms of the 200 free at Tennessee. In fact, the lack of star power in the 200 free is the reason why the Vols only have four stars and not five starts in the sprint free category. They didn’t have a single swimmer race the event at NCAAs, and they didn’t field an 800 free relay. Crooks was last year’s fastest 200 freestyler with his time of 1:34.30 from midseasons, but that time is over a second slower than the NCAA qualifying time (he’s also not going to swim the 200 free at a championship meet). Junior Joaquín Vargas (1:34.49) and senior Will Jackson (1:34.97) also got under 1:35 during midseasons, but neither of them will make an impact nationally either. Vargas was the team’s only scorer at SECs in the 200 free, placing 20th and earning 5 points.
Overall, having one of the best 1-2 sprint free punches in the country will be just enough for this discipline to be rated four stars for Tennessee.
Distance Free: ★
Distance free had already been a weak point for the Vols, as they only boasted on NCAA qualifier, Jack Little, who didn’t score any points. Now that Little is gone, Tennessee men’s distance swimming will have even fewer contenders.
In the 500 free, Vargas is the fastest returning swimmer with his 4:15.17 from a last-chance meet. He finished 27th at SECs with a 4:20.95, but could have placed as high as 11th at the meet had he gone his best time. The Vols’ highest 500 free finisher at SECs ended up being U.S. Open Water World Championships team member and senior Joey Tepper, who was 12th in 4:16.95 but also set a best time of 4:15.70 at the same last chance meet. In fact, Tepper improved by over five seconds in the 500 last season. Seniors Rafael Ponce De Leon and Jake Narvid, both SEC ‘C’ finalists, are next on the depth charts with 2022-23 season-bests of 4:19.05 and 4:20.37 respectively (though Ponce de Leon holds a PB of 4:17.10 from 2021).
Out of the aforementioned swimmers, Vargas and Tepper are the only ones within the realm of an NCAA berth next season in the 500 free, as both swimmers are around a second away from the 2022-23 cut line of 4:14.36.
The 1650 free is where Narvid is on top. He’s the only returning team member with a sub-15 minute mile, boasting a 2022-23 NCAA season-best of 14:58.21 which is less than a second off his best time of 14:57.85 and four seconds away from the NCAA cut time of 14:53.84. He didn’t have the best SECs though, adding 12 seconds and finishing 21st. Tepper was the Vols’ highest returning finisher in the mile at SECs, placing 19th with a 15:07.24 though he has a best time of 15:00.33 from a 2022 dual meet. Vargas and Ponce De Leon also scored in the mile at SECs, finishing 23rd and 24th respectively out of 31 swimmers.
Don’t expect distance swimming to carry much weight at Tennessee, but keep an eye on rising swimmers. If Vargas and Tepper continue to improve more in the 500 free, they could have their first NCAA berth.
Simons, who came into last season as the fastest backstroker in the high school class of 2022, had a lot of expectations to fulfill. He got the job done, improving from a time of 46.39 to 45.45 in the 100 back and from 1:40.78 to 1:40.05 in the 200 back in his freshman season. He finished 15th in both events at NCAAs and accumulated a total of four points, in addition to leading off the 400 medley relay. Lierz had been 38th at NCAAs with a time of 46.83, though his personal best of 45.70 would have been just 0.16 away from what it took to score. He also went 1:41.90 and placed 20th in the 200 back, just 0.02 off his best in that event.
Although Kamman is slower than Simons and Lierz in the 100 back, he’s the team’s best 50 backstroker, having led off their medley relay with a time of 20.97 at NCAAs. He’s also been as fast as 45.93 in the 100 back and set a season-best of 46.18 last season, though he was half a second his best at NCAAs last season and finished 33rd. Like Lierz, he’s very close to scoring range at his best.
Junior Landon Driggers, who we will talk about more in the IM section of this article, is the team’s third-fastest 200 backstroker with a best time of 1:43.08. He’s capable of scoring in the event on an SEC level but isn’t quite there on a national stage, having finished 39th last year in a time of 1:45.34 (his PB would have brought up to 34th). Crooks also has a formidable 100 back time of 45.55 that would have barely missed scoring last year, but he’s clearly better at the 100 fly and wouldn’t race backstroke at championship meets.
Tennessee doesn’t have any major players in backstroke but they have at least three swimmers who can at least scrape by to score single-digit points at NCAAs, which warrants the two-star rating. However, NCAAs are a team effort, so every single point counts.
Breaststroke was one of Tennessee’s deepest disciplines last season, with Lyubomir Epitropov, Jarel Dillard, and Michael Houlie all capable of breaking 52 seconds in the 100 breast and Epitrpov scoring in the 200 breast at NCAAs. However, all three swimmers are gone this year, leaving the Vols with zero returning NCAA qualifiers. In addition, 52.2/1:53.9 breaststroker Brett Champlin is also not on the roster for this season. On the bright side though, the majority of the team’s big additions are breaststrokers as well.
Flynn Crisci, a fifth-year transfer from Pitt, comes in with a best time of 51.87 which is 0.01 faster than Epitrpov’s best (which led the team last season). He finished 27th at NCAAs last year with a time of 52.18, though his best time would have placed 18th—just two places away from scoring. He’s the front-runner to be the team’s breaststroker on both medley relays and just needs a little bit of improvement to help contribute individually as well. He’s weaker in the 200 breast though, holding a best time of 1:54.50 that is over two seconds away from scoring.
Also be on the lookout for freshman Jed Garner, who was a “best of the rest” in SwimSwam’s list of recruits for the class of 2023. He holds best times of 53.76 and 1:56.82 and is arguably the top domestic recruit to come to Knoxville. He’s still far from NCAA qualifying, but he’s worth paying attention to given how unpredictable freshman development is.
Losing swimmers like Epitropov and Dillard, who were very strong across both breaststroke distances, will hurt Tennessee—especially since their replacements are both sprint-oriented and not as strong in the 200. We can’t give them two stars based on their average projected point totals for the 100 and 200 breast, but they could certainly end up with NCAA points in breaststroke if Crisci has a good year—hence the half-star added.
In freestyle, it was Crooks and Caribe who put up high point totals. But in butterfly, it’s Crooks and sophomore Martin Espernberger who lead the team in the 100 and 200 fly respectively.
Crooks finished 5th in the 100 fly NCAA final with a time of 44.29, though his best time of 44.04 would have been as high as 3rd. He’s still got over half a second to drop if he wants to contend with names like Virginia Tech’s Youssef Ramadan and Florida’s Josh Liendo for the NCAA title, but it would be a shock if he doesn’t ‘A’ final in the event. Meanwhile, Espernberger is coming off of an excellent freshman campaign in the 200 fly. He first broke Mel Stewart‘s long-standing team record during midseasons and then backed himself up by setting a personal best of 1:41.39 in the prelims of NCAAs. That time had him tied for 8th, but he lost a swim-off to Michigan’s Gal Cohen Groumi and was relegated to the ‘B’ final. In finals, he added nearly two seconds and finished 16th with a 1:43.21, but his prelims time showed that he’s capable of scoring much more than a singular point in the event.
Kamman finished 28th in the 100 fly at NCAAs in a time of 45.84, but his personal best of 45.32 would have been just 0.08 away from scoring. Lierz has also broken 46 before and holds a best time of 45.90, but it doesn’t seem like he’s going to swim the 100 fly/100 back double. Next up on the depth chart is Chambers, who finished 14th at SECs in a time of 46.45 and still needs to drop around a second to qualify for NCAAs in the event. Finally, it’s worth noting that Caribe set a best time of 46.20 last season in the SEC ‘C’ final, but opted not to swim the 100 fly at NCAAs.
Though Kamman and Chambers can provide some depth in the 100 fly, there’s not many swimmers aside from Espernberger who can make an impact in the 200 fly. The next-fastest returning swimmer in the event is junior Gus Rothrock, who went 1:45.96 at a Last Chance meet last season and has been as fast as 1:45.88. However, that time is over three seconds off of the 1:42.57 it took to qualify for NCAAs last season.
Tennessee butterfly is brought to three stars thanks to Crooks and Espernberger, who both have ‘A’ final potential (because Espernberger is still on the border between an ‘A’ final, we aren’t sure if he and Crooks will average more than 15 points). However, Kamman could join the part this season.
One of the biggest and most overlooked storylines from the Vols last season was the progression of Landon Driggers. Driggers spent his freshman season at the DII University of Indianapolis, before taking a year off from the NCAA and signing with Tennessee in the summer of 2022. He had already been a DII NCAA runner-up in the 400 IM but got even better at Tennesee, dropping his best time from 3:47.56 to 3:40.94. That improvement allowed him to qualify for D1 NCAAs, where he was able to qualify for the ‘B’ final and finish 15th.
Driggers is also the team’s fastest returning swimmer in the 200 IM, where he holds a best time of 1:43.16 from SECs. That time is just under a second of the 1:42.33 it had taken to score at NCAAs last year.
There’s not much to talk about aside from Driggers in the IM discipline. Rothrock is the next-fastest IMer aside from him, holding best times of 1:46.04 and 3:47.48 which are still far from NCAA qualification. Drigger’s 400 IM scoring potential itself puts the Vols at two stars in this category, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be making an impact aside from him.
While Crooks and Caribe are the faces of Tennessee on the swimming side, Bryden Hattie‘s impact on the diving side cannot be underestimated. The 2023 SEC Men’s Diver Of The Year tied Crooks as the team’s highest scorer at SECs and went on to finish 2nd in the 10-meter and 6th in the 3-meter at NCAAs, earning 30 points for Tennessee. He was the second-highest overall scorer on the team behind Crooks, as well as one of three Vols to earn double-digit individual points. He’ll be back in action this season and single-handedly boosts Tennessee diving to three stars.
The other big-impact diver on this Tennessee roster is sophomore Nicholas Stone. Last season, he earned two NCAA points for the Vols with his 15th-place finish in the ten-meter, in addition to scoring 39 points at SECs.
With two potential NCAA scorers, Tennessee has a better diving contingent than a lot of other top-ten NCAA squads, which is a big boost for them.
The Tennessee relays deserve more credit than what the star system gives them. The average amount of points that they are projected to earn across five relays is lowered because they likely won’t field an 800 free relay at NCAAs, but when that relay is taken out of the equation, the Vols have one of the best relay contingents in the nation.
In both their 200 and 400 free relays, which finished 4th and 7th at NCAAs respectively, replacements will have to be made. With Scanlon (18.76 split at NCAAs) and Tarasenko (19.04 split at NCAAs) gone, Chambers (19.43 PB), Kamman (19.85 PB) and Blackman are likely candidates to be on the 200 free relay alongside Crooks and Caribe this year. Even if Scanlon and Tarasenko’s replacements don’t produce sub-19 splits, Tennessee should still be able to finish top 8 with Crooks and Caribe at the helm if everyone on the relay splits at least a 19-low.
The Vols return all the members of their 400 free relay (Crooks, Caribe, Kamman) except for Tarasenko. The next-fastest returning 100 freestyler on the team is Chambers, who has been as fast as 42.93 off a flat start before. If he can near Tarasenko’s 42.33 split from last year while everyone else on the relay performs up to expectation, the Vols should have no trouble repeating or even bettering their 7th-place finish from last year (it’s worth noting that Crooks split 41.04 on last year’s relay, which was slower than his flat start best. If he can produce a rolling split faster than his flat start, the Vols can move up a few places easily). Also, keep an eye on Blackman—we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of him having a Crooks or Caribe-like freshman season.
On both medley relays, the only change likely to be made from last year is the addition of Crisci on breaststroke. The quartet of Kamman, Houlie, Crooks (the fastest 50 flyer ever), and Caribe were less than a second off winning NCAAs last season and placed 6th, and can be in title contention again this year if Crisci can get down to Houlie’s 22.91 breaststroke split. At Pitt, Crisci’s teammate Cooper Van der Laan took on breaststroke medley relays, so we don’t have much data on Crisci’s relay capabilities. Crisci’s fastest 50 breast relay split is 23.66, but he has the potential to be much faster considering that he took out his fastest 100 breast in 23.96.
In the 400 medley relay (which also finished 6th at NCAAs last year), Crisci should slide right into Epitropov’s former spot and join Simons, Crooks, and Caribe. He’s split as fast as 51.45 on the 400 medley relay before, which is faster than Epitropov’s NCAAs split of 51.82.
Tennessee’s fastest 800 free relay time last season was 6:17.27, which is still over a second off the NCAA ‘A’ cut. But even if that relay is out of the picture, Crooks and Caribe being the driving forces on the team’s other relays will bring in plenty of NCAA points.
Total Stars: 20/40
We acknowledge that the star grading system isn’t perfect, and this Tennessee team is an example of why. This team doesn’t lose any of their top NCAA scorers, and yet their 20 stars match the 20 stars of #9 Virginia Tech, a team that scored 84 fewer points than the Vols at NCAAs last year. The addition of the 200 free in the “sprint freestyle” category and the 800 free in the “relay” category hurt Tennessee’s star total, but don’t be mistaken. The amount of points that Crooks, Caribe, and Hattie bring to the team alone makes them a favorite to at least match their 7th place finish at NCAAs, while names like Driggers, Espernberger, Lierz, and Simons will provide further contributions.
In addition, the Vols only lost a breaststroke contingent that combined for single-digit points at NCAAs last season, as well as two sprinters that only scored on relays. Meanwhile, they gain a breaststroker on the cusp of NCAA scoring (Crisci), a top domestic breaststroke recruit (Garner), and a World Junior Champion sprinter (Blackman). This team made good use of their newcomers last season, so it will be interesting to see how they do this year.
Outside the pool, the Vols saw one major coaching change: the loss of sprint and associate head coach Josh Huger. In place for him will be Sarah Collins, who will take on her first season as a full-time coach this fall. She will join Ashley Jahn as the second associate head on Matt Kredich‘s coaching staff.
Overall, the Tennessee men are a strong team all-around, with no weak events except for the distance freestyles, the 200 breast, and the 200 IM. Expect them to be one of the top teams in the NCAA and SEC once more.
Men’s Preview Index:
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
|#7 Tennessee Volunteers||★★★★||★||★★||★½||★★★||★★||★★★||★★★½||20/40|
|#8 Stanford Cardinal||★★||★★★||★★★||★★||★★★||★★★||★★★||★★★||22/40|
|#9 Virginia Tech Hokies||★★★||★||★★½||★★★||★★★||★★★||★||★★★½||20/40|
|#10 Auburn Tigers||★||★★||★★★½||★||★★||★||★||★★★½||15/40|
|#11 Ohio State Buckeyes||★★★||★★★||★||★||★||★||★★★★||★||15/40|
|#12 Georgia Bulldogs||★★||★★★★||★★★★||★||★||★★★||★||★★★||19/40|