Posted after the 200 free prelims.
A commenter recently left a note in the SwimSwam comments section that he had correctly predicted almost every NCAA Champion over the last decade. While not unimpressive, the reality is, that the NCAA swimming & diving championships, at a team level, are rarely competitive. The biggest recent surprise was the Georgia women’s 19-point win over Stanford in 2016, which included Stanford DQ’ing a relay that would have probably closed that gap.
It was pre-SwimSwam, but we’re told the last big surprise before that was probably the Florida women’s 2.5-point win in 2010. It was certainly the last competitive meet where there was more than a “don’t DQ this relay” on in the meet’s final event.
But in 2018, that all changed. Cal and Texas have been the presumed favorites all year, with boasts of Texas’ extreme levels of work paired against Cal’s depth being the primary conversation. But this week’s meet has suddenly turned into a 5-team battle royale that not only gives the broad swim fan something to watch, but also spans national geographies.
The top 5 standings after Thursday’s events:
- Indiana – 169
- NC State – 165
- Texas – 159
- Florida – 154
- Cal – 152.5
That’s 5 teams, with each 1 representing a different of the NCAA’s 5 “Power Conferences.” That means each region of the country has someone to root for, or at least root against, in this battle.
No team has been perfect. Indiana and NC State have probably come the closest to that, but every team has had some misses – Texas’ 400 medley relay in the B Final, Mark Szaranek landing in the B-final of the 400 IM, Cal adding a bunch of time in the opening 800 free relay. But each team has had big successes too – Dressel, Sam Pomajevich going from last seed to A-final in the 500 free for Texas, Indiana and NC State nailing their relays.
Below is a breakout of each of these 5 teams, and one quick take on why their fans have hope of them pulling it out, and why they should also give pause.
- Hope: Ian Finnerty, who has struggled to peak at NCAAs in each of his first two seasons, has been lights-out so far at this meet. He had the fastest breaststroke split on the 400 medley relay (50.33), and made the A-Final of the 200 IM with a season-best time in prelims (though he added and finished 8th in finals). Levi Brock is the 2nd seed in the 100 breaststroke – if Indiana holds that 1-2 there, they will be fired up.
- Caution: Indiana’s divers picked up insane points for them with a 1-3-11 finish on the 1-meter, including Michael Hixon and James Connor at the top. They’ll score big again on the 3-meter, but Hixon and Connor don’t dive platform. Indiana has only 1 entry on platform, freshman Andrew Capobianco, who was 11th on the 1-meter and whose best event is the platform. They’ll still pick up points there, but it won’t be the same surge they got on the 1-meter.
- Hope: The Wolfpack relays have been lights-out, and they’ve just about hit every swim (or at least, haven’t whiffed too hard yet). They had the most seeded points (by a 34.5 point margin over Indiana), so they had the least room to climb, and have held their serve. Consistency will play well in a meet like this. They’ve also been able to rest a lot of swimmers through prelims of relays without any negative impacts.
- Caution: There’s still a bit of another shoe to drop here. They’ve used Ryan Held and Justin Ress on each of their 3 relays so far, with Ress scratching the 200 free on Thursday morning as the 6 seed to tip the hand there. For Held, who swam the 100 fly on Thursday, that means leaving him out of the 100 free or leave him off either the 200 medley and 400 free relay. At ACCs, they both were held off the 400 medley, which they both swam (in finals) on Thursday.
- Hope: It’s been an up-and-down meet for Texas. They’ve got the best balance of swimmers and divers, and they’ve had a few big swims (like Pomajevich) come from completely nowhere to make up for some misses. Shebat wasn’t at his peak in the 400 medley after battling injury all year, but looked strong through the 50. That means Texas should be good to not miss the A-Final in the 200 medley like they did in the 400.
- Caution: Shebat probably isn’t going to score high in the 200, and Schooling has looked solid, but hasn’t given confidence that he’ll pick up event wins and get those crucial 3 bonus points that suddenly look super relevant. A few Texas swimmers have missed their tapers. A few couldn’t have hit them more perfectly. That adds up to anxiety for the 3-time defending champs.
- Hope: Dressel’s insane 50 free on Friday means that Florida is in the hunt for every remaining relay. He still qualified 1st in the 100 fly on Friday even with a little bit of a groin injury, so that will breathe a sigh of relief for gator fans (his reaction time off the blocks, where one might expect that injury to flare, was a very fast .65).
- Caution: Dressel’s 50 doesn’t seem to have sparked his teammates on Friday morning – perhaps the emotion was draining. Mark Szaranek fell into the B-Final of the 400 IM (he was the 2nd seed coming in); Khader Baqlah added time (but did enough to get into the A-Final), and Maxime Rooney added more time and missed an evening swim altogether even after a good relay swim. Jan Switkowski had a solid morning swim in the 100 fly to make the A-Final alongside Dressel, though, so that’s a silver lining.
- Hope: Even without divers, Cal’s depth has done well to keep them in the hunt. A 6th-place finish in the 800 free relay wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t a good sign either given that they were slower than seed. They also have the knowledge that they’re very good at the Saturday events, maybe better than anybody else on this list as whole, to maintain motivation. Bryce Mefford dropping 2 seconds and making the A-Final in the 200 free on Friday morning was a massive, massive swim for them.
- Caution: Thursday was supposed to be a good day for Cal on paper, and while they delivered, even two in the top five of the 50 free left them in 5th place in the team standings. They still have a gap in the 100 back to make up for, and their diver isn’t likely to score. Zheng Quah missing the 100 fly final (though he dropped .01 seconds) cuts one of the spots where Cal was counting on big points. He needs to win that B Final for the Golden Bears.