College students across the country are kicking off a new school year, meaning that a new season of NCAA swimming is not far behind. As teams gear up for the 2015-2016 NCAA season, examining the wealth of data around NCAA performances can help fans better understand context of the college championship season. By analyzing the past seven years of men’s NCAA Championship results (nearly two full “generations” of teams) we can discern key trends and attempt to make predictions for the upcoming season. The analysis below focuses on the Men’s NCAA Championships, with upcoming installments examining the Women’s NCAA Championships. Though there is always an “x-factor” in championship-level swimming, leveraging the wealth of data available may help to inform more accurate predictions of performance in the future.
The dashboard below shows scoring trends in the top 20 teams at the past seven NCAA Championships. Thirty-four different teams have placed in the top 20 at NCAAs since 2009, though only ten teams have successfully broken through the top 20 barrier every single year: Arizona, Auburn, Cal, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford, Texas, and USC. A deeper dive into the data reveals several interesting trends that can help to provide context for stronger predictions of performance in the future.
To dive into the data, hover over any team on the left-hand pane of the dashboard below to follow their performance over the past seven years.
As shown in the dashboard, NCAA powerhouses Texas and Cal have not only consistently been top performers at NCAAs, but have even extended their dominance in the past several years. Texas and Cal are the only two teams to have broken the 500 point barrier since Auburn in 2009, with Texas scoring 528 points to win the championship in 2015 and Cal earning the highest historical point total in the dataset with their 535 point win in 2012.
Those two teams have traded 1st and 2nd place finishes almost every year, except for 2009 when Auburn topped the rankings and 2013 when Michigan broke through to win the Championship. Florida nearly broke that stranglehold with a 387 point performance in 2014 that was good enough for third place, but fell back to fifth place in 2015.
While teams like Texas and Cal have consistently placed highly at NCAAs, there are a few teams who have come out of the woodwork to emerge on to the national stage. For example, USC has made a rapid rise over the past seven years, consistently improving their NCAA performance to jump from a 15th place finish in 2009 with all the way up to 4th place in 2015. NC State did not even break through into the top 20 until 2013, when they jumped all the way up to 15th, and then breaking through into the top 10 for the first time in 2015 with an 8th place finish. Michigan too made a huge jump from 5th in 2012 to winning the championship in 2013, breaking through the 300 point barrier for the first time and then remaining there for the past three years.
Teams with Largest Gains from 2009-2015
Conversely, several teams have dropped significantly out of contention since 2009. Auburn dropped from National Champions in 2009 all the way down to a 10th place finish in 2013 before moving back to 9th place in 2015. Arizona climbed to 6th place in 2009, but then dropped down to 13th place in 2015, scoring 184 fewer points. Both Minnesota and UVA secured 9th and 11th place finishes respectively in 2009, but have since dropped completely out of the top 20 in the past two championships.
Teams with the Biggest Losses from 2009-2015
What will 2016 bring? Further dominance from Cal and Texas? New teams breaking in to the national stage like NC State? Continued rise for up and coming teams like USC? Combining the trends outlined in the dashboard with SwimSwam’s series “Ranking the 2015 Men’s NCAA Recruiting Class” raises a few interesting points as we look to the coming year:
- Minnesota has failed to place in the top 20 for the past two years, but the Gophers are bringing in a #11 ranked recruiting class and returning a strong contingent of high performers from last year who may have what it takes to return to their top 20 ways
- Notre Dame has not broken into the top 20 in the past seven years, but the Fighting Irish are bringing in the #9 ranked recruiting class this year as new head coach Matt Tallman settles into his second year in the role
- Similarly, Harvard has never placed in the top 20 at NCAAs, but landed a sterling recruiting class ranked #7 this year with a strong cadre of up and coming freestylers that could propel them into contention on the national stage in the next few years
- Finally, Texas and Cal have the #1 and #2 ranked recruiting classes this year respectively, adding multiple potential contributors at NCAAs to what was already a loaded lineup and indicating that we are likely to see continued dominance from these two teams for years to come
With the 2016 Olympics looming at the end of the year, several of the top NCAA swimmers have opted to redshirt this season to focus on long course Olympics preparation. But history tells us that NCAAs will continue to be highly competitive. Only time will tell which teams have what it takes to perform on the national stage in the spring.