For the fourth straight year, the University of Texas was crowned the men’s NCAA Division I swimming and diving champions. Unlike the last three years where Texas prevailed by a large margin, this year’s Texas squad scraped out a victory by the skin of its teeth. Texas finished with 449 points to Cal’s 437.5 and Indiana’s 422. While the Texas faithful may have unwavering confidence in their victory, can we look back at the numbers and see if their victory was foreseeable? And unlike past championships, we’ll see that diving played a crucial role in their victory.
The chart below shows nationals score projections throughout the season for the top five teams, Texas, California, Indiana, NC State, and Florida using the Swimulator. The final scores are the actual scores taken from nationals with diving scores subtracted. These projections use each team’s top times throughout the season and they only estimate each teams swimming scores, no diving (more on that later).
Without diving scores, in the final NCAA nationals tally Texas falls behind Cal and Indiana falls all the way to fifth place, though the scores remain close. As you can see, after the mid-season taper meets – 1/1 through 2/1 – but before conference championships, the projections are fairly accurate for the top three teams. Florida and Indiana on the other hand, were behind a few other teams including Michigan and Stanford. Those teams didn’t put down their top times until conference. Conference championships threw another wrench in as neither Can nor Texas fully tapered their swimmers while most of the swimmers for Florida, Indiana, and NC State were closer to a full taper. NC State lead the projections both via the Swimulator and on the psych sheet.
Back on January 13 when I first projected Cal topping Texas, the projections as of 1/13 for both those teams were pretty accurate. I projected Cal 113 points ahead of Texas when they actually finished 56 points ahead without diving. Accounting for diving and some missing Texas swimmers, I projected Cal as 30 point favorites. What I really missed on though, was the number of diving points Texas would score. I estimated 40, when Texas ended up scoring 81 points in diving.
Usually, projecting swimming scores without diving works well. Diving accounts for only about 12% of the total points scored in the meet and rarely does the race for first come that close. In the last ten years, none of the winners of NCAA DI swimming and diving championships have been decided by their diving scores. Denison’s breaking Kenyon’s 31-year streak of DIII men’s victories was a notable exception in 2013. I was interested to see whether or not top swim programs had better diving scores as well at nationals. Shown below are the points scored by each of the top ten men’s D1 swimming and diving programs and the broken up swimming and diving scores.
As you can see, the two are completely uncorrelated. At least half of the teams don’t score any diving points. On a larger scale, there are over 300 Men’s DI swimming and diving programs and most do not score any points at nationals in either. So there is a weak correlations overall, just not for the strongest programs. While diving may have played a crucial role in this year’s NCAA championships on the men’s side, I think a couple of factors including diving scores that were very top-heavy and a swim meet that was incredibly close, make it unlikely to be a common occurrence in the future. But when the meet turns out to be a nail-biter, diving becomes much more important.