The 2017 NCAA Swimming & Diving season officially got underway last weekend with the annual Alabama-Delta State dual, which has become a ceremonial opener for the competition schedule. Below, see the top 10 storylines for men’s teams coming into the year.
- See Also: Top 10 Men’s Storylines
10. Can Indiana Keep Bullying Their Way Up
Aside from the obvious (the defending champions, Texas and Stanford), no team in the country has more upward momentum right now than do the Indiana Hoosiers – especially when weighed with both their men’s and women’s programs. A symbol of that momentum came in the last few weeks when high school senior Jack Franzman decommitted from NC State, the prior hot-rising team, for Indiana. Their 7th-place finish at NCAAs last year wasn’t a super-high ‘pop’ for them – they’ve been in the top 12 every year since 2012, including mostly top-10 finishes – but it feels different. Whereas past NCAA high-water-mark men’s teams have teetered, relying on a tight nucleus and then a significant dropoff, this Indiana team is deeper. They’re built to win dual meets, win Big Ten titles, and have big NCAA Championship meets even if 1 or 2 swimmers don’t hit their tapers.
This new generation of Indiana swimming feels different. And this is their “eyes on you” year. Everyone’s watching Indiana now, to see if they can continue up that path. The storyline here is how they will perform as that pressure starts to build.
9. Texas A&M Men Returning to the Top
After a few years outside of the relevance zone of NCAA swimming (25th in 2016, 38th in 2015, 44th in 2014, 24th in 2013), the Texas A&M men have things turned around. Since bringing on Jason Calanog, Caeleb Dressel‘s club coach as a high school swimmer, as the program’s assistant, things have been trending upward for the Aggies. The men’s team put a swimmer on the U.S. National Team (Jonathan Tybur) in the first time in who-knows-how-long. Their 16th-place finish at the NCAA Championships last year was their best since a 13th-place finish in 2013. Mauro Castillo Luna is the highest placing returner in the 200 breaststroke from last year’s NCAA Championships (he was 3rd in 1:52.09). Brock Bonetti returns as an All-American backstroker.
The formula has stayed the same in one regard: A&M continues to have great divers (Tyler Henschel and Sam Thornton both return as All-Americans). The part that’s changed, though, is that the swimmers used to sell-out for the relays. But not any more – Aggies are in A-finals abound. They’ll have to find replacements for their top two sprinters Jacob Gonzales and Cory Bolleter, but a top-12 finish is well within reach.
A&M being back at the top is good for college swimming. The state of Texas is too big to have just one men’s team in the top 20 at NCAAs, especially given how relatively few D1 schools support men’s swimming in the state (Texas, A&M, SMU, TCU, Incarnate Word). This also closes the gap on what, for a time, was one of the biggest gender-spreads in college swimming – with the A&M women consistently in the top 4 at NCAAs.
8. Can USC Pull It All Together?
The USC Trojans have a top-4 worthy roster, but between injuries, relay DQs, another more mysterious circumstances, were only able to pull off a 6th-place finish at last year’s NCAA Championships. Some of the returning names are well known (Santo Condorelli and Dylan Carter), while others are undeservedly under-the-radar (Ralf Tribuntsov). There’s some question-marks, like whether or not Condorelli will return to form for his redshirt senior season (USC hasn’t has confirmed he is on next year’s roster), but if everyone comes back focused, with a senior-heavy roster, combined with developing breaststroker Carsten Vissering, the Trojans are the best sleeper pick to contend for an NCAA title.
No, that doesn’t mean we think they’re going to win it (see #7 below). But they’ve got the right horses to make people notice in March.
7. ARIZONA STATE MEN TURNING A CORNER
Ever since Bob Bowman took over as head coach at Arizona State, the men’s team has seen a revival.
In 2015 they scored zero points, and only sent one swimmer, Tadas Duskinas, to NCAAs. Bowman came in for the start of the 2016 season, and though there were some major improvements, including defeating their in-state rivals from Arizona for the first time since 2002, they still only mustered two points at the National Championships. But in 2017 they jumped from bottom-feeder to major player.
They rocketed past the Wildcats for 4th place at the Pac-12 Championships, beating them by 171 points after trailing by 167 in 2016. They earned 100 points at NCAAs to place 14th overall, highlighted by scoring in all five relays, including a 6th place finish in the 4×100 free ahead of the defending champion NC State Wolfpack.
They’ll be a team to watch for this year as they continue to improve. Leading the charge is sophomore Cameron Craig, who won the Pac-12 200 free title in his freshman year and finished 5th at NCAAs. They will lose a few key pieces in Richard Bohus and Duskinas, but have a solid recruit class coming in including #7 ranked Grant House.
Since Bowman has come on they’ve started to attract more and higher quality recruits, and though they may see a slight point regression this year with the loss of Bohus, they’ve turned the corner and could find themselves inside the top-10 sooner rather than later.
6. Men’s Breaststroke Vaccum
Men’s breaststroke is the most wide open stroke in the NCAA this year without question. A scene that was not too recently dominated by the likes of Kevin Cordes, Josh Prenot and Will Licon, who had a memorable three-way battle in the 200 breast at the U.S. Olympic Trials, is now strikingly bare.
Licon has dominated recently, winning three consecutive 200 titles, and completed the breaststroke sweep last year swimming the 100 for the first time in his senior year. Including Licon, five of the top-8 from the 100 and four of the top-8 from the 200 breast at NCAAs have graduated.
Where does that leave the events? Wide open, especially with no noteworthy breaststrokers entering as freshman.
Cal senior Connor Hoppe and USC junior Carsten Vissering lead the charge in the 100, while seniors Mauro Castillo Luna (Texas A&M) and Carlos Claverie (Louisville) were the top finishers in the 200 last year out of those returning.
Will someone step up this year and assert themselves as the man to beat? It’s certainly possible. Licon was five seconds slower than Cordes in 2014, finishing 12th, and managed to steal the title from him the next season. One name to keep an eye on this season is Jonathan Tybur, another Texas A&M senior who exploded for a big LC personal best of 2:10.94 in the 200 at U.S. World Trials.
However, what is more likely is that both events are completely wide open when we get to NCAAs, which, though it lacks star power, makes for exciting racing nonetheless. And that may well be the last time we see that in breaststroke for a while, with Reece Whitley entering the following season with Cal.
5. Longhorn 4-Peat
The Texas men earlier this month hung their 3rd-straight NCAA Championship banner from the rafters of the Texas swim center, which gives them the right to more such banners (13), officially, than any other program in NCAA history (Michigan has 12 official, plus 7 more declared form the pre-1937 era which had no official team scoring).
The Longhorns return enough to make them the favorites for the 4th-straight title, in spite of key losses like Clark Smith, Jack Conger, and Will Licon. In fact, in spite of graduating more individual NCAA points than any other team in the country, they return more as well. Among men’s teams, Indiana has the record with 6 straight titles from 1968-1973, followed by Auburn who won 5 straight titles 2003-2007 and Michigan who did the same from 1937-1941. That Michigan team actually won 8 straight, again if the pre-1937 titles are included. 4-straight titles have been won on 6 separate occasions (men’s titles tend to come in dynasties), including Texas from 1988-1991.
4. Ryan Hoffer’s Freshman Campaign
They both went sub-19 in the 50 free in high school, annihilate their competition on underwaters, and have a much wider range than the traditional freestyle sprinter. Dressel was also the first 18-and-under swimmer to break 42 seconds in the 100 free, going 41.90. That was while he was in his freshman year in 2015. Later that year, at just 17, Hoffer exploded to go 41.23. What can this kid do on the NCAA scene?
With Dressel completing his eligibility this year, he pretty much has the 50 and 100 free locked up. And that could be a good thing for Hoffer. Without Dressel, he could easily be seen by many as the favorite to win the 100 title, which is a lot of pressure for a freshman. Without that, he can settle into his new surroundings and head into his first NCAAs without a target on his back.
Dressel did win the 50 in his first year, but was only a consolation finalist in his other events. While Hoffer may not win an individual title this season, he should make three A-finals and contend for multiple relay wins with the Golden Bears.
Will he evolve to what Dressel has become over the next four years? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: he’s an exciting addition to the NCAA stage, and fans should cherish this talent and sit back and enjoy the show.
3. Coaching Changes And Their Impact
There were a few major coaching changes over the summer. What impact will they have this year – both on the teams that gained and the teams that lost?
To recap, Rick DeMont announced his retirement from Arizona after 30 years with the program. That led to Augie Busch being hired there, returning to his alma mater after previously serving as head coach at the University of Virginia. With Busch gone, UVA hired Todd Desorbo, who was an associate coach with NC State.
Desorbo worked primarily with the Wolfpack sprint group, which is what they’ve been known for in their recent meteoric rise. NC State may lose an edge without Desorbo, but with the likes of Ryan Held and Justin Ress in the lineup, they’ll be fine.
But Desorbo should drastically help UVA, a team that finished last in the men’s 200 and 400 free relays at NCAAs, and failed to register a point. He should also help the women’s team which performed well last season but has been hit with a few major losses, including Olympic medalist Leah Smith.
As for Busch and the Wildcats, they’ll have their work cut out for them. They’ve seen many of their big names transfer elsewhere, and Busch didn’t produce the best results with Virginia. He will bring assistant Cory Chitwood with him, who coached Smith with Virginia, but the men in particular will need a big campaign to improve on their 24th place, 36.5 point performance in March.
2. Schooling Looks To Redeem, Quah To Build On NCAA Performances
The 2017-18 season will be one of redemption for Texas Longhorn Joseph Schooling. After repeating as the 100 and 200 fly NCAA champion as a sophomore, the 22-year-old won Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Games in the 100 fly.
At the top of the sport, Schooling took a break. And rightly so. However, it showed at the NCAA Championships.
He relinquished the 100 and 200 butterfly titles for the first time since grasping them as a freshman. His performance in the 100 was still his fastest ever, slipping under 44 seconds for the first time, but losing out to Dressel, his former teammate with the Bolles School Sharks, left him unsatisfied.
The next morning he swam the 200 fly prelims and it wasn’t pretty. The two-time defending champ and NCAA Record holder finished 37th out of 41 swimmers, going nearly four seconds slower than his season best and exactly 7.5 slower than his record.
There was a Singaporean on the podium that night however, as Cal freshman Zheng Wen Quah emerged to finish as the runner-up to Schooling’s teammate and friendly rival Jack Conger. Quah only joined the Golden Bears halfway through the season, but quickly proved to be one of the NCAA’s best with his incredible showing of 1:38.83.
Though Schooling’s showing in the 200 fly was really the only blunder on his NCAA meet, adding four relay titles and a third place finish in the 50 free to his runner-up 100 fly, he’ll be swimming for redemption this season. Can he regain his butterfly titles this season with a renewed focus? It will be tough.
Not only did Dressel defeat Schooling in the 100 fly at NCAAs, he dismantled him at the World Championships by nearly a full second. He has his work cut out for him there, but is certainly capable of returning to the top. As for the 200, it looks like it could very well come down to a battle of the Singaporeans now that Conger has graduated. If Schooling focuses on this race, which isn’t a sure thing but seems likely, he should be able to be back on the top of the podium.
As for Quah, who knows what he has in store. He was faster than Schooling was as a freshman, and is pegged by many to take the 200 fly crown this year. While Schooling will be looking to redeem, Quah will aim to build on his breakthrough championships. Who will be the better Singaporean? Time will tell.
1. Dressel Swims For His Collegiate Legacy
Ever since entering the collegiate system for the 2014-15 season, Caeleb Dressel has consistently one-upped himself.
Winning the 50 free as a freshman was a massive breakthrough, but he has evolved over the past two seasons into arguably the best male sprinter in the world. He obliterated the record books in his sophomore season in the 50 free, winning a second consecutive title, and added a win in the 100 where he broke Nathan Adrian’s American record.
From one, to two, to three. Dressel swept all three of his individual events last season, including adding a third NCAA record in the 100 fly, where he defeated reigning Olympic champion Joseph Schooling. His 100 free clocking of 40.00 was otherworldly, and he joined Vladimir Morozov in the sub-18 club with multiple 17-second relay splits.
Will he top himself once again?
Based on the season he had, it seems he can do whatever he sets his mind to. His performance at the World Championships this summer was nothing short of astonishing, so anything seems possible at this point. He’s essentially racing for his collegiate legacy, to leave a stamp on his four years as a Gator. But what more can he do?
Going 3-for-3 in back-to-back years would be something. A sub-40 100 free would be incredible. Breaking 18 in the 50 free, though much less likely, would be earth-shattering. And then there’s the relays, where he’ll have a great chance to lead his Florida Gators to a national title or two, something he hasn’t done yet in his collegiate career.
The sky is the limit.