Five Storylines for the Men’s NCAA Swimming Championships
Five Storylines for the Men’s NCAA Swimming Championships: Texas-Cal Again, Record Chase and More
Two teams displayed utter dominance over men’s NCAA swimming in the 2010s: Texas and California. In nine of those 10 years, the Longhorns and Golden Bears occupied the top two spots at the national championships meet in some order. The only exception came in 2013, when Michigan won the meet—with Cal finishing second and Texas third. Along the way, the programs have produced scores of swimmers who have gone on to international acclaim and comprised the backbone of U.S. national teams, but as those swimmers have graduated, more have emerged to sustain the pace of these two programs.
Before the NCAA championships were canceled in 2020, the psych sheet projections showed that Texas would win the meet, reclaiming the title that Cal had snatched away the year before, and Cal would finish second. So of all the storylines to watch heading into this year’s meet, the most significant is…
1. Cal vs. Texas, Again
This year’s psych sheet projections show Cal scoring 449 points and Texas at 428. That doesn’t include diving, where the Longhorns typically get a boost, so you can expect another nail-biter between the two stalwarts. The third-seeded team, Florida, is projected more than 100 points behind.
This year’s Texas team has the most individual qualifiers for the meet (18), and the team will rely on junior freestyler Drew Kibler and versatile freshman star Carson Foster to lead the way, with Foster’s older brother Jake, sprinter Daniel Krueger and butterflyer Alvin Jiang among the others who could score big points. Cal, as is typically the case, has a loaded sprint crew led by Ryan Hoffer and Bjorn Seeliger, along with breaststroke star Reece Whitley, a trio of impressive backstrokers and IMer Hugo Gonzalez.
Cal coach Dave Durden, also the head men’s coach for the U.S. Olympic team, is in his 14th season with the Bears, meaning that he hasn’t finished below second place since his second year on the job. Meanwhile, Texas coach Eddie Reese is completing his 43rd year with Texas, and he has won 14 national championships and finished second 12 times. Reese is the only coach to ever win national titles in four different decades, and another win would make five decades.
Plenty of swimmers add from their seed times at NCAAs, but Cal and Texas are consistently among the biggest improvers of the meet. On the biggest stage of college swimming, the Bears and Longhorns always come through with big efforts. So once again, these two programs will square off for a national crown.
2. Florida’s Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke Pushing Freestyle Boundaries
Last season, a pair of Florida sophomores had new American records to their names heading into the NCAA championships, but after the cancellation, they never got the chance to show their form on the national level. This year, both Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke will again be set up to shine in the longer freestyle events.
Smith set the 500 free American record at the 2020 SEC championships with a 4:06.32, smashing Zane Grothe’s previous record of 4:07.25. That’s almost two seconds faster than the existing NCAA championships meet record of 4:08.19, set by Townley Haas in 2019. At this year’s SECs, Smith matched his own record, but Georgia freshman Jake Magahey almost ran him down, becoming the second man under 4:07 with a 4:06.71. And lurking as the third seed is Kibler, who swam a 4:08.26 earlier this year to move to fifth all-time in the event. With all of those swimmers in the same race, could we see a 4:05?
As for the 200 free, Smith swam a 1:29.48 at the SEC championships, making him the second-fastest performer in history behind Dean Farris’ 1:29.15 relay leadoff from the NCAA meet in 2019. Plenty of other 200 free talent has moved on from the collegiate level in recent years—Haas, Blake Pieroni, Andrew Seliskar and Zach Apple—but Kibler has been as quick as 1:30.57, and he could again push Smith toward record pace.
Finally, the 1650 free will feature Finke, who swam a 14:12.08 American record at the 2020 SEC meet to crush Grothe’s previous record (14:18.25) by six seconds. Finke just missed the mark by a tenth last month, finishing at 14:12.18. Magahey is seeded second at 14:24.96, which sounds like leaps and bounds behind, but in reality, his time is very in tune with what has previously won NCAA swimming titles.
Remember in 2017, when four men swam arguably the greatest distance race in history? In a race that came down to the last 50, Clark Smith, Felix Aubock, Akram Mahmoud and Jordan Wilimovsky all swam faster than the previous record time, with Smith emerging victorious. All their times came between 14:22.41 and 14:23.45. Now, in 2021, Finke will likely be on his own, but he could be gunning for a marvelous new record, possibly in the realm of sub-14:10.
3. Best Race of the Men’s NCAA Swimming Championships? 200 Fly
The last individual race of the meet could be the best, with five men seeded under 1:40, and all of them are among the 15 fastest performers in history. The favorite is Cal’s Trenton Julian, who swam a 1:38.53 at the Pac-12 championships, making him the third-fastest performer ever behind the Texas Olympic gold medalist duo of Jack Conger and Joseph Schooling. The 22-year-old finished sixth in the event at NCAAs two years ago, but he has knocked a whopping two seconds off his lifetime best this season.
The second seed is Louisville’s Nicolas Albiero, who swam a 1:38.65 last season to make him fifth all-time, and just behind him are Texas’ Sam Pomajevich, Indiana’s Brendan Burns and Virginia Tech’s Antoni Ivanov. And then there is the Georgia duo of senior Camden Murphy and freshman Luca Urlando. Murphy, a senior, is one of just three finalists from the 2019 meet still competing on the college level, and while Urlando, seeded seventh at 1:40.67, is actually the 12th-fastest performer in history (and third-fastest American) in the long course version of 200 fly at 1:53.84.
With these seven guys, you have the most loaded race of the weekend, with a mix of styles and strategies, a likely impact on the team race, and maybe even a record scare. Speaking of which…
4. Records? Watch Out for Shaine Casas and Others
We’ve already covered the expected pushes for records in the 200, 500 and 1650 freestyles from the Florida Gators contingent, and that won’t be it in the chase for history in Greensboro. First, pay attention to Shaine Casas, if you aren’t already. The Texas A&M junior was poised for a breakout meet at last year’s NCAAs, and he has already rolled up a long list of record performances this season. He’s the fourth-fastest performer ever in the 200 fly, so he could have added to the loaded field there, but instead, he picked the 200 IM, 100 back and 200 back.
Casas is the big favorite in all of those races, and he is in striking distance of some pretty remarkable records: Caeleb Dressel’s 1:38.13 in the 200 IM and Ryan Murphy’s 43.49 in the 100 back and 1:35.73 in the 200 back. Currently, Casas is third all-time in the IM and fourth all-time in both backstrokes, and he has the confidence and the charisma that indicates a special show this week.
Elsewhere, none of Dressel’s sprint freestyle or butterfly records will be touched, but the breaststroke events bear watching. In the 100, Max McHugh ranks fourth all-time behind American record-holder Ian Finnerty, Dressel and Olympian Kevin Cordes. McHugh’s best time of 50.19 from the Big Ten championships is a half-second behind Finnerty’s mark of 49.69.
In the 200 breast, meanwhile, Whitley improved to second all-time earlier this season, with a 1:48.53, behind only Will Licon (1:47.91) and ahead of former American record-holder Cordes. Whitley holds the Cal school record, which is particularly significant when you remember that the previous record-holders were Olympian Josh Prenot and 2019 NCAA champion Seliskar. Whitley has a strong chance to make a record run in Greensboro.
Also, keep an eye on Carson Foster in the 400 IM. His best time of 3:35.27 from earlier this season made him the second-fastest performer ever, although he is still two seconds behind Chase Kalisz’s 3:33.42 from back in 2017. Don’t bet against Foster tracking down that record before his college career is done, but that would be a tall task for his freshman season.
5. Who From NCAAs Could Impact the Olympic Team?
Short course racing and long course racing are very different beasts, but most Olympic years see plenty of top performers from NCAA swimming go on to Olympic success. In 2016, Murphy, Schooling, Prenot, Dressel, Kalisz, Conger, Smith, Pieroni, and Gunnar Bentz all used their collegiate success as a springboard to winning Olympic medals shortly after. Naturally, throughout this meet, the question will arise as to how each individual can translate their performance to the long course pool.
Already, Smith and Finke are favorites to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in their respective freestyle events, and they will hope to lead a resurgence in what have been relatively weak events for the U.S. team in recent years. Casas will have a strong opportunity to qualify for the team in the backstrokes, and Urlando is considered the early Olympic Trials favorite in the 200 fly, but maybe some others from that deep event could make the jump to long course success as well.
Aside from that, you have question marks. Can someone like Foster or Whitley match up with veteran professionals in their respective events to make a mark at Trials? Can someone from the sprint ranks (Krueger?) make the jump to compete for a 400 free relay spot?
Undoubtedly, the Olympic Trials will pose plenty of surprises, so it’s not hard to envision someone who excels or even someone who flies under the radar at NCAAs rising to the occasion in June. Five years ago, virtually no one expected Jay Litherland to qualify for the Olympic team in the 400 IM or for Bentz to grab an Olympic spot in the 800 free relay. That’s still three months away, but don’t forget about the looming Olympic summer will still hover over this NCAA meet.
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