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By David Rieder
AUSTIN, Texas, March 27. THE release of the psych sheets for the men’s NCAA Championships hinted at a showdown between the defending champion Michigan Wolverines and the SEC Champion Florida Gators for the team title, while some predicted that the California Golden Bears could also push into the title contention. Arizona, meanwhile, would need huge relay performances if they wanted to vault into the mix.
Few pointed to Texas as real title challengers this year, a rarity during the tenure of Eddie Reese. Reese has won ten national titles during 36 seasons at the helm, most recently in 2010. This year, Reese’s squad has home pool advantage but seemingly lacked the superstars that have highlighted most of his title runs, most recently the likes of Brendan Hansen, Ian Crocker, and Jimmy Feigen. Entering the meet, versatile freshman Jack Conger brought the most name recognition, and in his first final at the NCAAs, he took fifth today in the 500 free.
Updated men’s NCAA scores and projections through night 1: pic.twitter.com/U9JP4Kcegr
– USA Swimming Stats (@USASwimStats) March 28, 2014
And yet, despite the odds, Texas sits in first place after the first of three days of swimming at the Lee and Joe Jamail Swimming Center. The Longhorns, projected to score 45 points in swimming on day one, ended up with 112, and with Michael Hixon and Cory Bowersox finishing first and fifth, respectively, in the one-meter diving, they hold the lead with 146 points. The Longhorns dropped huge amounts of time today, most notably Will Licon — seeded 55th — cutting almost three seconds off his entry time of 1:45.98 to place 14th in the 200 IM.
Meanwhile, John Murray and Matthew Ellis each entered the meet seeded out of the top 16 in the 50 free, but personal best efforts from both put them in the A-final. Murray’s blistering split of 18.36 in the 200 free relay boosted Texas past a favored Auburn squad into second in the 200 free relay. Texas typically notches huge time drops at NCAAs considering that the squad has little need to taper to defeat their sole opponent, Texas Christian, in the Big-12 Championships. Still, going into the meet many predictions had them finishing outside the top five, but they appear to have some serious momentum headed into day two.
Cal, meanwhile, massively outscored their projected point total of 69.5 as they sit just one point behind Texas with 145 points. The Bears won both the 200 free relay and 400 medley relay as Seth Stubblefield provided two huge anchor legs. He split 18.48 in the 50 free, compared to his 19.06 that earned him fifth in the individual 50 final. He entered the water with a huge lead in the 400 medley relay, but his 41.86 split — with just a 0.30 reaction time — crushed his seed time for the individual event, a 42.63.
Cal dominated the medley relay final from start to finish. Ryan Murphy entered the meet as a favorite to win the NCAA title in the 200 back, but he will be tough to beat in the 100 after a 44.94 opening backstroke leg. Dave Durden’s squad then got a 50.46 breast split out of Chuck Katis, the top split of the night and more than two seconds faster than his individual seed time of 52.69. Seeded 13th in the 100 breast, look for a big drop from Katis tomorrow as Cal could easily continue to add points to their projection.
Texas and Cal had the biggest gains in terms of projected points — among top-ten teams, Georgia was third with a 12 point gain — while Michigan and Florida each finished right on their scoring projections. Meanwhile, Arizona and Auburn finished day one as the big losers. Auburn’s hopes, as has become their custom, rested on the 50 free, and while title favorite Marcelo Cherighini got stuck in the B-final, James Disney-May and Kyle Darmody both added time and fell out of scoring position, and the Tigers scored just 45 points in swimming (54 total), down from a projection of 96. The top-seeded 200 free relay team settled for third, and their 400 medley team was disqualified in prelims.
Relay DQs were the story of day one, as a highly abnormal 14 teams succumbed, 13 of them to false starts. The biggest shock DQ came in the 400 medley relay, when Arizona, which entered as the on-paper favorites, fell victim to a Kevin Cordes false start. Cordes, the talented breaststroker who has already won three individual NCAA crowns in two years, repeated the fault which cost the American men’s medley relay a gold medal at the World Championships in Barcelona last summer. The Wildcats ended up scoring 55.5 points in swimming, down from a projected 84, and they currently sit sixth with a total of 68.5. Arizona’s shot at a top-five finish took a major hit on day one.
The DQ-bug hit the NC State Wolfpack hard as well, as two different swimmers false started in the 200 free relay prelims. The squad would have qualified second if not for the miscue. The initial psych sheet projections (not including diving) had NC State finishing third in the meet, but they sit just 17th with 24.5 points after day one. Projected to go two up, one down in the 50 free, they ended up with just two down. The sprint events and relays nearly carried the Wolfpack to an ACC team championship (they ended up finishing a close second to Virginia Tech), so these setbacks on day one likewise hurt their already-slim shot at the top five.