How Do the Texas Longhorns Have the Edge at NCAA Championships?

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Texas freshman Carson Foster competing in the 400 IM at the men's NCAA championships -- Photo Courtesy: Carlos Morales

At the men’s NCAA championships, the Texas Longhorns received a massive momentum surge at the end of Thursday night, and they followed that up with an enormous Friday morning session, finishing with 10 A-finalists and four B-finalists in swimming, plus another in each group from diving. After almost falling out of national title contention at the end of Thursday night, Texas was again the favorite to capture a championship by noon on Friday.

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Drew Kibler of the Texas Longhorns competing at the NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

Heading into the finals session, Texas had two swimmers in pole position to win individual national titles, freshman Carson Foster in the 400 IM and junior Drew Kibler in the 200 free. Indeed, both led from the start, but both faded slightly at the end as a pair of Florida Gators swam past to take first place. While Kibler had been an underdog to Kieran Smith, Foster had been considered the heavy title favorite before Bobby Finke roared past with a 49.44 final 100 yards, and indeed, Foster’s season-best time of 3:35.27 (which ranks him as the second-fastest performer in history) is much faster than Finke’s winning time from Friday (3:36.90).

All that is to say Texas did not swim to their maximum potential Friday night. The Longhorns had been mostly lackluster on Thursday, too, prior to their blistering medley relay triumph. Heading into the final day, Texas has won two relays and one diving event but not a single individual swimming event.

And yet, Texas is still winning this meet, with a 42-point lead over rival California.

How is that possible? And has anyone ever won an NCAA team title without winning any individual swimming events?


Texas Longhorns Fueled by Depth

For the first question, the answer is pretty straightforward: insane depth. That’s not unprecedented, but consider the run of success Texas has had in recent years, with four straight national titles from 2015 to 2018 and a runner-up finish in 2019. Those teams had depth—in particular, everyone remembers the historic six-up performance in the 100 fly in 2015—but those teams had superstars. The likes of Clark Smith, Joseph Schooling, Will Licon, Townley Haas, Jack Conger, Austin Katz and John Shebat all won national titles during that run.

This Texas team, however, has a run of very good swimmers in every event without having anyone that stands out above all else. Foster has all the signs of being a future star, but his first NCAA championships definitely has not been perfect. Kibler is one of the best freestylers in the country but not the single best in any event. Alvin Jiang, who joined Texas last season as a transfer from North Carolina, finished fourth in both the 100 fly and 100 back and has been a key in medley relays.

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Casper Corbeau of Texas at the NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

After struggling to find consistent breaststroke success for a few years following Licon’s graduation, Texas sophomore Caspar Corbeau has stabilized that leg of medley relays and also finished sixth in the 100 breast this meet. Senior Jake Sannem has long been a consistent relay performer, and this meet, he finished fourth in the 200 free. Foster’s older brother Jake, BradenVines and David Johnston all swam in the 400 IM A-final, and Chris Staka has swum in the 100 back B-final and on three relays so far. Katz is still around and could put together a big 200 back on Saturday.

And Texas still has two swimmers who could win individual events, if things break their way. Daniel Krueger finished sixth in the 50 free and will enter Saturday’s 100 free as the top seed, although Cal’s Ryan Hoffer has to be considered the favorite in that event, and Sam Pomajevich, 10th in the 100 fly, will be seeded third in the tightly-bunched 200 fly.

So no, it’s not a team full of superstars, but it’s a team full of very good swimmers. If all swimmers were to swim to their seeds in Saturday’s competition, Texas would end up with a six-point advantage over Cal. That does not include platform diving, where Texas is likely to get another big boost. Of course, a lot can change and will change. Remember, it was Texas’ 69-point overperformance in Friday’s swimming prelims that put the Longhorns into the driver’s seat for the national championship.

Meanwhile, Cal overperformed by 38 points in the Friday AM action, only to be overshadowed by Texas, but the Golden Bears have their best day on Saturday, with three national championship favorites (Hoffer in the 100 free, Reece Whitley in the 200 breast and Trenton Julian in the 200 fly) plus three of the top four seeds in the 200 back. A long way to go indeed.


Texas Champions Through the Years

In their long run of success under coach Eddie Reese, the Longhorns have won 14 national championships. Before their recent four-peat, the previous title was 2010, a team led by Olympians Ricky Berens and David Walters. That meet is best remembered for the norovirus outbreak which affected three teams, including Texas. Berens ended up finishing sixth, seventh and 12th in his events. Texas did win one individual event that meet, Austin Surhoff’s narrow triumph in the 200 IM, while future Olympian Jimmy Feigen finished second in the 100 free and 2008 Olympian Scott Spann took second in the 200 breast.

Going back further, Texas won three straight from 2000 to 2002, and while Brendan Hansen and Ian Crocker starred on the second and third of those teams, only one Longhorn won an individual swimming championship in 2000, Matt Ulrickson in the 100 back. Before that, Texas won in 1996 with no individual swimming titles and just one lone relay win, the 200 free relay.

So winning a national championship without an individual swimming title is not unprecedented, but it’s super rare. And of course, this Texas team already has two relay wins and one diving win, so this isn’t some scrappy band of underdogs. On the meet’s final day, the Longhorns may or may not win a national team title, and someone like Krueger or Pomajevich could pull off an individual championship. But regardless, Texas is back in its typical spot, one of the best teams in the country, in the thick of a two-team dogfight for the NCAA championship.

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