Leon Marchand Leading Juggernaut Sun Devils Into NCAA Championships

Leon Marchand -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leon Marchand Leading Juggernaut Sun Devils Into NCAA Championships

At the last edition of the Pac-12 Men’s Swimming Championships, Arizona State flexed on its west-coast rivals, with the Sun Devils winning 19 out of 21 events. The team positioned itself to enter the NCAA Championships, set for March 27-30 in Indianapolis, with top-seeded times in eight out of 13 individual events plus four out of five relays.

Yes, of course, there’s the caveat that two-time defending national champion Cal was missing its top five swimmers at the meet, with Jack Alexy, Destin Lasco, Dare Rose and Gabriel Jett all focusing on long course racing at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont, Ill., but even if they were present along with sprint standout Bjorn Seeliger, the results likely would not have been any different.

Even before last week’s meet in Federal Way, Wash., we were already plenty familiar with the team’s primary standout swimmers. Anyone who has even loosely followed swimming over the past few years is familiar with the exploits of Leon Marchand, most notably his world record in the 400 IM at last year’s World Championships. As great as he is in long course, he is undoubtedly superior in short course thanks to his underwater dolphin kicking abilities.

At Pac-12s, Marchand swam the fastest time ever in the 500 freestyle while providing devastating breaststroke splits on ASU’s nation-leading medley relays. His free relay leadoff times of 1:30.43 and 40.92 rank first and fourth in the country, respectively. He swam two of his regular events, the 400 IM and 200 breaststroke, and easily cruised to nation-leading times despite being well off his best marks.

At this point, it’s no exaggeration to say that Marchand would finish in the top-eight in any event he swam at the NCAA Championships. Heck, with the right amount of specific training, he could probably win any event contested. That is what the Frenchman is capable of in the 25-yard course.

Hubert Kos of Hungary shows the gold medal after competing in the 200m Backstroke Men Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.

Hubert Kos — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Joining Marchand as national-title contenders are Hubert Kos, who will enter the national meet with the top times in the country in the 200 IM, 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke. He took down Ryan Murphy’s NCAA record in the 200 back at the conference meet while swimming sub-44 in the 100 back for the first time, but after winning a world title in the 200-meter back last year, Kos was already established entering this season.

Same story with Ilya Kharun, although the immediate nature of his impact on the college level was a little surprising. Even without recording any season-best times at Pac-12s, he is the heavy title-favorite in the 200 fly and a contender over 100 yards as well.

With those men on the roster, it’s no surprise that the Sun Devils were able to assemble monster medley relays. Marchand and Kharun provided the middle legs of both a record-breaking 200 medley relay team and a 400 medley squad that came up hundredths shy of Florida’s top time from last year. Jack Dolan (200 medley relay) and Kos (400 medley relay) shared backstroke duties while Jonny Kulow was entrenched as anchor.

But still, that’s not the revealing news from Pac-12s. Instead, it’s the depth across the board that Arizona State showed. That roster construction might be the difference for head coach Bob Bowman and his crew as they aim to knock off a peaking Cal squad later this month at the NCAA Championships.

The difference was most evident in the freestyle relays. In the 800 relay, the Sun Devils swam the country’s fastest time and nearly hit the Pac-12 record despite losing Grant House to graduation. But no matter, with Owen McDonald splitting 1:32.00 for the slowest split on a group also including Marchand, Julian Hill and Patrick Sammon.

The next day in the 200 free relay, ASU went 1:14.59 for third nationally behind Florida and NC State. No Marchand on this one, but after Cam Peel led off in 19.23, Dolan, Kharun and Kulow were all electric with 18-mid splits. In short, this is a title-contending relay without Marchand (or Kos, for that matter).

Most impressive of all was in the meet’s final event, the 400 free relay, where ASU finished just 16-hundredths off the NCAA record… while the school’s “B” team swam a time that would have finished second at the Pac-12 meet and be ranked seventh nationally. Moreover, Sammon’s split on the “B” relay was three tenths quicker than Kharun’s mark on the A squad, so switching those two swimmers could have resulted in a new record and the first-ever relay to clock 2:43.


Arizona State head coach Bob Bowman — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This sprint depth is a credit to Bowman and associate head coach Herbie Behm, who are now guiding one of the most impressive college sprint freestyle groups ever.

Beyond that, ASU will enter NCAAs with a swimmer ranked in the top-eight in every single event minus the 100 breaststroke, although Marchand would surely be the overwhelming favorite if he dropped the 400 IM and swam the 100 breast instead. Marchand could have opted for the 500 free or 200 IM, and in whichever event he did not choose — the 200 IM, it turned out — the Sun Devils still enter NCAAs ranked first, with Zalan Sarkany seeded behind Marchand in the 500 and Kos first in the medley.

Sarkany is the heavy title favorite in the 1650 free, entering the national meet with the country’s top time by almost 15 seconds, and underrated swimmers like Sammon (200 free), McDonald (200 back and 200 IM), Alex Colson (200 fly) and David Schlicht (200 breast and 400 IM) are all positioned to score A-final points at the national meet.

Is Arizona State a title lock? No, and it would be foolish to assume that. Cal shows up every year in March like clockwork, with massive time drops in event after event. ASU, meanwhile, is seeded so highly that the team will almost undoubtedly score less points than their psych sheet projection at NCAAs.

But it may not matter. So much has gone right for the Sun Devils this season that if most of the team’s top performers are right at their best times at NCAAs, Arizona State will capture its first national title in men’s swimming in program history.

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