Editorial content for the Men’s NCAA Division I Championships is sponsored by Nike Swim.
Commentary by Jeff Commings
TUCSON – Any team that has a serious shot at winning the team title at the men’s NCAA Division I Championships in Iowa City must win at least one relay. It’s not a requirement, but it definitely helps. Relays score double points in the NCAAs, which explains why the team that wins the most relays often wins the meet.
The California Golden Bears won three of the five relays in 2014 on their way to the team title, and the team looks like they will win only two of those later this month. How it will affect their defense of the team title will depend on their placings in all five relays – as well as the 13 individual events – and how their rivals perform. Here are my predictions for the five relays:
200 freestyle relay
N.C. State was primed to place third in last year’s meet largely on the strength of their relays. But a disqualification in the 200 freestyle relay hurt morale, and the Wolfpack finished 13th. If N.C. State can stay legal in the first race of the meet, they have a very strong shot at winning. With three swimmers seeded in the top 10 of the 50 free, N.C. State has the best lineup of any school. Last year, three schools posted 1:15s, and we could see N.C. State, California and Texas in the mix. Give N.C. State the advantage right based on seeds, but the key is not to get overly excited and jump the gun.
400 medley relay
There’s no way California can lose this. With a fully tapered Ryan Murphy and Chuck Katis, the Golden Bears will have built a sizeable lead after the breaststroke. Seth Stubblefield is the likely butterflyer, giving Tyler Messerschmidt freestyle duties. Texas might be able to make up some ground on butterfly, but without a breaststroker on par with Katis, the Longhorns have a major deficit. Southern California also needs a breaststroker to match Katis, but are just as solid in the three other strokes.
200 medley relay
The field is a little tighter in the short medley, but the edge remains with California. Why bet against the American record holders? Michigan and Texas both will be tough, but the main challenger will be Southern California, thanks to major improvements for sprinter Santo Condorelli in his senior year. Southern California was 14th in this event last year, but has been making some serious improvements in the stroke events in the past year.
800 freestyle relay
For the same reason that N.C. State is favored in the 200 free relay, you can’t count against the Southern California Trojans in the 800 free relay. USC has three swimmers seeded in the top 15 in the 200 free, and only Florida comes close to matching that. Florida will bring in Dan Wallace for the relay, and likely Caeleb Dressel, which should make it as close as it was last year, when USC held off Florida to win. Michigan surprised with the top seed in a 6:12.20, and even without Michael Wynalda and Connor Jaeger to lean on this year, swam fast at the Big Ten meet. The major issue with the 800 free relay at the NCAA meet is that it comes at the end of the second day. Most will have already swum the 200 free twice, or in some cases, the 400 IM. Conference meets these days are putting the 800 free relay at the beginning of the meet when athletes are fresher. We might not see much faster swims than the seed times, but the main goal is winning the race.
400 freestyle relay
N.C. State made a bid for the title in this event last year, leading after the third leg. Auburn’s Kyle Darmody put up a monster anchor leg to not only beat N.C. State but California as well. Those three teams will battle again this year, and I’m throwing in Southern California as a wild card. The NCAA and U.S. Open record of 2:46.03 is not in jeopardy, but keep an eye on that American record of 2:47.02. California is the only top school eligible for that, and a close race could get the Bears close to a record. I’m picking N.C. State for the win, and it will happen if the last three swimmers can all average 42.0 or better. Auburn, California and USC will have trouble with that, while the Wolfpack has three swimmers who can easily go that fast. Getting the fourth swimmer to match that split will be the only way to win.