NCAA Division I Men’s Championships: Texas Swimming’s Diamonds In the Rough Are Finally Shining

Will Licon Texas swimming
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Commentary by Jeff Commings

A couple of things to note about the 52-point lead Texas swimming is enjoying over California after the first day of competition at the men’s NCAA Division I championships:

• The first day of the meet is usually Texas’ worst. When I was competing at the NCAAs for Texas in the 1990s, head coach Eddie Reese would always tell us after an average first day that “tomorrow is going to be incredible for us.” That has pretty much always held true for the Longhorns, as evidenced by the fact that most of Texas’ individual event wins in history came in the second day of the meet, and Texas pretty much reigns supreme in the 800 free relay. But tonight, the Longhorns had one of the most clutch performances that I have seen from the team in the past 10 years, putting swimmers in all but one championship final and winning three events. Texas has NEVER won three events on the first day, and never had a 500 free champion. Tomorrow will be Texas’ best day, but it is also a pretty good one for California. It’s a good bet that the Golden Bears will be fired up to put many people in the top 16 Friday. It might not matter, as the pendulum has swung toward Texas, and it would take a major force of gravity from the Golden Bears to shift that momentum.

• Though many NCAA team titles have been won in large part due to the talents of star swimmers, it’s often the ones that weren’t expected to score more than 10 points that end up turning the tide. Witness Jeremy Bagshaw last year in the 1650 for California, or Will Hamilton winning the 200 fly in 2012 for the Golden Bears. This year, if Texas wins, Clark Smith and Will Licon should get the majority of the praise. After one night, the two have exceeded all expectations to swim so fast that they make history. Smith is now one of the fastest 500 freestylers in history, and before this morning’s heats, I would not have pegged him as one to break 4:14 (he went 4:09 in the final). And then Licon nearly bypasses Ryan Lochte on the all-time list of 200 IM swimmers tonight, dropping three seconds off his lifetime best in one year. I didn’t predict Licon to break 1:50 in the 200 breast, but that is looking like a sure bet on Saturday.

Eddie Reese knows how to dig up the diamonds in the rough. There are too many examples of swimmers who have come through his program that were not on anyone’s radar, but found themselves in NCAA championship finals … and won races in a few instances. Those are the real MVPs of any championship team, and we saw that unfold tonight in Iowa City. Last year, Licon did pretty well at the NCAAs, while Smith didn’t make the team. Talk about making a big jump forward.

California knows how to rise above expectations at the NCAAs, too. It’s how they won in 2012. That dig-deep fortitude must show up in tomorrow’s prelims for the Golden Bears to have any chance of overtaking the Longhorns. It’s difficult to come back from 52 points, but it is possible.

The women’s meet last week saw six American/NCAA records fall in five events. We’ve seen the fastest swims in history in two events so far, with Ryan Murphy nearly making it three in the 100 back leading off Cal’s 400 medley relay. Will the men be able to outdo the women? The only record that I see falling tomorrow is the 100 back, though Joe Schooling and Jack Conger could give Austin Staab’s 44.18 in the 100 fly a serious threat. Chase Kalisz doesn’t look to be on his game, so the 400 IM will be more about the race and not a record.