Arizona State Men Look Like Team of Destiny in 2024
Second to Cal Last Season, Arizona State Men Look Like Team of Destiny in 2024
In the first meeting between the two teams last season, the Arizona State men crushed defending national champion California 211 to 87 at Mona Plummer Aquatic Center. But despite the blowout score, any neutral observer could tell that this dual meet did not accurately represent a full-strength matchup between the two programs. Arizona State raced in tech suits, and Leon Marchand took down the NCAA record in the 400 IM while beating the former record holder, Cal’s Hugo Gonzalez, a whopping 26 seconds. Cal, racing in practice suits, won only two events all day, with Destin Lasco claiming the backstroke wins.
A little over one month later at the Pac-12 Championships, the Sun Devils again knocked off the Golden Bears, scoring 897.5 points to Cal’s 819. This matchup was a better show of the two teams’ ability, but still, the feeling remained that Cal would show up big-time when a national title was on the line three weeks later in Minneapolis. After all, the Bears had placed first or second in the country every season since 2010, head coach Dave Durden’s third year in Berkeley.
Indeed, Cal was victorious at the national meet, capturing the team’s sixth title in Durden’s tenure, but Arizona State was only 52 points behind. The Sun Devils were the first team aside from Cal to beat Texas at the national championship meet in a decade. Suddenly, an Arizona State national title, an accomplishment that seemed like a pipe dream when Bob Bowman took over as head coach in 2015, now seemed feasible, at least as long as Marchand was racing with a pitchfork on his cap.
Marchand’s performance at the 2023 NCAA meet was downright historic, as he swam the fastest times ever in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 breaststroke while also recording the fastest breaststroke splits ever on both ASU medley relays and swimming the fastest split in the field on the 800 freestyle relay plus the second-quickest split overall in the 400 free relay.
Of course, one swimmer does not make a team, and Marchand had plenty of help last season, with Arizona State achieving 11 other A-final swims, and the swimmers responsible for nine of those swims return this season. Losing Grant House certainly hurts, but ASU is equipped to make up for his points. While House placed third in the 200 free last season, Julian Hill placed sixth and Patrick Sammon was seventh. With Owen McDonald prepared to step into 800 free relay duty alongside Hill, Sammon and Marchand, ASU should be considered favorites for a relay national title.
Meanwhile, a solid sprint group last season has become one of the country’s deepest under the watch of associate head coach Herbie Behm. Are the Sun Devils up to the level of a Cal team led by Jack Alexy and Bjorn Seeliger? Probably not. Good enough to overtake Josh Liendo, Macguire McDuff and the Florida Gators? We’ll see. But fifth-year swimmer Jack Dolan, a first-time NCAA A-finalist last year, is having the best season of his career while sophomore Jonny Kulow has taken steps since his freshman campaign when he topped out at 11th in the 100 free. In fact, Kulow has entered the conversation for an Olympic spot as a potential member of the U.S. men’s 400-meter free relay.
Relays are critical, and so are the performances of under-the-radar swimmers like McDonald, an A-finalist in both backstroke races last year, and David Schlicht, swimming lights-out this year after placing near the top of three B-finals last year. But the most significant difference between this year’s Arizona State team and last year is star-power. Marchand was alone atop the podium for ASU last March, but this year, he has elite peers in Hubert Kos and Ilya Kharun.
Kos was part of last year’s team, placing third in the 200 backstroke, fourth in the 400 IM and 11th in the 200 IM. But that was before he dethroned Ryan Murphy for the gold medal in the 200-meter back in a stunning upset at the World Championships. In his return to college racing, Kos has made huge strides this season, most notably in his results at the NC State Invite this weekend. A quartet of best times left Kos ranked sixth all-time in the 400 IM and 200 back, eighth in the 200 IM and 16th in the 100 back. Assuming Kos sticks with his main three events for the NCAA Championships, there is no swimmer who can beat him aside from Marchand and perhaps Cal’s Destin Lasco.
Finally, the signature addition to the ASU roster this season is Ilya Kharun, an 18-year-old who tied for fourth at the World Championships in the 200-meter fly. Kharun, who hails from Canada via the Sandpipers of Nevada, is the likely favorite to win a national title in the 200 fly this year after swimming a time of 1:39.10 at the NC State Invite. Arizona State has quite the luxury to have two likely A-finalists in Kharun and Alex Colson, even with the 200-meter fly world champion (Marchand) likely to again skip the yards version of the race.
Kharun will also contend in the 100 fly after blasting a time of 44.33 this weekend, and he is a potential A-finalist in the 50 free as well. His presence on the Sun Devil medley relays will create a nearly-unstoppable middle portion with Marchand on breaststroke. Add in Kulow on the anchor leg plus either Dolan (200) or Kos (400) on backstroke, and the Sun Devils have a real chance of winning both these events.
To recap, Arizona State got better, with swimmers who can compensate for the loss of House plus big jumps from Kos, Kulow and others and the key addition of Kharun. Are those improvements worth 52 points on the national level? Maybe. Heck, probably.
The results of last season’s dual meet clash between the Sun Devils and Golden Bears showed a philosophical difference between two great coaches on how to handle dual meets, nothing more. The conference championship win was meaningful for Arizona State but also fool’s gold, given the near-certainty that Cal would be firing on all cylinders three weeks later at the national meet, ready to assert dominance once again.
This team is different. Too much talent graces the pool in Tempe for the Sun Devils to be considered anything but national-title favorites — or at the very least, co-favorites. Expect Cal to deliver its usual standard of excellence in Indianapolis, but against this loaded Arizona State team, it might not be enough.