Can Arizona State men compete for the national title?
In men’s college swimming, the race against Cal and Texas can be seen as a benchmark. These two programs have dominated the sport for more than a decade, with the Golden Bears and Longhorns taking the top two spots in the NCAA championships every year except for one that dates back to 2010. The exception was in 2013 when Cal finished second and Texas third. As such, Arizona State’s 211-87 win over Cal in Saturday’s doubles meet has to be considered a big deal.
The Sun Devil men won all but two swimming events for the entire meet. Cal’s only victories came in the backstroke races, where he Destiny Lascolast year’s 200 backstroke national champion, hit the wall first. Leon Marchand started for ASU, swimming fastest time ever in the 400 IM while posting stunning breaststroke times, but Grant house, Jack Dolan, Alex Kolson, Max McCusker and mid-year arrivals Hubert Kos and Zalan Sarkany all individual wins achieved in victory.
The obvious caveat to the very one-sided meeting is the choice of the teams’ attire: Bob Bowmans Sun Devils raced in tech suits Dave Durdens Bears opted for tracksuits. The tech suits offer a physical boost and an obvious mental advantage when racing, but both coaches chose the swimwear they felt would best prepare their swimmers for the end of the season. After all, that’s the goal. Fast swimming in duels is great, but every swimmer and coach on deck Saturday at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center has their eyes on the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis.
This meeting is another beast, the fastest meeting on earth and a grueling environment that demands success and precision in the morning heats to give a team a chance in the finals. Many teams battle it out at the national meet, but two groups of men always show up: Cal and Texas. Last season, for example, Cal topped his pre-meet prediction by 129.5 points, and Texas ended up ahead by 75.5 points. The third-best team was +45.5, while Arizona State was among the teams that scored slightly less than expected.
In two months, when teams return to championship format and are all fit, the goal is to get as many swimmers in the top 16 as possible. Marchand, House and Colson are recurring A-finalists while Dolan and Julian Huegel were single B finalists. Kos and Sarkany also have very good chances to score individually. Seasons count double, of course.
Arizona State must contend with Cal and Texas teams each bringing back six individual A-finalists as well as plenty of depth, relay talent and a history of premium-level performances in March. Marchand, Bowman and company have a chance, but the Golden Bears and Longhorns must be considered title favorites.
However, a top 3 or even a top 5 finish, which would be the best result of the program under Bowman’s helm, would be a major achievement – and a very realistic one. In addition to Cal and Texas, the Sun Devils have to compete with the consistently outstanding states of Florida and North Carolina.
The Gators, third last year, lost Olympic medalists Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith for high school and Trey Freeman to retire, but they add the World Championships medalist Josh Liendo to a deep and accomplished sprint group that won two 200-yard relays at last year’s NCAA championships Adam Chaney and Eric Friese among accomplished artists returning.
NC State, meanwhile, has a reigning national champion Kapper Stokowski (100 in the back), a pair of precious sleepers in there Nyls Korstanje and Luke Mueller and possibly more sprint depth than any other team in the country. The Wolfpack have finished fourth in four of the last five NCAA championships.
There’s still a long way to go to see how these teams stack up, and we’ll have more clues after next month’s Conference Championships. It’s too early to make any absolute predictions beyond that right now: Arizona State is in direct talks, but until proven otherwise, don’t bet against Cal and Texas in March.