March 24, 2010

By Doug Bean
Special for

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The "A" teams, Auburn and Arizona, have monopolized the NCAA Division I Men's Swimming and Diving Championships since 2003.

Defending champion Auburn has won six of the last seven titles. The only intrusion on the Tigers' dominance has been Arizona's breakthrough in 2008.

So will 2010 be another "A" typical year with the teams at the top of the alphabet winning again?

Based on the pre-meet projections, number of qualifiers, returning champions and national rankings, the two pool powerhouses should be in contention to add another gold-plated trophy to their already bulging display cases.

Arizona enters the three-day meet, which begins Friday [postponed from Thursday] in the McCorkle Aquatic Center at Ohio State University, as the nation's No. 1-ranked team.

Sixth-ranked Auburn, inspired last year by the late coach Richard Quick's battle with an inoperable brain tumor, has set the gold standard in the sport and hopes to successfully defend its title with a talented and experienced squad.

Since 1996, the Tigers have finished first or second in the NCAA meet 11 times. And in February, Auburn captured its 16th Southeastern Conference championship in 17 years.

But by the time the waves subside Saturday night, there could be a new contingent hoisting the hardware.

Texas, Stanford, California and Florida are ranked No. 2-No. 5 in the College Swimming Coaches Association of America poll and all have designs on the ultimate prize.

Some analysts and coaches have pegged Texas, the 2009 runner-up to Auburn, to unseat the Tigers.

"There are five teams that really could win it," said Auburn coach Brett Hawke, who served as co-coach last year in Quick's absence. "Texas is the favorite and deserves to be. They've got great athletes on their team."

The Longhorns are coming off their 31st consecutive conference championship and draw from a deep talent pool led by senior standout Ricky Berens, defending 1-meter diving champion Drew Livingston, freestyle sprint specialist James Feigen, Austin Surhoff and Eric Friedland.

"I think Texas is the team to beat," Arizona coach Frank Busch said. "They're very, very good."

But pity those who underestimate the "A' teams.

Consider Arizona's third-place showing last month in the Pac-10 an aberration, Busch said, because the senior-laden Wildcats focused their training on the NCAAs.

"Pretty much the way we approach it is that we believe that in order to be our best in the NCAA we have to give up a little something," Busch said. "We want to be at our best when it means the most."

Arizona has one returning champion, South African Olympian Jean Basson in the 500-yard freestyle.

"We're hoping to be in the top four here," Busch said. "Can we challenge for the title? We think we can. We have a lot of seniors and a lot of stability, and I think they're very motivated. I really like this team."

Last year, Auburn came from behind by amassing key points in the relays, winning four of the five and setting three meet records. The Tigers' stable of sprinters should make them formidable again. Three of their relays lead all qualifiers, Kohlton Norys is the reigning gold medalist in the 100 backstroke and Pascal Wollach is seeded No. 1 in the 100 backstroke.

Hawke envisions a similar scenario playing out this week.

"With the relays worth double points, that's a key focus for us," he said. "We're really strong in the sprints again and we are looking to do well in the relays.

"The experience of winning helps us. These guys know how to win. They know what it takes. We have to perform well on the third day and we've trained for that all year. The guys are ready. There's no excuses."

Stanford's hopes might have been weakened a bit when Austin Staab, the 2009 NCAA champion in the 100 butterfly, left the team in January for "personal reasons." Staab is a native of Westerville, Ohio, in suburban Columbus and the meet at Ohio State would have been a homecoming of sorts for him.

Still, the Cardinal's confidence is high after claiming the program's 31st straight conference crown in the Pac-10. David Mosko and Chad La Tourette enter with the best qualifying times in the 500 freestyle and 1,650 freestyle, respectively, and Stanford has the fastest clocking in the 400 medley relay.

Cal could be a bear with Nathan Adrian vying to duplicate his winning feat in the 50 and 100 freestyle and Damir Dugonjic the top seed and defending champion in the 100 breaststroke. Florida has Shaune Fraser, who stood atop the medal stand a year ago in the 200 free and 200 butterfly, leading a formidable cast.

Other teams that could finish in the top 10 include Virginia, Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Tennessee.

While the team competition attracts considerable attention, several defending multiple champs are return to defend. David Boudia of Purdue was the winner in 3-meter and platform diving, and Michigan's Tyler (Scott) Clary, the 2009 NCAA Swimmer of the Year, won the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley and also has the top qualifying time this year in the 200 IM.