LetsRun.com's Men's Preview Of The 2011 NCAA Cross-Country Championships
November 18, 2011
November 18, 2011 - Oklahoma State or Wisconsin?
Lawi Lalang or Leonard Korir for the individual title?
Those are the two questions that will be answered on Monday at the 2011 NCAA Cross-Country Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Team Battle Breakdown 1st
We'll analyze the expected team battle first.
The results from last year's team race at NCAAs will forever read as follows.
2011 Team Score
1. 73 Oklahoma State ( 30:05 2:30:25) ================================================ 1 5 460 Girma Mecheso JR 29:48 2 6 455 German Fernandez JR 29:50 3 7 457 Colby Lowe JR 29:58 4 25 454 Tom Farrell FR 30:22 5 30 465 Johnathan Stublaski JR 30:27 6 ( 54) 458 Joseph Manilafasha FR 30:45 7 (137) 463 Ryan Prentice SO 31:46
3. 223 Wisconsin ( 30:37 2:33:02) ================================================ 1 10 825 Mohammed Ahmed SO 30:04 2 11 831 Maverick Darling SO 30:08 3 17 833 Landon Peacock SR 30:16 4 80 830 Reed Connor SO 31:08 5 105 835 Phil Thomas JR 31:26 6 (111) 832 Elliot Krause JR 31:31 7 (153) 834 Andrew Shields FR 32:02
Given the fact that Oklahoma State won in a rout and given the fact that they didn't graduate anyone from last year's top seven, one might be wondering why we are wasting any time discussing who is going to win the 2011 NCAA championships, particularly considering the fact that Oklahoma State also added in transfer Shadrack Kipchirchir from Western Kentucky, who would have been 24th in the team standings in 2010. However, both the team score and the amount of returners from last year are a bit misleading.
In terms of last year's team score, we say it was misleading because a surprising Wisconsin team actually put up a pretty good fight last year. They were close to Oklahoma State until Elliot Krause went from 20th to 137th in the last 2km of the race, as shown by the following stats.
Team Score At 5,000
Team Score At 8,000
So Wisconsin was losing but not losing badly last year. So the question is really, "How can the Badgers make up the 29 points they still needed at 8,000 last year?"
The answer is simple. By getting better and by Oklahoma State get worse.
The Badgers certainly seem to be better than they were last year. Here's why:
1. Elliot Krause is back and seemingly in form that enabled him to run in the top 20 for 8,000 last year.
2. While the Badgers lost Landon Peacock (20th last year) to graduation they picked up UVA transfer Ryan Collins (32nd last year), who has a 5,000 PR of 13:46. So that is basically a wash.
As for Oklahoma State being worse, that certainly seems to be the case in two simple ways.
1. Their #1 guy from last year, Girma Mesecho, hasn't raced all year and is out according to coach Dave Smith. That is a big, big blow.
2. Their #5 guy from last year in Jonathan Stublaski isn't running nearly as well this year as he was last year. At Big 12s three weeks ago, Stublaski was just 30th. Last year, he was 30th in the team standings at NCAAs.
Given those reasons, we thought it made sense to update the results from last year's meet and show you the true on-paper strength of each team. If we just assume Krause would finish where Kipchirchir finished last year and everyone else would finish where they did last year, the scores from last year become:
1. Wisconsin 90
2. Oklahoma State 96
1. Oklahoma State 96 =================================================
3. Wisconsin 90 =============================================== 1 10 825 Mohammed Ahmed SO 30:04 2 11 831 Maverick Darling SO 30:08 3 17 833 Landon Peacock SR 30:16 4 24 Elliot Krause JR 30:21 1 28 779 Ryan Collins JR 30:25
In reality, we think the above score is incredibly generous right now for Oklahoma State, as Stublaski should have a line through him as well, as we don't see how a guy who was 30th at Big 12s will finish anywhere near 30th to NCAAs. Stublaski is a 1,500 man who ran 3:42.20 in 2010 but only 3:46.76 last spring. He likely overachieved last year in cross-country and his recent form doesn't seem to indicate it's likely to happen again this year.
So basically the meet comes down to this. Wisconsin has a great top 5 who are all very capable of finishing in the top 30 at NCAAs. Oklahoma State has a great top 4 who are all very capable of finishing in the top 30 at NCAAs. But they don't have a legitimate 5th unless Stublaski steps up, but it's possible he doesn't even run as he was just their 8th guy at Big 12s.
If Stublaski doesn't pull one out from nowhere, then the Cowboys are likely to be relying on a Herculian effort from one of the following three guys:
1. Joseph Manilafasha - 14th at Big 12s this year. 14:24 PR.
2. Kirubel Erassa - 16th at Big 12s this year. 14:19 PR.
3. Fabian Clarkson - 18th at Big 12s this year. 8:13/14:39/30:15 PRs.
Oklahoma State fans, we have some bad news for you. 14:20 guys don't normally come anywhere close to top 50 at NCAAs anymore. In comparison, on paper, Wisconsin's 5th man is Ryan Collins, who is a 13:46 guy.
That doesn't mean that Oklahoma State can't win as Wisconsin is a team 5 deep.
The easiest way though for Oklahoma State to win is if one of Wisconsin's top 5 has a bad day or is somehow a DNF. If that happens, then the Badgers are done. At Big 10s, they had a 64-second gap between #5 and #6. If someone besides Ahmed, Darling, Krause, Connor or Collins score for the Badgers, it's hard to fathom a way where they could win.
Can Oklahoma State still win if this doesn't happen? Yes, it's possible.
At the very top, Oklahoma State appears on paper to be a little stronger at 1 and 2 as they return two from last year's top 10 (but people shouldn't forget that Wisconsin's Mohammed Ammed was the Big 10 champ this year and both he and Maverick Darling were top 15 last year and less than 10 seconds behind Oklahoma State's Colby Lowe). But the problem is since Oklahoma State is almost certainly going to give up some major points at #5, they'll need to beat the Badgers handily at spots 1-4.
Let's say Wisconsin goes 10-15-20-25-30. That's not even an unreal day for them, but it's only 100 points. That would make it tough for Oklahoma State. Ok. State goes 4-6-15-20 for their top 4. That's 45 points, meaning their 5th guy had better be 55th in the team scoring or it's all over.
Looking For A 5th Man
If he runs, it's possible that Stublaski could rise up and seal the deal for OSU like he did last year, as it's not like all of his races this year were as subpar as his 30th-place showing at Big 12s. At Chile Pepper, he was 10th and only 3 seconds behind Kipchirchir. And if Stublaski doesn't rise up and do well, then perhaps Manilafasha, Erassa or Clarkson can rise up and do it as the Cowboys do have a number of options for number five, as they are much deeper than Wisconsin at 6 and 7.
Earlier, we said that 14:20 guys don't normally get near the top 50 at NCAAs anymore but it can be done (and in reality 55th in the team scoring is normally just around 70th place overall). For example, at Big 12s, Manilafasha was Oklahoma State's 5th guy and he was 16 seconds behind Kipchirchir. Assuming he's 2 seconds behind him every 8k that would mean he'd 20 seconds behind over 10k. So we thought to ourselves, "Ok, let's give Kipchirchir the same finish that he had last year at NCAAs and put Manilafasha 20 seconds behind that, where does Manilafasha finish?'
58th overall and 47th in the team scoring. A finish like that would make it very close.
But in reality, things at NCAAs don't often go to form.
One major blow up and this analysis means very little.
Along those lines, we'll paraphrase a conversation we had with a coach of a top 10 program earlier this week. He said, "The real question is going to be how the Wisconsin and Oklahoma State packs hold up under pressure. Those teams have been running together as a group all year and sort of tempoing large portions of a lot of the meets and just dominating. But at NCAAs, they can't really do that. Yeah, they can run a little conservatively and go for the team title over individual glory, but it's a lot harder to stick together as a group when everyone in the nation is there and the pace is a lot harder. Once the group breaks up and everyone is running for himself, how will everyone hold up to the pressure?"
Anything Can Happen At NCAAs: Just Ask Wisconsin
The answer is we don't know - and that's why the meet is held. An NCAA meet can't be predicted ahead of time and Wisconsin alums know that better than most, as the Badgers went into the meet several times thinking they'd win in the mid 2000s under the guidance of former coach Jerry Schumacher, but came away with only one title and two runner-up finishes. Anyone remember 2006 when Chris Solinsky finished 73rd (49th team)?
Wisconsin's 2004 Dream Team
Left Off Team:
But the team that many people now years later have a hard time wondering how they lost (NCAA 2004 XC how did wisconsin lose?) was the 2004 NCAA team which featured eventual two-time NCAA XC champ Simon Bairu, eventual sub-13:00 runners Matt Tegenkamp and Chris Solinsky, eventual 27:28 man Tim Nelson, a 13:47 guy at the time in Tim Keller, and the guy who would be the top American finisher at World Cross-Country that winter in Matt Withrow, who was left off the squad via a redshirt. That "Dream Team" lost to Colorado 90 to 94.
The 2004 Wisconsin "Dream Team" had 4 guys who had run 13:47 and a 5th man who had run 29:11 in an era that wasn't nearly as competitive as 2011 and yet they didn't win.
Our point? Nothing is guaranteed even if this year's Winsonsin team has 4 who have run 13:48 and a 5th who has run 28:43.
Could Anyone Else Win?
If Wisco or Oklahoma State falter, could someone else win? The answer is yes. And the ironic thing is that in a year when the Oregon Ducks aren't competing as a team, one of the leading contenders is the Oklahoma Sooners - coached by ex-Oregon coach Martin Smith. The Sooners lost to Oklahoma State 30-43 at Big 12s but actually had them beaten at the Midwest Regional until one of the individual qualifiers let up at the finish line and let the entire Oklahoma State top 4 past him, resulting in a narrow 3-point Cowboy win (40 to 43) - although neither team was going all-out.
And the Sooners are only ranked #5. The teams ahead of them? #3 BYU and #4 Colorado. Colorado is famous for peaking when it counts, but let's be honest here, none of those teams or #6 Stanford (who is the last conceivable team we could see winning it) are going to beat an "on" Wisconsin or Oklahoma State. They could win if #1 or #2 implodes - much like an NFL team can win a game by taking advantage of a bunch of turnovers. But at full strength against each other, it's not even close. BYU went to the adidas Wisconsin Invitational last month and the final score was Wisconsin 66, BYU 120. Just remember anything can happen at NCAAs to the favorite. Just ask Stanford (favorite last year, finished 4th; favorite in 2009, finished 10th).
On paper, the individual race is similar to the team race in the sense that it seems to be all about two people.
Arizona Wildcat Lawi Lalang enters NCAA after a phenomenal tear. He opened the year at the Murray Keating Invite, which his coach described as the first "real" cross-country race of Lalang's life. The result? A 54-second win in a small meet.
His 2nd race was a big one - Roy Griak. The result? A course record and a 28.6-second win over NC State's Ryan Hill, who is a legitimate top-10 prospect on Monday (Hill was 22nd last year).
His third race? An even bigger one. The biggest of the regular season, in fact - Wisconsin adidas Invitational. In this one, Lalang ran away from the field and cruised in to win by 15.1 seconds over Ryan Hill and most of the runners who are expected to battle for All-American status, including many of those projected in the top 10.
His fourth race? A PAC-12 victory by 8 seconds over Chris Derrick, who was 5th at NCAAs last year.
His fifth and most recent race? A West Regional victory with a 16-second margin of victory over Derrick.
If those results don't make you think that Monday's race is the freshman Lalang's to lose, then maybe this stat will. Lalang, who is the brother of Kenyan Olympic 800 meter runner Boaz Lalang, did run track last spring for the Wildcats and he produced a PR fo 13:30.64 and a runner-up finish in the 5,000 at NCAAs.
With recent results like that and the 13:30 PR, it's hard to see Lalang losing. Particularly, when one hears what his coach James Li, who has worked with a lot of talented Kenyan born athletes over the years, including double World Championships gold medallist Bernard Lagat, said about Lalang recently in the Arizona student newspaper:
"I just don't see people beating him. He's obviously very, very talented and I think he's coming here and really for the first time in his life, he's having really systematic and solid training, ..."
"He's fast even for Kenyan standards. I have not seen someone in college running as well as he is and I've had a lot of Olympic-level athletes over the years. He's very exceptional, this one is for real."
His coach may not see anyone beating him, but the thing is when two exceptional athletes meet each other, there can only be one winner and there is one other guy at NCAAs who also is exceptional - Leonard Korir of Iona.
Korir is also undefeated on the year, including a 3-second win at Pre-NCAAs. He also has PRs of 13:26 and 27:29 and is the reigning NCAA 10,000 champ. We saw Korir win the Northeast Regional last weekend and it certainly didn't look effortless, but that doesn't necessarily mean a lot. It was very windy and Korir chose to lead the last half of the race. Lalang is the favorite in our minds but in a heavyweight fight, anything can happen.
We can't imagine anyone besides those two winning it on Monday but again, there is a reason the race is run, to determine the actual winner.
This is the final NCAA XC for American hopefuls Chris Derrick, Luke Puskedra and German Fernandez. Stanford's Derrick was 3rd two years ago as sophomore and 5th last year. Puskedra was 5th as a freshman and 3rd last year. Fernandez was 8th last year.
We conclude our preview with the prediction of LetsRun.com's prediction guru John Kellogg. Remember, Mr. Kellogg is the guy who foresaw the possibility of a 2:03 in Boston before the race last April and he's also the only person in our prediction contest in 2006 who correctly predicted both individual and both team winners.
LRC Prediction Guru John Kellogg's Predictions/Rationale:
1. Wisconsin - The best five on paper and untouchable so far. Their best strategy is probably to dance with the one that brought 'em - i.e., pack run as they have all year. But this time, they'll probably be forced to split up with 2k to 3k left in order to ensure the guys who are feeling the mojo on the day get the lowest scores possible.
2. Oklahoma State - The two-time defending champs are a bit shy in a couple of spots relative to what they had last year and - despite low sticks in German Fernandez and Colby Lowe - they come up just short.
3. BYU - Haven't done anything wrong all year, but still lost to Wisconsin by over 50 points at adidas. Despite that, they beat Portland at conference and Colorado (sans Joe Bosshard) at the Mountain Regional and look solid for a podium spot.
4. Oklahoma - Never too far behind their in-state rivals from Stillwater. That should be good enough for top 4.
5. Colorado - The Buffs normally hit the peak right on schedule and really surprised everyone to take the inaugural PAC-12 title, then lost the Mountain Regional to BYU by 6 points despite not running Joe Bosshard. They weren't as good as expected in the big one last year (15th), but that was a rarity. They'll need another PAC-12 caliber shocker to get on the podium this year, but never write these guys off.
6. Stanford - The Cardinal finished one spot behind Colorado at conference and one spot ahead of Portland at the West Regional, so that's where I'll put 'em here.
7. Portland - Only 3 points behind Stanford at the West Regional, 69 points ahead of 3rd-place Cal Poly. These guys are legit.
8. Indiana - About 30 seconds per man behind Wisco at Big Tens, which doesn't reflect poorly on Indiana but shows how good the Badgers can be if they nail it. A large 1-5 spread will cost the Hoosiers dearly here, so they need to run a smart race.
9. Syracuse - The Orange won the Big East the last two years but came up a bit short of expectations at NCAAs. This year, they seem to be doing the reverse. Only 4th at the Big East, but they won the Northeast Regional and seem to be coming into form and getting rested up at the perfect time.
10. Georgetown - If they continue the upswing, they'll get by conference rivals Villanova again (as they did at the Mid-Atlantic Regional) and have a good shot at top 10. Of course, if 'Nova has a Big East type of race, they'll probably beat both Syracuse and Georgetown and be in the top 10.
1. Lawi Lalang (Arizona) - Reminiscent of Sam Chelanga at his most dominant. How can you bet against him?
2. Ryan Hill (NC State) - Maybe they've started putting ground-up Happy Pills in my Balance Bars, but I'm going out on a limb here and putting Hill over Leonard Korir (hey, it wouldn't be as much fun without an upset pick). Hill has faced the biggest fields and has been as steady as a rock, losing only to Lalang and beating previously undefeated Paul Chelimo at the Southeast Regional. I can see him (or somebody, and he's looked the most likely) running a patient race here and sneaking up for 2nd after Korir loses motivation trying to go toe-to-toe with Lalang.
3. Leonard Korir (Iona) - A 27:29 guy can't finish much lower than this even if he gets broken late in the race and fades, can he? He's done just enough to win his races this season without seeming really invincible like Lalang. Maybe he's got a lot more in the tank, but it hasn't seemed that way, and he's going to need every bit of it if he does have more.
4. Chris Derrick (Stanford) - 2nd in the West to Lalang, prior top-5 finishes at NCAAs, 5k/10k specialist on the track - looks ready to go.
5. Miles Batty (BYU) - Won the Mountain Regional over Cameron Levins, who has been a big-time player himself this season. I could see Batty getting in the top 2 if he knocked it out of the park, but his 7th-place "blemish" at Wisconsin adidas casts some doubt on that.
6. German Fernandez (Oklahoma State) - Seems to have been cruising even when he won Big 12s (in a virtual tie with teammate Colby Lowe). The real-deal talent is certainly there.
7. Paul Chelimo (UNC-Greensboro) - Might try to go for the win and go out the back door if he gets cracked, but he's at least a top 10 guy on paper - if he doesn't freak out being surrounded by all the competition and just runs a solid race.
8. Cameron Levins (Southern Utah) - Undefeated until Batty outkicked him at the Mountain Regional, and Batty probably won't win here, so as good as Levins has been, he may be outside the top 5 in this one. I wouldn't be surprised if he was top 3 either.
9. Eric Finan (Cincinnati) - Dominated the Big East conference. Second to Korir at Pre-Nats. Also second to Callum Hawkins (Butler) at the Great Lakes Regional, but Finan (a senior) has been slightly more consistent than Hawkins (a sophomore), so Finan gets the nod for a top 10 pick.
10. Hassan Mead (Minnesota) - Midwest Regional champ (although German Fernandez & Co. might have been coasting a bit there). Finished behind 3 Wisconsin Badgers at Big Tens, but Wisco may need to retain their pack as long as possible here to avoid a costly meltdown from one of their top 5; if so, they could have 5 in the top 25 and no one in the top 10. Mead placed 43rd, 31st and 16th in his previous NCAA appearances, so he's been quite reliable so far at this level.
Note: At Noon Eastern on Saturday 11/19, we will reveal the first look at the consensus picks from LetsRun.com Nation from our $200,011 NCAA XC Prediction Contest. If you haven't entered and want to give us your top 10, do so here.