November 20, 2013
At the 2012 NCAA Men’s Cross-Country Championships, Dave Smith‘s Oklahoma State Cowboys won their third title in four years as they had four finishers in the top 25 overall and their fifth guy was 53rd (40th team scoring) as they easily defeated #2 Wisconsin 72 to 135.
With four of last year’s top five returning (#1 man Girma Mecheso was lost to graduation), the 2013 team title surely belongs to Cowboys once again this year, right?
Not so fast.
The Cowboys head into NCAAs ranked second and there are two teams, #1 Northern Arizona (NAU) and #3 Colorado, that pundits think might stop the Cowboys from becoming the fifth men’s NCAA team in history to win four titles over a five-year span, joining the bona fide dynasties Michigan State, Villanova, UTEP, and Arkansas.
How are the Cowboys underdogs , you ask?
They shouldn’t be.
The Cowboys are by no means runaway winners on Saturday. However, they go in as our favorite, just not heavy favorites.
Oklahoma State only lost their #1 ranking because they ran a B team at Pre-Nationals and finished seventh. But they raced NAU two weeks before that in Stillwater and beat them pretty handily, 29 to 57. Of course, that’s not really a true judge of NAU’s strength as NAU held out two of its top five. But even NAU coach Eric Heins admits that if the Lumberjacks had run everyone in Stillwater that Oklahoma State would have won.
“We held some guys out,” said Heins to us when asked about the loss on Wednesday. “I still don’t think we would have won that day but it would have been a little closer.”
Don’t misunderstand us. We aren’t denying the fact that both NAU and Colorado are very strong. NAU won the biggest regular season meet of the year, adidas Wisconsin, and Colorado won the second-biggest regular season meet, Pre-Nats, as well as the toughest conference, the PAC-12.
At PAC-12s, which included three of the top five teams in the land (#4 Oregon and #5 Stanford), Colorado was truly spectacular as they scored just 28 points to #4 Oregon’s 54, but Colorado was undoubtedly helped by the fact that meet was at altitude.
Last week at Regionals, when neither team went all out, the result was very, very close between Colorado and NAU as NAU won 61 to 69 over Colorado. So if one views NAU/Colorado as basically being even and very good, then why do we think Oklahoma State is the team to beat? Well, just look at the chart below. We’ve spent most of a day coming up with the key stats for the potential scorers for each team and present them to you at the table below.
|Oklahoma State’s Potential Contributors|
|Farrell, Thomas||SR||9th last year||7:51/13:15||3 time All American in XC, 5th at Big 12s this year.|
|Kipchirchir, Shadrack||SR||18th last year||13:38/29:32||2 time AA in XC, 3rd at Big 12s this year.|
|Erassa, Kirubel||JR||102nd last year||7:49/13:47||American was Big 12s runner-up this year.|
|Manilafasha, Joseph||SR||24th last year||8:16/14:24||Horrible at Pre-Nats (66th) & Big 12s (40th) but with pack at Regionals. 3 x FL Finalist. Was only 16th at Big 12s last year.|
|Gohlke, Brian||SO||None||14:11/29:28||11th at Big 12s.|
|Nowak, Craig||SO||None||8:49 3200 HS||23rd PreNats (ahead of CU’s #4), 16th Big 12s.|
|Moskowitz, Shane||JR||53rd last year||3:59mi, 8:07/1426||12th Big 12s, 40th Regionals, One of 5 sub-4s on team last year! 2x FLF.|
|Noelle, Chad||SO||None||3:59 mile||48th PreNats, 18th Big 12s.|
|72nd Pre Nats, 23rd Big 12s, 24th Regionals.|
|NAU’s Potential Contributors|
|Zeinasellassie, Futsum||SO||31st – top frosh last year||
|6th at Wisco. NXN champ, two time FL runner-up. Didn’t run conference.|
|McElroy, Matt||JR||66th last year||811/14:08||16th adidas. Transfers from Ok. State. 2nd Flers HS. Conf. Champ.|
|Shrader, Brian||SR||15th last year||7:59 PR||17th @t Wisconsin (but 30th there last year). Transfer from Oregon. 2-time Flers (9th/5th). 2nd at conference.|
|Weitz, Nathan||SO||80th – 2nd true frosh last year||3:44 PR||39th Wisco. 28th Regionals. 3rd FLers in 2011. 3rd at conference.|
|Hardin, Josh||SR||140th at NCAAs in 2010||14:04/29:28||49th Wisco, W&Mary grad.|
|Hoover, Caleb||JR||75th last year||14:05 PR)||109th Wisco, 12th Big Sky.Just 60th at Regionals.|
|Trouard, Andy||FR||None||4:08/8:51 HS||43rd Wisco, 40th at Mountain Region. Didn’t run conference.|
|Krotzer, Korey||FR||None||4:08/9:01 HS||211th Wisco, 15th Big Sky. Transfer from Ok. State.|
|Colorado’s Potential Contributors|
|Murphy, Pierce||SO||45th last year||14:04/29:36||#4 guy at PAC-12s (#7), #1 at Regionals.|
|Saarel, Ben||FR||None||4:02 m, 8:49 3,200 HS||#2 guy Wisco (9th), #3 guy PAC-12s (5th). Stud in high school.|
|Winter, Connor||JR||65th last year||4:01 m, 14:09||#2 guy at PAC-12s (#4). #3 guy at Regionals.|
|Pearson, Morgan||SO||None||8:06/14:03||#6 guy PAC-12s (#18), #1 at Pre Nats (7th). #4 Regionals. Duke Transfer.|
|Theroux, Blake||SR||39th last year||3:45/8:45 steeple||#1 guy at PAC-12s (3rd), #3 at Pre-Nats. #5 at Regionals. 9:11 HS.|
|Moussa, Ammar||SO||88th 2011||
|#5 guy PAC-12s (#9). 8:49/14:05 HS.|
We know many of you don’t have time to comb over the details of that, so let us summarize the key points:
# Sub-13:50 Guys
Oklahoma State – 3
NAU – 0
Colorado – 0
# Returning All-Americans
Oklahoma State – 3
NAU – 2
Colorado – 1
Oklahoma State has to be considered the favorites because they are defending champs and have the best potential firepower up front. They return three All-Americans, plus a 13:47 guy in Kirubel Errassa, who was Oklahoma State’s #1 guy at Big 12s, where he was the runner-up to the unbeatable Kennedy Kithuka.
So Dave Smith must be feeling really confident, right?
“I know some people thought we were far above everyone else. I never felt that way and still don’t. Now people are starting to realize it’s going to be battle,” said Smith to us on Wednesday. “We probably aren’t the favorites or the best team out there. We are going to have things go really, really well and things not go perfectly for NAU and Colorado if we are going to win.”
While Smith may have gone a bit too far in downplaying the Cowboys’ chances, we do think there could be a very entertaining 3-way team battle on Saturday.
The problem for the Cowboys is two of the returning four from last year’s top 5 on paper don’t appear to be locks to replicate what they did last year.
Joseph Manilafasha, who was 24th last year, has been very inconsistent this year.
He went from being seventh overall at the Cowboy Jamboree (ahead of NAU’s #3 man) to just 66th at Pre-Nats (and just the 3rd man on Ok. States’ B team) to 40th at Big 12s before suddenly re-finding his form at Regionals and running with the Oklahoma top five pack that finished together.
3:59 miler Shane Moskowitz, who was Ok. State’s fifth man last year, was just 40th at Regionals.
When we asked Dave Smith about Moskowitz, who came back to racing very quickly after having labrum surgery earlier this year (MB: WTF! How is Shane Moskowitz ALREADY RACING after labral tear surgery?), Smith told us they were worried the driven Moskowitz came back too early when hip pain flared up mid-season. Fearing he had another labrum problem, they shut him down from running for three weeks from mid-September to early October, before determining it was just bursitis.
Smith admitted Moskowitz might not be where he was last year but said we should discount the 40th place showing at Regionals because Moskowitz was with the Oklahoma State pack through 8k before falling off. Smith realized the team title was easily in hand and told Moskowitz to back off and not push at all and save it for nationals in 8 days. Smart coaching. (More from Dave Smith here)
Hopefully, we’ve convinced you that a battle for the team battle is at least a possibility.
We now tell you why each of the top three schools might win, why they might not win and why you should adopt a particular team as the one you are rooting for.
Breaking down#1 NAU, #2 Oklahoma State and #3 Colorado. We present them in the order that they appeared in last year’s results – Oklahoma State (#1), Colorado (#3), NAU (#4).
Why They Might Win:
1) Take a look at the 2012 Results.
With Farrell, Kipchirchir and Manilafasha back from the top 25 last year and with Erassa running arguably better than any of those three, it seems like they should just be looking for a 5th.
Why They Might Not Win:
1) Winning a title is way easier than defending it for a host of reasons.
Psychologically “going for a historic, upset win” is way more motivating than “trying not to lose or screw up.” (Smith realizes this and is trying to paint his Cowboys as the underdogs).
Oklahoma State theoretically was losing no one from its 2010 championships team but didn’t win in 2011 (some were lost to injury).
2) At least two of the returning 4 scoring members from last year’s team are running worse this year than last year.
Manilafasha was just 40th at Big 12s. Colorado runner – few track credentials (8:16).
Moskowitz was just 12th at Big 12s and missed a lot of time with surgery.
3) The weather.
Smith talked a lot about the course conditions and for good reason. The Buffs (see below) are all great cross-country runners with limited track credentials. Some runners thrive on the track and love the bounce you get back from a track, whereas others thrive in the mud and don’t need that. Might the fact that the Buffs don’t have great track times mean they are better suited for a true cross-country battle versus a glorified track meet on grass?
You should root for the Cowboys if you:
1) Like Dynasties.
Are you the type of guy that always rooted for Michael Jordan‘s Bulls, Tom Brady‘s Patriots, Derek Jeter‘s Yankees or even Mike Tyson back when he was in his prime?
The Cowboys have set the standard of excellence in the men’s competition the last few years and are looking to keep it going for one more year (before they lose a ton).
Overall verdict: If they win handily, everyone after the fact will be thinking, “Why did anyone doubt Oklahoma State?” NCAA history is littered with favorites that didn’t get the job done. If Wisconsin’s Dream Team of 2004 with Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp didn’t win in the slop of Terre Haute, then clearly a loss by the Cowboys won’t be a huge shocker.
Why They Might Win?
1) The Buffs have incredible depth.
They may not have anyone capable of challenging most of the Africans in the top 10, but those guys don’t count in the team standings, and any of their top five or six has the potential to be their #1 guy. While they don’t return any proven stars, they do return four from the top 90 from last year’s race.
2) The Weather/Mark Wetmore
Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith summed up Colorado’s history in wet conditions in Terre Haute perfectly when he said, “I think the last two times (2004 and 2006) we’ve had soft muddy courses in Terre Haute, Colorado won, so …”
The Buff runners thrive in XC. A track meet on grass doesn’t suit them, but the worse the weather, the longer the race, and the more the Buffs will benefit.
3) Maybe they are really, really good.
Did anyone see what they did at PAC-12s? Facing two other teams that are now ranked in the top 5 in the country, the Buffs put five in the top 9. If they win on Saturday, people may realize, “Wow PAC-12s wasn’t a result of the race being at altitude, it was a result of them just being incredibly good.” That result is by far the best a single team has run all year.
Everyone should be reminded that you don’t have to have a great track PR to be a great cross-country runner. Oklahoma State’s Joseph Manilafasha is the perfect example of what the Buffs team is trying to be. He has a track PR well over 14:20 but was 24th last year.
Why They May Not Win?
1) Maybe they aren’t that talented.
They return only one guy from the top 40 last year and have only one sub-14:00 guy. Distance aficionados can love the work ethic, cohesiveness and camaraderie of Wetmore’s All-American squad, but the fact of the matter is talent normally wins out.
2) Oklahoma State’s projected #6 or #7 man, Craig Nowak, ran Pre-Nats and finished ahead of Colorado’s #4.
3) The calendar year is 2013, not 2006.
Between 2000 and 2006, the Buffs won five NCAA cross-country titles (three men, two women). Since then, they’ve won zero and the even the great sub-4 Jenny Barringer was unable to win the individual crown.
You should root for the Buffs if you:
1) Are big American distance homers
Not only are the Buffs a team made up of all Americans but they do sport one young gun who we think maybe the next big star on the US scene – Ben Saarel. He’s only a frosh but we’ve hyped his talent to run sub-13 while he was in HS.
If you adopt the Buffs as your team, you get to root for a true team with a slew of interchangeable parts and perhaps a future American star all at once.
Overall verdict: Sloppy conditions produced an American defeat of Kenya at World Cross-Country in March in the Miracle in the Mud in Poland (we called it the Miracle in the Dirt initially) and the 2004 defeat of Wisconsin by a Wetmore-led Colorado team. As a result, a Colorado victory in 2013 can’t be considered a shocker, particularly because after their PAC-12 domination, they deserved to be ranked as the #1 team in the land.
Mark Wetmore’s funny response to our questions leads us to believe he’s got a good feeling about this group. Discount them at your peril.
#1 Northern Arizona
Why They Might Win?
1) They’ve got a lot of proven, returning depth that is running better than ever.
NAU is similar to Colorado in that both made the podium last year and they both return most of their guys who are running better than ever. However, NAU returns more than the Buffs. Colorado returns 4 from the top 90 and one from the top 40, whereas NAU returns 4 from the top 80 and two from the top 40.
2) They just beat #1 Colorado and really seem to be coming on at the right time.
Why They May Not Win?
1) Like Colorado, they have a slew of 14:00-14:10 types in their top 5.
14:00-14:10 may sound fast but in the year 2013 it’s normally the type of guy who finishes 50-100, not 0 to 50.
2) They scored over 100 points at Wisconsin.
NAU won the toughest meet in the land this year, Wisconsin, but they scored over 100 points in doing so. While the scores at a regular season meet with more than 31 teams and the individuals not taken out, likely would be higher than a post-season meet, the fact of the matter is only one team in 17 years has won NCAAs with a score over 100.
You should root for the Lumberjacks if you:
1) Like underdogs.
# Of National Titles In Program History (Combined Men And Women):
Colorado – 5
Ok State – 3
NAU – 0
2) There is something very lovable about this team from NAU, as four members of their top 7 are discards … we mean transfers … from other schools.
Both Korey Krotzer and Matt McElroy started at Oklahoma State and transferred to NAU, while Brian Shrader started at Oregon and transferred to NAU. To call Josh Hardin a transfer is technically not correct, as he graduated from William & Mary. But the Lumberjacks give hope to those that believe NCAA titles are won in perseverance.
About a month ago, we were talking casually to a friend and he was like, “How about NAU, how can they beat OSU when one of their top guys couldn’t even cut it there?” Not sure if that’s exactly a true statement as McElroy did run 14:08 at Ok. State (14:10 at NAU), but we understand the point he was trying to make.
They are the ultimate underdog team for the year 2013, meaning the transfers were still total studs (McElroy was 2nd at FLers in HS, Shrader was twice top 10).
Bonus For Those Of You Reading This Far:
We’re going to have a lot more later today, including our NCAA individual favorites and press conference highlights, but below are the current rankings in the LRC Fan Polls, which are a part of the $2013 LRC NCAA Prediction Contest Powered by RunFanShop.com.
Oklahoma State is the fans’ #1.
|LetsRun.com Men’s Super Poll Results|
|1.||Oklahoma State (117)||1741|
|3.||Northern Arizona (17)||1473|
Others receiving votes: 21. Princeton 22 22. NC State 21 23. Notre Dame 19 24. Providence 13 25. Dartmouth 12 26. Air Force 10 27. North Carolina 10 28. Virginia 9 29. Georgia 2 30. Harvard 2
Odds & Ends
1) Where’s Georgetown?
The Hoyas aren’t here for the first time since 1997, snapping a 15 year streak of consecutive NCAA appearances. 15 years in a row is pretty good but nowhere close to the 42 in a row that Wisconsin has now racked up (they last didn’t make it in 1971).
2) Welcome Back, Harvard And North Carolina
Harvard is back at NCAAs for the first time since 1979. North Carolina is back for the first time since 1991.