By Jonathan Gault
November 19, 2014
*Discuss the men’s team race in our fan forum: The fight for second place – Syracuse vs. Oregon, who ya got? (Men’s teams).
We’re almost there. After months of waiting, during which thousands of runners logged millions of miles on the roads, trails and golf courses of America, NCAA Cross Country Championship Week has arrived. Throughout this week, 62 teams, 76 individuals and hundreds of coaches, parents and fans will descend upon Terre Haute, Indiana, for 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. For some, like the Ole Miss men, it’s a long-awaited journey — their first trip to the Big Dance in the program’s 48-year history. For others, like the Wisconsin men (making their 43rd straight appearance), it’s business as usual, even if this Badgers squad features just two men with past NCAA XC experience. For everyone, it’s the biggest race of the season, the moment they’ve been building toward since June.
To get you ready for the races on Saturday, LetsRun.com will be running plenty of pre-meet coverage on the site this week, with breakdowns of the men’s and women’s team and individual races as well as our annual prediction contest. I’ll be onsite in Terre Haute with Robert Johnson beginning on Thursday, where we’ll give you the scoop from the course, the pre-meet press conferences and the big day itself.
Below, a full breakdown of the men’s team race.
What: 2014 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships
Where: LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course, Terre Haute, Indiana
When: 12 p.m. ET (women’s race); 1 p.m. ET (men’s race)
How to watch: In person ($10 admission) or streaming online on NCAA.com
Entering the season, Colorado was viewed by many, including this website, as the favorites to win its second straight championship. The Buffs returned all seven runners from their 2013 title team and with legendary coach Mark Wetmore at the helm, Colorado was expected to be even better in 2014. And until this point, that has been the case. CU ran historically fast at the Rocky Mountain Shootout, destroyed the field at Pre-Nats by placing six runners in the top 14, scored just 30 points and dominated at Pac-12s (the NCAA’s most competitive conference with the three of the top four and six of the top 16 teams in the land) and even won the Regional (last year they were second). And the Buffaloes have accomplished all this without their #2 man from NCAAs last year, Morgan Pearson, who appears to be redshirting (he ran unattached at the Shootout but didn’t race at Pre-Nats, Pac-12s or Regionals).
It’s pointless assessing Colorado’s place in history until NCAAs is over, but suffice it to say that the 2014 Buffaloes are very, very good. They’ve raced the #2 team in the country, Oregon, twice this season and have beaten up on the Ducks both times, winning 35-91 at Pre-Nats (putting six in front of Oregon’s #3) and 30-57 at Pac-12s (putting five ahead of Oregon’s #3 as well Maksim Korolev, the 2013 NCAA third-placer/2014 Wisconsin Invitational champ). This Colorado team has a good chance to post the lowest score at NCAAs since the 2005 Wisconsin Badgers (37).
I think it’s extremely unlikely that Colorado loses on Saturday, but this is the NCAA Championships and anything can happen. No one thought that the 2009 Stanford men — a team that went 1-2-3 to score 27 points at the West Regional — would barely scrape into the top 10 at NCAAs. Very few spectators imagined that individual victories from Angela Bizzarri in 2009 or Edward Cheserek in 2013. This feels like a chalk year, though, one similar to 2010 where three of the four champions (team/individual) were repeat winners.
If Colorado loses, how will it happen?
Note: for this section, I’m not paying much attention to Colorado’s race at Regionals (it beat NAU, 45-68, for the Mountain Region title). CU didn’t run Blake Theroux and Wetmore said his guys weren’t going all out. Plus, CU got second at Regionals last year and still won NCAAs.
One of the unique aspects of cross country, compared to other team sports, is that there’s no defense. If this were the NFL, opposing coaches could gameplan around Blake Theroux and say “We’re not going to let him beat us.” But you can’t double-cover a cross country runner. If you really want to, you can try and dictate the race by having your guys control the pace up front, but such a strategy is very difficult to employ. Essentially, what cross country comes down to is your team’s combined best effort out-performing all the others. Coaches say it all the time, but it’s true: all that you can control in a race is your own effort.
These facts are likely frustrating to the coaches of the 30 other teams at NCAAs, because Colorado has shown that on its best day, it cannot be touched. But it’s rare that every runner on a team has his best race of the season at the NCAA Championships. Wetmore admitted that he didn’t think Colorado had a brilliant day at NCAAs last year. Their fifth man, Ammar Moussa, finished 95th overall, and Colorado’s winning score of 149 was the highest in meet history. Still, that was enough for the Buffs to claim their fourth NCAA title. The Buffs are so deep — their fifth man, sometimes even their sixth, is better than most teams’ #2 — that they don’t have to run their best race of the season to win on Saturday.
Yet there are scenarios in which Colorado loses. I’ve spent some time thinking about the best way to match up with Colorado, and I’ve concluded there are two ways for teams to challenge the Buffaloes:
1) Two very low sticks and a solid 3-4-5
The plan here would be to have your top two runners both finish in the top four in team scoring and hope that they create a large enough cushion on Colorado’s top two that it counteracts the inevitable losses you’re going to suffer at the 3-4-5 spots. There are two teams capable of executing this strategy: Oregon (with Cheserek and Eric Jenkins) and Stanford (with Maksim Korolev and Joe Rosa). Back in September, it looked like Oregon had a real shot at pulling this kind of race off, as the Ducks went 1-2-5-6-10-14 to win the Coast-to-Coast Battle in Beantown going away, 24 to 52 over now second-ranked Syracuse. But in two tries against Colorado, the Ducks haven’t been close. Neither was Stanford at Pac-12s. Check out the time comparisons between each team’s top five runners.
|#1 runner||Blake Theroux, 24:06||Edward Cheserek, 24:04|
|#2 runner||Ben Saarel, 24:15||Eric Jenkins, 24:09|
|#3 runner||Ammar Moussa, 24:21||Daniel Winn, 24:40|
|#4 runner||Jake Hurysz, 24:23||Tanguy Pepiot, 24:48|
|#5 runner||Pierce Murphy, 24:25||Travis Neumann, 24:57|
|#1 runner||Blake Theroux, 23:42||Edward Cheserek, 23:23||Joe Rosa, 23:37|
|#2 runner||Connor Winter, 23:44||Eric Jenkins, 23:34||Maksim Korolev, 23:56|
|#3 runner||Ammar Moussa, 23:49||Matthew Melancon, 24:08||Sean McGorty, 24:03|
|#4 runner||Pierce Murphy, 23:53||Daniel Winn, 24:09||Michael Atchoo, 24:08|
|#5 runner||Ben Saarel, 23:54||Cole Watson, 24:17||Garrett Sweatt, 24:15|
Those gaps are just too big for Oregon and Stanford to overcome without an awful race by Colorado. Even if you combined Oregon and Stanford at Pac-12s, they would only have beaten CU by two points — and that’s a team with a top four of Cheserek, Jenkins, Rosa and Korolev.
Only once this season has a team successfully put two runners ahead of Colorado’s #1 (Oregon at Pac-12s). To topple Colorado using this strategy, Oregon and Stanford would both have to do it at NCAAs (each team would need the others to displace Colorado’s #1) and get huge races from their 3-4-5 runners. I just don’t see it happening.
2) Beat Colorado at its own game
Colorado is the best team in the country because they have six runners capable of finishing in the top 20 at NCAAs on a great day. That doesn’t mean CU is going to put six in the top 20 on Saturday, but that depth means that CU has the best #3, #4 and #5 runners in the country (whoever they might be on the day). If you have an advantage over every other team at three of the five scoring positions, it’s going to take a lot for anyone else to beat you.
No other team is capable of putting six (or even five) guys in the top 20 on Saturday, so this strategy assumes that Colorado has an average day or worse. If, instead of putting five in the top 20, CU puts five in the top 40, they’re no longer invincible. There are a few teams that could put five in the top 40 on a good day (or come pretty close) and if they accomplish that on Saturday, they have a chance to knock off Colorado.
I already talked about Stanford and Oregon above, so let’s look at the rest of the top 10 to see if anyone is capable of executing this strategy.
#3 Syracuse: Yes (more on them in a minute).
#4 Oklahoma State: Maybe. OK State ran great at Big 12s (1-4-6-7-9) and has a great #1 in Kirubel Erassa (unbeaten so far this season). Craig Nowak (62nd last year) and Shane Moskowitz (53rd in 2012) have been close to the top 40 in the past. Fabian Clarkson (29:09 10k, 4th at Big 12s) is capable of that too. But their #5 (either Brian Gohlke or David Osborn) would need to run very well on Saturday to finish as an All-American (Gohlke was 91st last year; Osborn has pbs of just 14:44/29:51). And Nowak, Moskowitz and Clarkson are by no means locks for the top 40 either.
Oklahoma State passed up Wisconsin and Pre-Nats, and though they raced well at Big 12s and the Midwest Regional, it has yet to face the A team of a top-20 squad, leading to uncertainty about OK State’s true talent level. Dave Smith‘s men have a history of running well at NCAAs (the Cowboys have been in the top three each of the past five years) and they should have at least three All-Americans on Saturday. But hoping for five in the top 40, coupled with a bad race by Colorado, is probably too much to ask for.
If they do it, Smith deserves some mega accolades as they returned zero xc All-Americans from last year.
#5 Iona: Yes (more on them in a minute).
#6 Wisconsin: A very good (and young) team, but the Badgers are at least a year away from challenging Colorado.
#7 Villanova: Similar to Oklahoma State. The Wildcats have an outstanding #1 (Patrick Tiernan) but the 10k distance hurts them and their #5 (either Brian Basili or Harry Warnick) would need a HUGE race to finish in the top 40.
#8 Portland: #5 man Timo Goehler was only 34th at the West Regional and was 111th at Wisconsin. Realistically, Colorado should have five in before Portland’s #4, even on a bad day.
#10 Northern Arizona: The Lumberjacks boast a great 1-2 punch in Futsum Zienasellassie (4th at NCAAs last year) and Matt McElroy (5th at Wisconsin). Caleb Hoover has been a nice surprise at #3, but to topple CU, they’ll need Tyler Byrne to repeat his 2013 performance (29th) even though he hasn’t been running that great this season (102nd at Wisconsin, 17th at Mountain Regional). Even if Byrne runs well, NAU still lacks a capable #5.
The two teams I believe could theoretically execute this strategy and upset Colorado both hail from the Northeast Region: Syracuse and Iona. This stems from their performances at the Wisconsin Invitational. In that race, Syracuse won by putting five in the top 24 while Iona had four in the top 36 (though they didn’t race Kieran Clements, who was 57th at NCAAs last year).
The Michigan State women, like Colorado heavy favorites for the team title, scored 87 points at Wisconsin. The Syracuse men scored 85. Those results, especially for the Orange, suggest that each team could put five in the top 40 at NCAAs. If the Orange or Gaels run a little better than they did at Wisconsin and Colorado runs a little worse than it did at Pre-Nats, it’s a close race between Syracuse/Iona and Colorado. Neither Syracuse nor Iona has a crippling #5 that should lose a ton of points to Colorado’s #5. Rather, each of their runners is slightly worse than their CU counterpart.
Of the two, Syracuse is the better team as it has six guys capable of scoring low: Martin Hehir, Justyn Knight, Max Straneva, Joel Hubbard, Dan Lennon and MJ Erb. When you’ve got six good runners (Iona has five and then there’s a drop-off), you’re better protected against blowups and have a higher chance of getting a great race from one of your guys.
Prior to the season, I didn’t rank Syracuse in LetsRun.com’s preseason top 10, a move that now looks foolish after the Orange handily won Wisconsin. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Syracuse has the best chance of any team of defeating Colorado. That doesn’t necessarily mean that SU gets second, but I think that they have the best shot of toppling the Buffaloes because they don’t need anything crazy to happen. For a school like Stanford or Oregon to win, it needs massive improvements from its 3-4-5 runners. Syracuse just needs all of its guys to to run a bit better and hope Colorado runs a bit worse. That’s more likely than counting on huge performances from runners that have yet to deliver them. Plus, SU hasn’t raced CU yet. Take Syracuse’s performance from Wisconsin, transfer it to Pre-Nats and I’m confident the Orange beats Oregon (but still loses to Colorado).
In all likelihood, Colorado isn’t losing. The Buffaloes are the defending champions, have dominated in all of their races (save for Regionals, which I don’t put as much stock in) and no team is more confident when it steps on the line. If the Buffs run well on Saturday, they win. If they run average, they win. If they run below average…then things get interesting.
Additional Thoughts By Robert Johnson
Jon, this season has made me realize I always root for the underdog. Most years, I’m pulling for an upset by the Buffs. This year, I’ve found myself fantasizing all season long about how the Buffs might blow it.
First of all, I think the concept of “Syracuse runs a little bit better, Colorado runs a little bit worse” isn’t going to result in a Colorado loss. The Buffs are just too good.
Colorado’s top five at Pac-12s have all broken 14:00 for 5000 and two of those guys have gone sub-13:50. Syracuse’s top five from ACCs has just one sub-14:00 guy and zero sub-13:50s. Now let me be clear – the Orange do have a LOT of talent – Martin Hehir has run 13:50, Max Straneva 14:00, and super-frosh Justyn Knight ran 14:08 in high school. Add in NCAA 1500 qualifier Joel Hubbard (3:43) and 14:18 guy MJ Erb and you see how Syracuse crushed the competition at Wisco. Only one of those guys is a senior (Straneva) so you’d think in a normal year they’d be the team to beat in 2015 until you realize that only one of Colorado’s top five (from Pac-12s) is a senior as well.
So how does Colorado lose? They lose with a blowup.
The depth of CU was great at Pre-Nats, where their 1-6 spead was just 21 seconds, but since then their sixth man has shown a tiny bit of weakness. At Pac-12s, their 1-5 spread was 12 seconds but their #6 was 21 seconds behind #5. At Regionals, their 1-5 spread was just 11 seconds but their sixth man was 1:51 behind their fifth. Yes, nearly two minutes. I know that #1 man Theroux didn’t run Regionals, but that’s what to me gives the other teams hope. Yes, Wetmore told us earlier this week that Theroux is healthy and going to race, but without him, the Buffs suddenly are vulnerable. Without Theroux, if one of those top five has a really bad day, kind of like how Jenny Simpson was inexplicably 163rd in 2009, then the Buffs would be in trouble.
Now maybe Theroux just took the week off as Wetmore is going to let him go for broke in the individual race, but maybe he sat out because he’s dinged up. It certainly is a little unusual to say the least that Wetmore didn’t have him run.
Anyone remember what happened 10 years ago? The heavy favorites Wisconsin, which consisted of a ‘Dream Team’ of Bairu, Tegenkamp, Solinsky, Keller, Lockhart, Spiker, and Nelson coached by Jerry Schumacher, redshirted Foot Locker champ Matt Withrow, who made the US senior cross country team a few months later, and the Buffs ended up winning 90 to 94. Wetmore is a student of the sport and knows all of this. The fact that Theroux didn’t run Regionals coupled with the fact that Wetmore said he’s considering blowing the redshirt of Pearson certainly makes things a little more interesting. Maybe Wetmore’s talk of using Pearson is a result of him just being cautious (my boss at Cornell, Nathan Taylor, coached using the motto of “A bird in hand is better than two in the bush”- meaning make sure we win this year, we’ll worry about next year, next year), but maybe there is reason for concern? We’ll find out on Saturday.
1. Colorado — Too much talent. The only question is how many points they will score.
2. Oregon — Cheserek and Jenkins give them a huge advantage over the rest of the podium contenders. The Ducks’ 3-4-5 pull it together for 2nd.
3. Syracuse — Colorado Light. A very strong, deep team, but not quite on the Buffs’ level.
4. Oklahoma St. — Make it six straight podiums for the Cowboys.
5. Wisconsin — Mick Byrne‘s teams always run well at NCAAs. The Baby Badgers gain some valuable championship experience.