By Jonathan Gault
March 10, 2020
In a year that saw several top talents skip USA Indoors to run elsewhere — and mind-numbingly predictable races between the athletes who did show up — it’s nice to know you can still count on the NCAA championships.
We can’t say exactly where the drama will come from, but part of the NCAA meet’s appeal lies in its unpredictability. Who would have had Josh Kerr destroying Edward Cheserek in the mile in 2017? Or three teams running faster than the 4×400 world record in 2018? Or Danae Rivers going from fifth to first in the final 50 meters to win the 800 in 2019? (Okay, we did kind of call that last one).
NCAAs also serves as the launching point for future superstars. Clayton Murphy began 2016 as the NCAA indoor champion and ended it as the Olympic bronze medalist at 800 meters. Grant Holloway began his path to World Championship gold in 2019 with a pair of NCAA indoor titles in the 60 and 60 hurdles. Chances are a few 2020 Olympic medalists will be in action at this weekend’s NCAA indoor meet in Albuquerque. We just don’t know who they are yet.
Despite our Ivy League connections, LetsRun is braving the coronavirus threat and will have boots on the ground in Albuquerque beginning on Thursday. Our coverage kicks off with a look at the men’s mid-d and distance events. Let’s dive in.
Men’s 800: USC’s Isaiah Jewett attempts to close out perfect season; can Devin Dixon finally capture NCAA title?
(prelims Friday 9:00 p.m. ET, final Saturday 7:30 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Isaiah Jewett SR USC 1:46.82 2 Festus Lagat SR IA State 1:47.50 3 Carlton Orange SR Texas A&M 1:47.62 4 Michael Rhoads SR Air Force 1:47.65 5 Roshon Roomes SR IA State 1:47.74 6 Cooper Williams JR Indiana 1:47.84 7 Devin Dixon SR Texas A&M 1:47.88 8 Justin Pacifico SR Florida 1:47.97 9 Luis Peralta FR Oregon 1:48.10 10 John Rivera JR Ole Miss 1:48.13 11 Takieddine Hedeilli JR TX Tech 1:48.19 12 Daniel Nixon SR IA State 1:48.29 13 Sean Torpy JR Miami (Ohio) 1:48.53 14 Matt Wisner SR Duke 1:48.62 15 Sven Cepus SO TX Tech 1:48.73 16 Abbas Abbkar SR NC A&T 1:48.76
In each of the last four years, an exceptional underclassman has won this event and promptly turned pro after the spring track season (in order: Clayton Murphy, Emmanuel Korir, Michael Saruni, and Bryce Hoppel). This year’s race figures to be different — seven of the top eight seeds are seniors, including the entire top five.
The #1 seed is USC’s Isaiah Jewett. The 5th-placer at USA outdoors last year, Jewett has put together an unbeaten season, including an NCAA-leading 1:47.12 (altitude conversions are questionable in the 800, but it was converted down to 1:46.82 since he ran it at Texas Tech). This has been a down year so far in the 800, though — seven collegians (including Jewett himself) ran faster than 1:47.12 last year.
Jewett also ran an outstanding 46.19 400 in January (also at altitude in Albuquerque). How impressive was that 400? The runner-up in that race, Texas’ Jonathan Jones, was 4th in the NCAA outdoor 400 last year and has run 44.63 outdoors. Jewett has serious speed.
All the other top seeds have looked vulnerable this year. Iowa State’s Festus Lagat (3rd NCAA outdoors) was beaten handily this season by Indiana’s Cooper Williams, who in turn could only manage 4th at Big 10s. Texas A&M’s Carlton Orange was only 3rd at SECs and is already 0-2 vs. Jewett in 2020. Air Force’s Michael Rhoads has yet to win a race this year.
Two guys stand out as potential challengers to Jewett. The first is Texas A&M’s Devin Dixon. The presumptive favorite entering the season after running multiple 1:44’s last spring and finishing 2nd at NCAAs, Dixon finished behind Jewett and Orange at the Tiger Paw Invite on February 15. But he looked great in winning SECs two weeks ago and has the sprint speed (45.22 in the 400 outdoors) to match up with Jewett.
The other guy worth noting is Texas Tech’s Takieddine Hedeilli. Like Orange, he was beaten badly by Jewett earlier this season, but the 23-year-old Algerian, who owns a 3:37 1500 pb, is coming off an impressive Big 12 double, winning the 1000 and mile (and beating Lagat in both races). Reach that performance level in Albuquerque and he could be a handful at NCAAs.
JG prediction: Jewett has been the best in 2020, but Dixon may be the most talented man in the field (remember, he ran 1:45 outdoors as a true freshman and is the American collegiate record holder indoors at 1:45.27). If Dixon puts it all together, he will be tough to beat. I’m betting he does.
Men’s mile: NCAA champs Hoare, Beamish, & more battle it out
(prelims Friday 7:20 p.m. ET, final Saturday 6:10 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Charlie Hunter JR Oregon 3:55.41 2 Oliver Hoare SR Wisconsin 3:56.47 3 Carlos Villarreal SR Arizona 3:56.77 4 Geordie Beamish SR No. Arizona 3:56.90 5 Waleed Suliman JR Ole Miss 3:57.03 6 Kieran Tuntivate SR Harvard 3:57.36 7 James West SR Oregon 3:57.43 8 Ryan Adams SR Furman 3:57.62 9 Sam Ellis JR Princeton 3:57.66 10 Mick Stanovsek SR Washington 3:57.88 11 George Kusche SO Nebraska 3:57.93 12 Diego Zarate SR Virginia Tech 3:58.06 13 Talem Franco SR BYU 3:58.09 14 Theo Quax FR No. Arizona 3:58.13 15 Cole Hocker FR Oregon 3:58.20 16 Matthew Schadler FR Indiana 3:58.45
There are two former NCAA champions in this field, yet there’s still no clear favorite, which should make for an excellent final on Saturday.
Overall, Wisconsin’s Olli Hoare has the best resume. He won the 2018 NCAA outdoor title and owns the second-fastest SB in the field. And unlike top seed (and fellow Aussie) Charlie Hunter of Oregon, Hoare’s time came in a real race (the Wanamaker Mile) as opposed to a BU time trial. Hoare is also coming off a nice mile/3k double win at Big 10s and though he didn’t win an NCAA title last year, he was solid in each final — 3rd in the mile indoors, 4th in the 1500 outdoors.
If you watched the Wanamaker Mile, you would have noticed that Hoare — though he finished second overall — was less than a second ahead of Arizona’s Carlos Villarreal (the Pan Am Games champ) and Northern Arizona’s Geordie Beamish (the reigning NCAA champ). Both of those men could win in Albuquerque.
Oregon’s Hunter and James West will also be dangerous — Hunter, obviously, as the top seed, and West (5th at last year’s British champs) because of his sparkling marks in the 1500 (3:35.74 outdoors last summer, 3:36.93 indoors two weeks ago). The knock on both: neither has had a ton of success at NCAA championships. West’s best finish was 6th in the 3k in 2018; last year, he was only 15th in the 3k and didn’t make it to NCAAs outdoors after a false start at regionals. Hunter was 8th in the mile last year but failed to qualify for NCAAs outdoors; it also worries me that, prior to his 3:55 in Boston, he ran just 3:59.01 to finish a well-beaten 4th at the Husky Classic.
The other concern about Hunter and West (and Hoare) is that they could be tired from pulling double duty in the DMR. Running the DMR and winning the mile isn’t an impossible task — it’s happened five times in the last 13 years — but it makes it that much tougher. In what projects to be a close race, that could be the difference.
JG prediction: I’m picking Hoare, but if he anchors Wisconsin’s DMR as well, I’ll take West. If both of those guys are in the DMR, then all bets are off. Three races at altitude in less than 24 hours will be really tough for someone who trains at sea level.
Men’s 5,000: Four sub-13:30 men lead a stacked field
(final Friday 9:20 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Tyler Day SR No. Arizona 13:16.95 2 Edwin Kurgat SR IA State 13:24.04 3 Alex Masai SR Hofstra 13:28.55 4 Luis Grijalva SO No. Arizona 13:29.74 5 Morgan Beadlescomb JR Mich State 13:31.50 6 Joe Klecker SR Colorado 13:34.10 7 Peter Seufer SR Virginia Tech 13:36.36 8 Jackson Mestler SR Oregon 13:36.62 9 Kigen Chemadi SR Mid. Tenn. St 13:36.82 10 Jacob Choge SR Mid. Tenn. St 13:38.48 11 Jacob Heslington SR BYU 13:39.05 12 Blaise Ferro JR No. Arizona 13:39.58 13 Abdihamid Nur FR No. Arizona 13:39.81 14 Eric Hamer SR Colo State 13:40.11 15 Tanner Anderson SR Washington 13:40.42 16 Ryan Raff SO No. Arizona 13:40.99
History says that Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat is the man to beat. The last six times the NCAA XC champ has lined up for the NCAA indoor 5k, he has won.
Last six men to achieve NCAA XC/indoor 5k double
|2018-19||Morgan McDonald, Wisconsin|
|2017-18||Justyn Knight, Syracuse|
|2015-16||Edward Cheserek, Oregon|
|2013-14||Edward Cheserek, Oregon|
|2012-13||Kennedy Kithuka, Texas Tech|
|2011-12||Lawi Lalang, Arizona|
(Note: in 2016-17 and 2014-15, the NCAA XC champ didn’t run the 5k indoors)
While Kurgat has looked great this year — he ran 13:24 in December and won the 3k and 5k (and placed 3rd in the mile) at Big 12s — he’s far from a lock. In fact, he may not even be the favorite, considering he lost to NCAA XC runner-up Joe Klecker over 3,000 meters at Millrose in February.
Klecker has been brilliant in 2020, going undefeated against collegians, but he could be beaten, too. That’s because this has been one of the deepest years ever in the 5,000. From 2014 through 2019, no NCAA men broke 13:30 in the 5,000 indoors. This year, four guys have done it, led by Northern Arizona’s Tyler Day, whose 13:16.95 at BU was an American collegiate record and the fastest time by any collegian since Lawi Lalang‘s 2012 collegiate record.
It will be interesting to see how Day plays this race. He’s built a reputation as a strength runner and has found his biggest success in cross country, where he was a key cog during NAU’s three-peat from 2016-18, placing 3rd in 2017 and 6th in 2018 (he was out of eligibility in 2019). But even though his seed time is over seven seconds faster than the next-best guy, breaking a stacked field like this is going to be incredibly tough. Does Day try to make an aggressive move from a kilometer or two out, or does he trust himself against Kurgat and Klecker, whose kicks are good but not on the level Morgan McDonald/Grant Fisher a year ago?
One more thing: major props to NAU for qualifying five guys in this race. Five guys at 13:40 or faster on the same team is utterly ridiculous, and it’s a reminder of just how big an upset BYU pulled when they toppled the Lumberjacks at NCAA XC last fall.
JG prediction: I see four potential champs here: Kurgat, Klecker, Day, and NAU’s Luis Grijalva, who owns the NCAA lead in the 3k at 7:43. Kurgat grew up at altitude and the other three train there, so I don’t envision Albuquerque’s 4,958 feet having a major effect on this race other than the winning time. This should be a great one.
I’m going with Klecker. Remember, a year ago, he would have been a double NCAA champion had it not been for McDonald and Fisher (Klecker wound up 2nd in the 5k and 3rd in the 3k). With those two studs out of the way, it’s finally time for Klecker to stand atop the NCAA podium.
Men’s 3,000: Can Nuguse outkick the distance men?
(final Saturday 8:10 p.m. ET)
Name Year School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Luis Grijalva SO No. Arizona 7:43.73 2 Geordie Beamish SR No. Arizona 7:44.67 3 Tyler Day SR No. Arizona 7:45.70 4 Cooper Teare JR Oregon 7:46.45 5 Yared Nuguse JR Notre Dame 7:46.71 6 James West SR Oregon 7:47.10 7 Joe Klecker SR Colorado 7:47.57 8 Peter Seufer SR Virginia Tech 7:48.28 9 Alex Ostberg SR Stanford 7:49.01 10 Kieran Tuntivate SR Harvard 7:49.15 11 Edwin Kurgat SR IA State 7:49.19 12 Ryan Adams SR Furman 7:49.45 13 Kyle Mau SR Indiana 7:50.22 14 Cameron Griffith SR Arkansas 7:50.80 15 George Kusche SO Nebraska 7:50.93 16 Jack Rowe SR Washington 7:51.00
The 3,000 final is like a beef stew cooked in a microwave. Throw together a bunch of different ingredients — the top distance men doubling back from the 5k, the top milers doubling back from the DMR, and a few crazies doubling back from the mile final two hours earlier — and zap it on HIGH for eight minutes.
Five of the last six years, the 5k champ has gone on to win the 3k as well, but it’s been a while since they’ve had to face a miler of the caliber of Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse. Last year, Nuguse turned down a spot in the mile to focus on the DMR and wound up anchoring the Irish to victory. He went on to win the NCAA 1500 title, and now Nuguse and coach Sean Carlson feel strong enough to add the 3k to his plate at NCAAs.
Nuguse has shown no signs of weakness in 2020. He opened up with a 7:46 solo win on February 8, anchored ND to the second-fastest DMR in NCAA history on February 22, and soloed a 3:55 mile win at ACCs on February 29. And he always seems to pull out close races — ND’s NCAA DMR win last year came by .15, Nuguse’s NCAA 1500 title came by .003, and ND’s DMR win against Wisconsin (anchored by former NCAA champ Olli Hoare) came by .04.
But there are a lot of studs in this race. Grijalva, Day, Kurgat, and Klecker could all conceivably be doubling back from a 5k title, and Oregon’s Cooper Teare (4th in this race last year) will be dangerous coming back from the DMR. I’m ignoring anyone doubling back from the mile (Beamish, West) because the same-day mile/3k double is basically impossible unless you’re a generational talent. Only three men have won both in the last 37 years: Joe Falcon in 1988, Bernard Lagat in 1999, and Lawi Lalang in 2013.
JG prediction: I reserve the right to change my pick if someone destroys everyone in the 5k on Friday (or if Nuguse and ND lose the DMR), but in a race with so many talents, I want the guy with the best kick. That’s Nuguse.
Men’s distance medley relay: The best NCAA DMR ever?
(final Friday 10:30 p.m. ET)
School Seed =============================================================================== 1 Oregon 9:24.52 2 Notre Dame 9:25.80 3 Wisconsin 9:25.84 4 Indiana 9:27.72 5 Iowa State 9:28.22 6 BYU 9:30.28 7 Arkansas 9:31.40 8 Minnesota 9:31.52 9 UCLA 9:32.14 10 Virginia Tech 9:32.30 11 Stanford 9:32.42 12 Mid. Tenn. State 9:32.60
This could be a race for the ages. And while there are some very good schools in the field — such as Indiana, with the duo of Cooper Williams (1:46 800) and Kyle Mau (3:57 mile) and Iowa State (who have a 1:45 guy in Festus Lagat, a 1:46 guy in Roshon Roomes, and a 1:47 guy in Daniel Nixon) — three stand out.
That would be Oregon, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin, who have run the three fastest times in NCAA history this year. Let’s make the case for each of them below.
Qualifying lineup: James West (1:48/3:35), Jacob Miller (47.44), Charlie Hunter (1:49/3:55), Cooper Teare (3:55)
Why they’ll win: Just look at those PRs! While Teare is the logical pick to run anchor (West and Hunter are doubling back from the mile), he’s only the third-best miler on his own team. And he’s still run 3:55! No team has more talent.
Oh, and did I mention this team destroyed the NCAA record earlier this year? The old record of 9:25.97 had stood for 12 years, and was set by a loaded Texas team that featured future two-time NCAA 800 champ Jacob Hernandez and future Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano. The Ducks blew that time out of the water earlier this year with a 9:24.52 at Arkansas.
Why they won’t: Read that first paragraph again. Cooper Teare is the third-best miler on his own team and yet he’s supposed to outkick NCAA champs like Olli Hoare and Yared Nuguse? If Teare runs anchor, Oregon needs to employ a very specific strategy to win: break the race open before the anchor leg and trust Teare can push the pace and hold everyone off. The good news is that Oregon basically already did that this year when they set the NCAA record (that’s also how Virginia Tech won the DMR in 2018 under Ben Thomas — now the Oregon coach). The bad news is that’s really hard to do.
Oregon could switch up its order and run West or Hunter on anchor, but both of them are entered in the mile, while Teare is fresh. The bet here is Thomas sticks with Teare as a fresh anchor on the DMR is a valuable commodity.
Qualifying lineup: Dylan Jacobs (2:24/3:46), Edward Cheatham (47.81), Samuel Voelz (1:49), Yared Nuguse (3:55)
Why they’ll win: The entire squad that won the 2019 title returns, and all four men are better than they were a year ago. Jacobs didn’t even make the ACC mile final last year but was 5th in the 3k in 2020. Cheatham is coming off a huge PR of 47.81 at ACCs (though it still wasn’t good enough to make the final). Voelz didn’t even make the ACC final last year but has run a PR of 1:49.22 this year and won the ACC 800. And Nuguse won the NCAA 1500 title outdoors and has kicked ass all indoor season. In 2019, soloed a 3:57 to win the ACC mile title by 5+ seconds; in 2020, he soloed a 3:55 to win by 6+ seconds.
Why they won’t: ND only beat Wisconsin by .04 when they raced earlier this year, so the Irish aren’t untouchable. But Nuguse will be fresh in this race, while Hoare (Wisconsin’s anchor) will be doubling back from the mile.
Qualifying lineup: Jackson Sharp (1:52/3:46), Colin Enz (48.25), Hudson Kugel (1:48), Olli Hoare (3:54)
Why they’ll win/why they won’t: Realistically, this comes down to Olli Hoare. The first three legs are good enough to put Hoare in position to win, and Hoare is one of the few guys in the NCAA who has beaten Nuguse (he did it twice last year outdoors, in the 1500 at Bryan Clay and the DMR at Penn Relays). If Hoare is the best miler in the NCAA — as he was in the spring of 2018, when he toppled three-time NCAA champ Josh Kerr — he could win this thing, even doubling back, but it’s a tall order to ask.
JG prediction: Even ignoring the improvement of Notre Dame’s other legs, having the NCAA 1500 champ on anchor may be enough. There’s no better closer in the NCAA right now than Nuguse. The Irish are my pick.
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