NCAA DI Indoor Championships Preview: Men’s Distance & Mid-Distance

NCAA DI Indoor Championships Preview: Men’s Distance & Mid-Distance

The NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships are this weekend – March 13-14 – in Fayetteville, Arkansas, so to get you ready we’re breaking down each event at the Championships.

Here we look at the men’s distance & middle-distance events, and we will take a look at those same women’s events in a separate article later today.

Check back throughout the week for event group previews that include:

  • Sprints & Hurdles (Men | Women)
  • Jumps (Men | Women)
  • Throws & Combined Events (Men | Women)

Be sure to tune in live on Friday and Saturday to ESPN3 (WatchESPN) to witness one of the best and most tightly contested indoor track & field meets on the planet.

For full meet details, visit the USTFCCCA National Championships Central page, and be sure to check out the USTFCCCA’s newly launched NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships History Record Book page.

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Men’s Distance Preview

It’s never happened.  It’s come really, really, close to happening, but one school has never won four distance events in a single meet. This weekend, there’s a very real possibility that Oregon wins the mile, 3000, 5000, and distance medley relay.

The Ducks were the last team to come close: in 2009Galen Rupp won the 3k and 5k and anchored the winning DMR, and Andrew Wheating lost the 800 by half a second.  In 1981, UTEP won the 1k, mile, and three mile and had Suleiman Nyambui lose the two mile by 0.06 seconds; the next year, Miners won the mile, two mile, and three mile but had George Mehale lose the 800 by half a second. 

The fact that no men’s team has ever won four distance events in a single NCAA indoor meet is even more astounding when you consider that meets in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s occasionally had a 880, 1000, mile, two mile, three mile, 4×800, and distance medley. But Edward Cheserek and Eric Jenkins could get Oregon there this weekend.

The central question of the distance races at this meet: who could stop them?

First, there’s a small chance that Najee GlassMarquis Dendy, and Mike Holloway could put the kibosh on the whole thing: Ken Goe of the Oregonian wrote that “Robert Johnson has promised to turn loose Cheserek in the 3,000 meters if needed,” strongly implying that (and Goe’s sterling record means you should trust his implications) some possibility of Ches not being turned loose in the 3k exists. That contingency would come into play if Florida has wrapped up the team race by the time the 3000 begins.

Of course, this ignores two things: Cheserek’s extreme competitiveness, and the high likelihood that even if the sophomore doesn’t run, Eric Jenkins will win the race. Let’s just give Oregon the 3k.  In the unlikely event that Cheserek doesn’t win it, it’s very hard to imagine Kemoy Campbell beating Jenkins. In fact, in the infamous nationals 3k that Jenkins was disqualified from in 2013, he beat Campbell by three-quarters of a second. Jenkins is clearly a better runner than he was two years ago.

It’s even harder to imagine Campbell or anyone else beating Jenkins in the 5000, where the Duck has the nation’s fastest time by nearly seven seconds.  Other than Jenkins and Campbell, there are exactly two runners in the field who have ever finished in the top three at nationals, ever: Craig Lutz of Texas was third in the outdoor 10k in 2013, and Parker Stinson of Oregon was third in this race last year.  With everybody fresh and Campbell slotted to run on Arkansas’ DMR forty-five minutes later—the 5k is at 8:45, the DMR is at 9:20, and Campbell is declared on the Hogs’ relay—Jenkins is a heavy, heavy favorite here.

Your opinion on Oregon’s chances of a distance sweep, then, mostly hinges on your opinion of Edward Cheserek as a miler. And that’s the best kind of debate: one in which the opinions are not going to be particularly solidly grounded in facts. The King of the 5k, 10k, and cross country has only run one 1500 and one mile in his two years at Oregon.

Those two races: a 3:36.50 1500 (very good!) last spring and a 3:56.43 mile (less so!) four weeks ago. There’s been a bit of a move to install Montana State’s Cristian Soratos as the favorite on the basis of his 3:55.27 mile at Washington the same day Ches ran his mile.  While Soratos—who ran 4:05 at altitude earlier in the season, a time that was converted to 3:56—would prefer to never, ever hear the words “indexing” or “conversions” again, the fact remains that while flat oversized and 200m banked tracks are equal in the eyes of the descending order list (and God), they are not the same for record purposes.

That’s the fun of a national championship! The race is actually happening, and not being argued about on the internet. From this corner of the internet, it seems like Cheserek is the clear favorite.  His performance at Millrose might be in the same statistical territory of Soratos’ at Husky. And he’s shown incredible tactical acumen and outrageous speed. Soratos has never demonstrated either; this is his first NCAA championship, and his best known 4×4 split is in the low 48s—aka the same pace that Ches ran his last 200 meters of the 10k at nationals last June.

Winning a national championship requires any two of the three following things: tactical smarts, great fitness, or a kick so good that nothing else matters.  Cheserek has demonstrated all three. Soratos has demonstrated one. That’s not to say that Soratos’ kick isn’t great (his 56 close off a fast pace at UW is very promising), or that he’s lacking tactically; just that he’s relatively unproven in both areas.

My preference for Ches is partially predicated on nationals being a pack race–a style with with which Soratos has minimal experience at this level.  But the Montana State senior could go all German Fernandez on the field and make pack skills and a kick wholly irrelevant by taking the race out from the gun.  If Soratos shoots for and hits Lawi’s 3:54.74 meet record, there’s a distinct possibility that Ches simply can’t hang.  I think Ches will win the race at any pace. But if you want to make the argument that Soratos wins a fast race, there’s plenty of evidence to support that.

All of the very justified Soratos-Ches showdown talk has ignored that the defending NCAA indoor champ and the top returner from NCAA outdoors will both be in this race.  Anthony Rotich of UTEP did indeed lose twice in an absurd triple at his conference meet, but other than that, he’s nearly the exact same runner he was at this time last year.  He came into last year’s indoor nationals with mile season best of 4:01.11 and a 5k SB of 13:44; those times this year are 4:02.75 and 13:40.

Loyola’s Sam Penzenstadler beat everyone not named Mac Fleet and Lawi Lalang at outdoor nationals last year. But if we’re going to mention him, then we need to mention the two men who beat him at Iowa State: Kentucky’s Keffri Neal and Oklahoma State’s Chad Noelle.

There’s no Soratos-quality fly in the ointment in the DMR.  Oregon has run 9:27 with Cheserek on the 1200 leg, Villanova has run 9:27, and Georgetown, Penn State, Arkansas, have run 9:28. Moving Ches from the leadoff to the anchor would seem to make the Ducks clear favorites. But Villanova’s Jordy Williamsz has nearly the exact same 1500 PB (3:36.74; Cheserek’s is 3:36.50) as the prohibitive favorite, if nothing near the championship chops.

Oh Yeah… The 800

Though the US is in a golden age of mid-distance running, that hasn’t translated to blazing fast 800s at indoor nationals.   No one has run faster than 1:46.84 at indoor nationals since 2001.   The titanic Ed Kemboi-Brandon McBride showdown could change that this weekend, as Kemboi won the 800 and 1k in a span of 20 minutes at Big 12s—demonstrating tremendous fitness—and McBride is a notoriously aggressive racer.

The only question mark is McBride’s fitness and sharpness.  As he told us on our podcast, his aim in 2015 is more for Beijing than Eugene. He’s only run one 800 this indoor season, meaning his TFRRS page is a blank canvas for your own outlook.  Only raced once? He’s clearly the freshest man in the field. Only raced once? He’s clearly not championship-sharp.

All of those arguments get put to rest this weekend. That’s why they run the races.