10 Things To Watch For At The NCAA

The ubiquitous Grant Holloway could end up running 5 races in addition to long jumping. (ERROL ANDERSON/THE SPORTING IMAGE)

The NCAA’s big indoor show returns to Birmingham, Alabama, and promises edge-of-your-seat action as the most elite of the in-school crowd will vie for top collegiate honors on Friday and Saturday. Here’s a quick look at a decathlon’s-worth of happenings that we’re geeked about:

1. Can Holloway Score A Triple?

The fastest man in the 60 and 60H fields is the one who has the most to prove in the flat dash. Is Grant Holloway ready for championship sprinting—in a Saturday final that will come just 40 minutes after the hurdles? At the SECs the races were flip-flopped, with the dash 32 minutes before the barrier race, and there he managed a 6.54/7.44 double. The fields are solid, and if the Gator junior is off form just a little bit, there are several other able speedsters capable of winning, most notably Divine Oduduru (Texas Tech) in the 60 and Daniel Roberts (Kentucky) in the 60H. But wait! As at the SEC, Holloway will be doing more than dashing up and down the straightaway. To get to the two track finals he needs to advance from Friday’s heats, held about an hour apart, all the while contesting the long jump final (an event where he’s only No. 2 on the yearly list).

2. Women’s 5000: Kurgat vs. Kelati vs. Monson

Friday night could give us a battle of the titans of the collegiate distance world. New Mexico’s Ednah Kurgat leads the list with the 15:14.78 she clocked on December 1 fresh off her 5th in cross country. We’ve only seen one race from her since, an 8:59.78 for 3K that put her 6th in a field of collegians in Seattle. Teammate Weini Kelati was 2nd in that December 5K at 15:15.24. She has shown good form recently, winning the Mountain West mile at altitude in a PR 4:37.75. She also clocked 8:53.98 at Millrose. Yet the most fearsome competitor may be Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson, the cross country find who just keeps getting better. She ran an unpressed 15:34.53 qualifier, then stunned with an 8:45.97 Millrose victory over the pros. A Big 10 distance double only added to her shine. There are other contenders in the field, to be sure. Don’t overlook Allie Ostrander (Boise State), Sharon Lokedi (Kansas) or Dorcas Wasike (Louisville).

3. Men’s Shot: Otterdahl vs. Otterdahl

Last year North Dakota State’s Payton Otterdahl came into the NCAA Outdoor with the leading mark in the field at 68-9¼ (20.96), but he left Eugene with a disappointing 10th, a result that has driven his training ever since. “I don’t want that to happen again,” he says. Now he is far better, the Collegiate Record holder at 71-6¾ (21.81). There are other fearsome throwers in the field, notably Jordan Geist of Arizona at 69-4¾ (21.15) and reigning outdoor champ Denzel Comenentia of Georgia 67-11¾ (20.72). However, Otterdahl’s focus will be on Otterdahl—if he can execute the way he has all season, he should be fine. Added bonus: he’s first in the throwing order and has a chance to kick the competition off with a throw that will leave the others with a serious deficit to overcome.

4. Men’s 800: Dixon vs. Arop

A great rematch is looming in the 4-lapper, as Texas A&M’s Devin Dixon, the collegiate leader, will face off against the man he beat at the SEC, soph Marco Arop of Mississippi State. In that previous encounter, Dixon went out hard, leading for the first half before Arop moved too soon, jumping him on lap three and then folding up in the race to the finish. Arop is surely thinking about where he needs to make his move—and Dixon, surely, is planning a pace that will make take the zip out of his challenger. With PRs of 1:45.27 (Dixon) and 1:45.90 (Arop) the two rate as Nos. 3 & 7 on the all-time collegiate list.

5. Women’s 200: A Battle Of List Leaders

The 1-lapper just might provide confirmation of one or both of the world leaders that have come from collegians this season. North Carolina A&T senior Kayla White showed huge improvement with the list-leading 22.82 that she ran in Fayetteville. Two weeks later, Anavia Battle of Ohio State put down a 22.80 in Ann Arbor to win the Big 10 by more than a half-second. The top returnee, LSU’s Kortnei Johnson, 5th last year, is only =12 in the seeding. Also in the field is outdoor champ Angie Annelus of USC (22.83), Big 12 winner Kynnedy Flannel of Texas (22.88) and SEC titlist Tamara Clark of Alabama (22.90). As is always the case with a championship 200, the heats are vitally important, as the lane/section draw for the time-final will go a long way towards determining the outcome.

6. Men’s 3000: Fisher vs. McDonald

One of the best races of the pre-Nationals season was the 3000 matchup between collegiate giants Grant Fisher (Stanford) and Morgan McDonald (Wisconsin) at the Millrose Games. Fisher triumphed on the kick there, telling us that after having raced the Aussie in cross country, “there were things I learned specifically on how to race Morgan.” What happens on Friday may have a huge effect on the 3000. The two are both slated to run the DMR, McDonald on the leadoff and Fisher on the anchor. However, just before that relay, McDonald is entered in the 5000, a superhuman expectation, even if the 5K is slow and tactical.

Mondo Duplantis, here celebrating his CR at the SEC, heads perhaps the greatest NCAA vault field ever. (BRYAN WAYNE)

7. Men’s Vault: Mondo vs. The Field

Even if LSU’s Mondo Duplantis weren’t already the CR holder at 19-5 (5.92) as a frosh, the big-stick event might still rate as one of the best NCAA competitions ever, simply given the stunning depth of the field. Defending champion Hussain Al Hizam is only the =7 seed. The Kansas senior has a best of 18-8¼ (5.70) from last year. Ahead of the Jayhawk on the list (in addition to Mondo) are Matt Ludwig of Akron (19-1½/5.83), Chris Nilsen of South Dakota (18-10½/5.75), frosh Sondre Guttormsen of UCLA (18-9¾/5.73) circling back from a 6th-place finish at the Euro Indoor last weekend, Jacob Wooten of Texas A&M (18-9¼/5.72) and frosh KC Lightfoot of Baylor (18-7¾/5.68). You know the event is in great shape when even if Duplantis misses the bus, we’d still see a pole vault battle for the ages.

8. Women’s Mile: Meier Vs. Nelson vs. Rizk?

There are 3 names in this event’s headline because that’s all we could fit. Honestly, we could have tabbed several more for this race. But among the big 3 will it be list leader Hannah Meier of Michigan (4:32.46)? Running hard from the gun, she captured the Big 10 crown a year after her twin sister did, and in doing so sapped the kick out of Ohio State’s Julia Rizk. However, Meier is slated to run on the distance medley for the Wolverines. Rizk will be racing fresh. And then there are all those other names to worry about, the most prominent of which is Samford’s Karisa Nelson, who won this race two years ago and is coming back strongly from injury. Or it could be none of the above. The NCAA mile rarely lacks for surprises.

9. Women’s Shot: Everybody?

The top qualifier is Ohio State senior Sade Olatoye at 58-8 (17.88), but the fact that there are 6 other competitors within 20 inches of her means that fans will likely be rewarded for paying very close attention to the way the event evolves, round by round. Among the strongest challengers are Mountain Pacific champ Samantha Noennig of Arizona State (58-5¼/17.81), Big 10 runner-up Laulauga Tausaga of Iowa (58-4½/17.79), UCLA’s Alyssa Wilson (58-2/17.73) and SEC champ Portious Warren of Alabama (56-9¼/17.30).

10. Men’s 4×4: Houston vs. Texas A&M

Could the World Record fall in the final event of the meet? Certainly. So might the fastest time ever (they’re not the same thing in this event). Houston ran a pending WR earlier in the season at Clemson, a 3:01.51 that is actually only No. 4 on the all-time list because of technical issues with the times ahead of it. A&M ran 3:01.56 in that Clemson race, and will anchor with the fastest indoor relay runner ever, Devin Dixon at 44.24. We know more than a few stat fans who are hoping the winning team is all of U.S. citizenship and runs faster than USC’s 3:00.77 that won the NCAA crown last year, so that we can put record debates in this event behind us for a little while. Oh, one more thing before we forget. Florida is the No. 3 seed coming in, and guess who’s often the key Gator leg? That’s right, Mr. Holloway.

Live results of the meet will be available here.