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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete: Special Tuesday Edition

What did we learn at the NCAA Cross Country Championships?

No surprise winners. All four of my picks for team and individual champions, as posted at Spiked Up Psyched Up, came through for the wins. I thought I was making very safe picks and going with the favorites.

Anyone who thought Oklahoma State was anything but the favorite clearly doesn’t know how to add. Much was made all season about Stanford’s 1-2-3 punch at several big meets. On paper this made them look very tough. But if Stanford’s top three were better than OSU’s top three—and going into the meet that had to be considered a very big if—all six were going to be so close to the front of the race that the point difference was going to be very small. At those levels there just aren’t that many runners to come in between them. It was obvious all season that OSU probably had the better fifth runner, and definitely had a much better fourth runner. And at those speeds, there are so many more athletes from other teams that can add points to the inferior runner’s team.

What did happen? Stanford went 5-6, OSU went 7-8-9. Stanford’s Elliot Heath ran poorly, finishing 36th, but even if he’d stayed up with his teammates the point differential among the front three runners would have been only nine points. The difference between the two teams’ fourth runners was 60 points, and between their fifth runners was 79. Game over.

Cross country is like poker in that you need five good cards. And OSU was holding four of a kind while Stanford held three of a kind.

Dave Smith knows his stuff. The Oklahoma State coach usually holds his cards close to his vest, but in interviews leading up to the meet he let it be known that he thought Wisconsin was a title threat. The Badgers were second with 2k to go, but #4 runner Elliot Krause cratered in the last half-mile (possibly due to injury) and Wisconsin fell to third. Had he held on the Badgers would have easily been second, and possibly had enough to win if Oklahoma State had experienced an off day.

The Pac-10 shit the bed. Or was ridiculously over-rated. One or the other. Summary:
Stanford poll #1, finished #4
Oregon poll #3, finished #6
Cal poll #18, finished #31 (last)
Washington poll #4, finished #16
Oregon poll #6, finished #12
Stanford poll #7, finished #13
Arizona poll #9, finished #11

It’s not as if Pac-10 teams haven’t done well in recent years. Just not this year.

The wind wasn’t that big of a factor. Maybe I’m a bit biased; I live in a part of the country where 15-20 mph winds only qualifies as “breezy”. But remember, this is a big race with a lot of runners at more or less the same competitive level. Most athletes could hide in a pack.  Only the frontrunners had to worry about the wind.

Or did they? Sam Chelanga led pretty much the entire race, and won going away. But he was a prohibitive favorite, so maybe he’s not the best example. Luke Puskedra is. The Oregon Duck finished third, a big surprise. He was alone in third with no one to break the wind for him for more than half of the race, yet he could not be reeled in. And at 6’ 5”, you’d figure the wind would have made a big difference to such a big man.

My college team didn’t like the wind, but we most certainly didn’t fear it. We faced it every day from October through May. The only major impact the wind may have had on yesterday’s races is to cause fear. And fear makes people do rash, stupid things—such as making major changes to race strategy.

Pre-Nats doesn’t matter much. At least not to the top teams. Fivce of the top ten men’s teams yesterday didn’t even go to Pre-Nats. Runner-up Florida State’s men’s team was third in the Pre-Nats blue race, 111 points behind Stanford, who took fourth yesterday. Iona was also ahead of FSU at Pre-Nats and took eighth yesterday. BYU’s men were second in the White race at Pre-Nats and took 18th yesterday.

On the women’s side it wasn’t much different. Only four of the top ten women’s teams at the NCAA Championships went to Pre-Nats. The top teams who did go didn’t do as poorly—division champs Florida State and Georgetown were 2nd and 4th yesterday—but it’s still true that Pre-Nats is basically for teams trying to qualify to the NCAA Championships, not teams trying to win stuff when they get there.

The NCAA is in for a flaming. The webcast of yesterday’s meet was “craptastic”, to quote one online observer. Not only were those who watched it online cheated, the people there in person were as well. (There’s a big video board showing the camerawork, and at the finish unless you’re in the first row along the fence you can’t see what’s happening.)

Indiana State and produced a great webcast of the Pre-Nationals invite. They made offers to the NCAA to do the championships webcast for free, which were declined. Instead some other company was brought in, one which had no experience producing cross-country meets.

For whatever reason, no camera on the lead truck was used. (At Let’s Run it was said that this was due to contractual obligations, but I can’t understand why.) The plan was to use cameras atop towers set around the course, but high winds nixed that. So we were left with one single camera at the press box, which often got basically no images of runners at all when they were on the far reaches of the course.

And then, at the men’s finish, a camera failed. The picture switched to another camera...which failed. And then when another was used, then they did the obligatory post-finish shot of the winner while the rest of the race was still being fought.

The wrath of the Let’s Run faithful will likely rain down on the appropriate people, if it hasn’t already. When ESPN screwed the USATF coverage last summer, its ombudsman reported an unprecedented response.

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