Eddie Reese’s recruitment of Dax Hill could be called atypical. It’s not often that a swimming coach of Reese’s Olympic stature would take a seat in a suburban high school gym to scout a prospect playing basketball.
Reese especially liked what he saw when Hill rebounded the ball. While a top basketball scout might believe Hill to be too tentative for the next level, Reese saw determined, and perfect for the water.
“He’s so smart — he would think about his move, then he’d do it,” Reese recalled. “He’s big, strong and smart. You can’t beat that combination.”
That’s how Hill, the 6-8 ace rebounder on the Round Rock High School basketball team, ended up as a very raw, albeit talented swimmer for Reese’s Longhorns.
Four years ago, he was given the chance to walk on and play basketball and swim at other schools. But he concentrated on swimming, and now he glides into the start of the NCAA championships in Indianapolis on Thursday as the defending national champion in the 200-yard freestyle.
Hill is one of 11 swimmers and two divers representing Texas at the NCAAs. The Longhorns — the No. 2-ranked team as voted by the coaches — are hoping for their 11th NCAA title and first since 2010. Reese is three team titles short of matching the record set by the late Matt Mann at Michigan.
But based on the number of qualified swimmers, Michigan and California should be the favorites. The Wolverines have 17 swimmers available to score points; the Golden Bears, the three-time defending national champions, have 16.
Texas has finished no lower than second in the past five championships. But Florida and Stanford, each with 14 swimmers qualified, also would seem to be ahead of UT coming into the meet, which starts Thursday morning with the first session of preliminaries and ends Saturday night.
A top three finish seems more doable for Texas, since history suggests it’s almost a given. The Longhorns, under Reese, have finished among the top three nationally in 27 of the past 34 NCAA meets. Only once since 1980 has Texas dropped out of the top five.
Hill should have a huge impact on where Texas finishes. He already has made UT history as the first African-American swimmer to win an individual national title. Hill also was part of two championship relays a year ago.
He’s also qualified for the 100 free. His time in that event ranks ninth coming into the event. He finaled in the 100 free as a sophomore. But instead of swimming a third individual event — the 50 free or 200 individual medley were options — Hill will swim on all five relays. He’ll then swim the breaststroke leg on the 200 and 400 medleys.
Given his athleticism in high school, it’s no surprise that Hill uses his basketball skills underwater.
“I’m really good at using my legs,” Hill said. “There are so many tricks you can use. … The flip turn (off the wall) is pretty much a rebound.”
Hill isn’t sure how far he’ll take swimming once he graduates. Internationally, at age 22, he’s still a relatively young sprinter. The three fastest Americans at last year’s Olympics ranged in age from 23 to 31.
He plans to compete at the U.S. world championship trials in June in hopes of making the team that will go to Barcelona. His best event on the international scene may be the 100-meter freestyle. But if he wants to stay in swimming, he’ll need to get stronger.
The 200 free, his main race at the NCAAs, will be Friday night. That day will be his busiest, since he’ll also be on two relays.
“I have a feeling he’s going to be pretty good,” Reese said.
NCAA MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIPS
Texas will send 11 swimmers and two divers to this week’s NCAA men’s swimming and diving championships:
50 free: Kip Darmody, Charlie Moore, Caleb Weir
100 free: Dax Hill, Moore, Weir, Clay Youngquist
200 free: Hill, Sam Lewis, Michael McBroom, Jacob Ritter Youngquist
500 free: Lewis, McBroom, Ritter, Youngquist
1,650 free: Lewis, McBroom, Ritter
200 IM: Tripp Cooper, Austin Surhoff
400 IM: Surhoff
100 back: Darmody, Patrick Murphy
200 back: Darmody, Murphy, Surhoff
100 fly: Cooper
200 fly: Cooper
100 breast: Moore
Divers: Cory Bowersox (1m, 3m); Will Chandler (1m, 3m, platform)
Note: John Murray and Cole Cragin are relay alternates
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the University of Texas men's swimming team ranking by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America.