March Madness gets underway today and while the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is indeed a glorious time on the sporting calendar, hoops isn't the only NCAA sport competing for a national title right now -- it's also March Matness time. The wrestling national championships are also this weekend and they are well worth your time. There are a lot of very exciting and fun wrestlers to watch right now, which ought to lead to some very entertaining matches over the next three days. If you want to go in-depth, you can check out my bracket breakdown or dive deep with our blogger roundtable, but if you just want to get the skinny on how Iowa is likely to fare this weekend and how you can watch it, read on.
WHEN IS IT? This weekend, March 16-18, 2017.
IS IT ON TV? It sure is and you don't even need to pay extra for a stream to watch any of it.
|Thursday, March 16 (Round One)||11:00 AM||ESPNU||WatchESPN|
|Thursday, March 16 (Round Two)||6:00 PM||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Friday, March 17 (Quarterfinals)||10:00 AM||ESPNU||WatchESPN|
|Friday, March 17 (Semifinals)||6:00 PM||ESPN||WatchESPN|
|Saturday, March 18 (Consos)||10:00 AM||ESPNU||WatchESPN|
|Saturday, March 18 (Finals)||7:00 PM||ESPN||WatchESPN|
For the first time ever, all three evening sessions will be live on ESPN. ESPNU will have all the morning/afternoon sessions during the tournament. And all mats will be available to view on WatchESPN/ESPN3.
Knowing which mat to watch can be the trickiest part of following the tournament. Your best bet for that information is the comments right here at Go Iowa Awesome (where myself or one of our friendly commenters will try to post that information) or at TrackWrestling or from @IowaWRLive, Iowa wrestling's play-by-play account.
WHERE IS IT AT THIS YEAR? St. Louis, MO, which has been a frequent destination for the event -- it's been there five of the last 10 years. In fact, St. Louis was the last place where Iowa won a national championship, back in 2010.
CAN IOWA WIN A NCAA TITLE THIS YEAR? Can they? Yes. Will they? Probably not. The path to an Iowa national title is a pretty narrow one this year. It largely involves their stars maxing out -- that means getting five guys into the finals (Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Brandon Sorensen, Michael Kemerer, and Sammy Brooks) and having the other guys score some points and have 1-2 of those guys earn All-America status. They'd also need the favored teams -- Penn State, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State -- to suffer some unexpected upsets (although in several cases Iowa would be in position to deal out those upsets). Again, it's technically possible, but it's not very likely because it involves a lot of things breaking just right for Iowa.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM FOR IOWA THIS YEAR? The biggest problem for this Iowa team is probably Injuries -- their starting heavyweight, Sam Stoll, suffered another torn ACL back in January, which robbed them of one of their better wrestlers -- when healthy, he looked like he'd have a good shot to finish in the 4-6 range at the NCAA Tournament. Now Iowa's looking at getting zero points from that weight. Injuries have also hampered one of their best wrestlers, Cory Clark. He's not out for the season like Stoll, but a shoulder injury has limited him all year and likely contributed to a few of his losses; those losses have helped put him on a very challenging path to a national title this weekend.
The other problem is that even with a healthy Stoll and Clark, Iowa might have had just a few too many holes in this lineup. They don't have really strong options at 141, 165, or 197, and it's hard to sustain a lack of production at three weights.
CAN IOWA GET A SOLO NATIONAL CHAMPION? Yep -- Thomas Gilman has an excellent chance to become Iowa's first national champion since Tony Ramos in 2014. (Yes, Iowa's gone two years without a national champion, which is definitely two years too long.) Gilman is undefeated and ranked #1 at 125 lbs -- and one of his toughest challengers was just ruled out for the tournament.
We would like to announce at this time that FR 125-pounder Nick Suriano will not be able to compete in this year's NCAA Championships.— pennstateWREST (@pennstateWREST) March 15, 2017
There are still some difficult opponents at 125, but if Gilman wrestles smart and doesn't get overly conservative, he'll have a great opportunity to have his hand raised on Saturday night.
WHICH OTHER IOWA WRESTLERS COULD BECOME CHAMPIONS? Iowa has five wrestlers ranked in the top five at their respective weights, so they have some very good guys who definitely will have shots to wrestle on Saturday night in the finals. In order of most likely to least likely to be a champion, this is how I'd rank them right now: Cory Clark (133), Michael Kemerer (157), Sammy Brooks (184), Brandon Sorensen (149).
Clark has maybe the toughest path to the finals -- he has a very tricky first round opponent, a likely dangerous quarterfinal opponent, and a likely rematch with #1 seed Nathan Tomasello in the semifinals, who just beat him 5-4 in the Big Ten Tournament finals. And that's just to get to the finals; if he gets there, he'd likely face Kaid Brock (who beat him 7-6 earlier this year) or Seth Gross (an ex-Iowa wrestlers who's been on fire this season). But Clark has the most experience -- he's been NCAA runner-up two years in a row now -- and he knows how to get it done in March. And while he's lost to several guys in this bracket, the losses have been very close -- it's not hard to imagine him turning those losses into wins.
Kemerer has the most straightforward path to the finals as a #2 seed -- if he wrestles to his seed, he'll be there on Saturday night. That said, he has a few potential land mines on the way, most notably a possible showdown with #7 Dylan Palacio in the quarterfinals; Palacio is a funky and dangerous opponent. If he gets to the finals, Kemerer would obviously have a shot at a title -- but it would be a pretty low one, because he'd likely be facing #1 Jason Nolf, who's an absolute buzzsaw. Kemerer is 0-2 against him this year and while he was the only opponent this year who didn't give up bonus points in his loss to Nolf, he was never exactly close to winning, either. Still, maybe lightning could strike the 157 lb final...
The good news for Sammy Brooks is that he's wrestling at a really high level, arguably the best of his career. The bad news for Brooks is that his weight, 184, is one of the most loaded in the field. He'll likely see the dangerous Myles Martin in the quarters and while Brooks just beat him via 12-2 major decision, Martin was NCAA champion at 174 a year ago and he'll be tricky to beat again. Bo Nickal would likely await in the semifinals and he's been a monster pretty much all season; he also pinned Brooks in under a minute the last time they wrestled and is a threat to get a pin from almost any position on the mat. And if Brooks gets by Nickal too, he'd likely see #1 Gabe Dean, who just happens to be the two-time defending NCAA champion and who is 2-0 lifetime against Brooks. The degree of difficulty for Brooks at 184 is absolutely sky-high.
Finally, Brandon Sorensen could become a champion at 149 lbs. There are three problems to that plan, though -- he'd have to run through quite a gauntlet to do that; in particular, he'd need to beat #1 Zain Retherford; and he'd need to break out of his recent funk. Sorensen could have to beat three wrestlers who have already taken him out this year in order to claim a title -- Micah Jordan in the quarters (Jordan beat him 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals), Zain Retherford in the semis (Retherford is 3-0 lifetime against him and beat him 9-8 at the dual earlier this year), and Anthony Collica in the finals (Collica beat him 4-3 earlier this year). The hardest part of that equation is easily the "beating Retherford" part; he's beaten Jordan and Collica before, but he's 0-3 lifetime against Retherford (who's also on a 58-match winning streak right now). And Sorensen has been in a mini-funk of late, losing two of his last six matches and looking a bit out of sorts.
OK, SO WHAT ARE YOUR PREDICTIONS?
I made them in the roundtable post, but I'll post them again here:
125: #1 Thomas Gilman d. #2 Joey Dance (Virginia Tech)
133: #4 Cory Clark d. #3 Kaid Brock (Oklahoma State)
141: #2 Kevin Jack (North Carolina State) d. #1 Dean Heil (Oklahoma State)
149: #1 Zain Retherford (Penn State) d. #3 Lavion Mayes (Missouri)
157: #1 Jason Nolf (Penn State) d. #2 Michael Kemerer
165: #1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) d. #2 Taylor Massa (Michigan)
174: #3 Bo Jordan (Ohio State) d. #5 Mark Hall (Penn State)
184: #1 Gabe Dean (Cornell) d. #2 Bo Nickal (Penn State)
197: #1 J'den Cox (Missouri) d. #3 Kollin Moore (Ohio State)
285: #1 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) d. #2 Connor Medbery (Wisconsin)
AND WHAT ABOUT IOWA IN THE TEAM RACE? I'd love to be proven wrong and see Iowa win a title, but I don't see it happening. I think Iowa has a few too many holes and a few too many tough draws. I think they battle Oklahoma State for 3rd place and ultimately finish in 4th place, unfortunately. Penn State edges Ohio State for the team title.