To help preview this weekend's NCAA Wrestling Tournament, I enlisted the help of a host of wrestling bloggers around the Big Ten blogosphere to figure out how things are going to go down in St. Louis, Missouri this weekend. We've got Robert from Roar Lions Roar, a fine Penn State blog; Curt from Eleven Warriors, an excellent Ohio State blog; and our old friend bscaff from Black Shoe Diaries, another fine Penn State blog. Thanks to all of them for participating in this roundtable.
1) Well, just like the Big Ten Tournament, we have some very dominant top seeds at the NCAA Tournament -- each weight has one undefeated champion and seven of them are former NCAA champions (although Tomasello and Martinez were champions at other weights, rather than their current weights). Do you think this is going to be a very chalk tournament? If I set the over-under on top seeds winning titles at 7.5, would you go over or under?
BSCAFF: I was a Mark Hall overtime loss (to Bo Jordan) shy of hitting the under 7.5 at B1Gs 10 days ago. I'm sticking with the under, despite the abundance of evidence pointing to the over. Go, Contrarians, go.
CURT: I'm going to take the under, simply because there's some incredible depth at the NCAA tournament. Guys like Kyle Snyder and Jason Nolf are almost locks to win their weight classes, but even IMar is going to have his hands full at 165 with Massa, Isaac Jordan, and Vincenzo Joseph. While it's impressive that each weight has an undefeated wrestler, each one of them is going to be challenged and I think more than one will get knocked off.
ME: I'm going under this time, although I think it will be close. There are a lot of really experienced and dominant top seeds this year. It's awfully hard to see Kyle Snyder (285), J'den Cox (197), Jason Nolf (157), and Zain Retherford (149) losing this year. And while I'm loathe to jinx anything, Iowa's own Thomas Gilman (125) is around that company, too. Guys like Isaiah Martinez (165) and Gabe Dean (184) aren't too far behind, but have to deal with some very tough challengers, too. And then there's Dean Heil (141), who perpetually wrestles lots of tight matches -- but who also wins pretty much all of those tight matches, too. That leaves Nathan Tomasello (133) and Zahid Valencia (174), who are very good, but who are also at very competitive weights. I could see someone rising up to get them, as well as Martinez, Dean, or Heil getting caught as well, which would let the under prevail here.
ROB: I'm not sure this will be a very chalk tournament throughout the respective weights, but I could easily foresee another situation where 8 No. 1 seeds win it all. That won't make it a chalk tournament though, the 1 seeds have been terrific all season. This season, only one No. 1 ranked wrestler all year lost their No. 1 ranking, and that was Bo Jordan following that loss to Brian Realbuto. It's very easy for me to envision a scenario where 8 1-seeds walk out of St. Louis with a trophy. I have picked 8 1-seeds to win, so I'm going to go over, but think there will be a lot of fireworks underneath the 1-seed line.
2) Which top seeds are most likely to lose this weekend?
ME: Going off my previous response, I guess I'd go with Tomasello or Valencia. Tomasello was a second away from going to sudden victory with Cory Clark in the Big Ten finals and he's had a few other close calls this year. Valencia has had a few close calls as well and he's also a redshirt freshman making his debut at the NCAA Tournament -- that stage can be daunting for even the most talented newbies, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him stumble at some point. I also think Heil is vulnerable -- you keep wrestling one-move matches, at some point you find yourself on the wrong end of things.
ROB: I think the most vulnerable top seed this season is Dean Heil at 141. I'm not convinced that anyone will beat him, but at some point, wrestling all these close matches will result in a loss at some point, right? Am I alone on Heil will eventually lose island? Heil also has a fairly difficult road to repeating as national champion. He could theoretically have to beat No. 8 Jaydin Eierman, No. 4/5 Matt Kolodzik or Anthony Ashnault, and No. 2/3 Kevin Jack or Joey McKenna. That's a hellacious road for a 1-seed.
BSCAFF: Dean Heil needs to lose. He's deserved to lose a few this year, but hasn't. Yet. If he makes it through this bracket unscathed, again, then, well, I dunno what. But something.
CURT: I live outside of Cleveland, so it's tough for me to say this, but I don't think Dean Heil will win his second NCAA title this weekend. He's going to have his hands full with Brock Zacherl right off the bat and then may have to run through Eierman, Ashnault, Gulibon, or Kolodzik, and then any number possibilities from the bottom half of the bracket.
I don't know much about Zahid Valencia, but he tore his way through a ho hum Pac 12 and managed to stay unblemished through the CKLV and Midlands tournaments with wins over Realbuto and Lelund Weatherspoon. He's had a large number of wins by just a single point. An optimist would view that as him finding a way to win tight matches. I'm not an optimist and I think Zahid's luck is going to run out this weekend.
3) Which weight is the most intriguing or competitive to you? What matches are you most excited about seeing?
ROB: 184 remains the most exciting weight in the country for me. While Gabe Dean seems unstoppable, the class is insanely deep. 2016 national finalist TJ Dudley is now the 7-seed at this weight. Someone like Myles Martin very well may have to overcome Sammy Brooks or Jack Dechow/Nathan Jackson in the consolations to AA. There are going to be some very talented wrestlers at this weight that won't end up becoming All-Americans. Shout out to 141, where there's a real chance that someone like Anthony Ashnault or Matt Kolodzik don't AA given their consolation draw.
Matches I'm looking forward to, well Bo Nickal vs. Gabe Dean, and if these two are in the final it better be the main event in St. Louis. I can't think of a match that's potentially more anticipated than this one throughout the country. Bo had a frustrating weekend at Big Tens after another loss in a tournament to Myles Martin. Bo is 4-2 career against Myles, but both losses have come at inopportune times. Rematches between Brooks and Myles, and Brooks or Myles and Bo remain interesting as well. Boyd is the last man to beat Gabe Dean and could face him in the semis. There's a lot of fun to be had at this weight class.
ME: 133 and 174 are the weights that I'm most jacked about seeing unfold. The Big Ten Tournament was wild at 133, with Zane Richards and Eric Montoya both getting beaten early, but they're both still really good. Not to mention studs like Tomasello and Clark and potential spoilers like Mitch McKee and Stevan Micic. Then you throw in Kaid Brock and Seth Gross on top of that? The only thing that gives me pause about 133 is that we could see some low-scoring matches -- all those guys can wrestle a bit "tactically" at times. 174 is interesting because of the way the top guys are dispersed -- there are five different conferences represented among the top 7 seeds at that weight. That means the top guys aren't quite as familiar with one another as at some other weights, and hopefully that unfamiliarity leads to some fun matches.
As far as matches go, it would be a thrill to see Nickal-Dean in the 184 finals, although the Iowa fan in me would obviously prefer to see Brooks-Dean instead. I really want to see Clark-Tomasello II at 133, as well as Sorensen-Retherford at 149, if it can live up to the fireworks from their dual meet showdown. And Mark Hall-Zahid Valencia in the semis at 174? Yes, please.
CURT: I think 184 is the most intriguing weight class because Gabe Dean has been the man at this weight for the last three years, but Bo Nickal has had his sights set on Dean since day one. Dean has been absolutely dominant all season, but he hasn't faced the offense-minded Nickal. That's assuming Nickal can navigate through TJ Dudley and Myles Martin or Sammy Brooks. This weight has four NCAA finalists, and that doesn't even scratch the surface of the impressive depth.
BSCAFF: 184 is weird. It's B1G (bottom half) vs. Not-B1G (top half). But 174 is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, shrouded in mystery. You can pitch 8 different finals matchups to me, and I'd think, "yeah I can see that happening."
4) How's the team race going to shake out?
(NOTE: These responses were written before it was known that Penn State's Nick Suriano, the #3 seed at 125 lbs, would not be able to compete this weekend.)
ROB: I'm still going with Penn State, with the news that Suriano is going to wrestle and has been in practice with the team, I'm anticipating that he's a lot closer to 100% than I think a lot of people maybe gave him credit for. If Suriano goes and can score legitimate team points (i.e. get to the semifinals or AA), then it's hard to see Penn State losing. The draws have set up favorably for Penn State too, where they could end up with 5 finalists, and they'll likely have 7 All-Americans that will score points in bunches. To me, the Nittany Lions may be able to put up about 125+ points, and that's going to be enough given the competition.
BSCAFF: Penn State gets its 6th in 7 years. Ohio State (2) and Okie State (3) finish within 5 points of each other, but about 10 behind PSU. Iowa and Virginia Tech battle for 4th/5th. The 6th place team is far off the pace.
CURT: After watching Penn State utterly dominate Oklahoma State in the National Duals, I don't have much faith in the Cowboys walking away with the team title this weekend. I think the team title will go home with either Penn State or Ohio State. Whichever team avoids upsets better is the more likely to take it all. Guys like Jimmy Gulibon and Luke Pletcher are going to be essential to their respective teams winning a title. Nobody is going to doubt that Zain Retherford and Kyle Snyder are going to score big points, but the team title will come down to points scored in the wrestlebacks.
ME: I think the race between Penn State, Ohio State, and Oklahoma State will be really interesting. Oklahoma State is dependent on quantity -- they could get all 10 of their wrestlers on the podium as All-Americans. But the thing is they probably need to get all 10 of them on the podium because they don't have enough big point-scoring studs in their lineup. They could very easily only have 1-2 finalists and it's not clear if that would be enough. They also don't have a lot of heavy bonus point-scorers in their lineup.
Ohio State and Penn State don't have that all-around depth, but they have some big-time point-scorers. Ohio State has a lock finalist in Snyder (285) and solid chances at finalists with Tomasello (133) and Jordan (174). Moore (197) and Jordan (149) have good chances to finish high on the podium, too, and if Martin (184) gets hot (like he did at last year's NCAA Tournament, when he won a title at 174), he could give them a lot of points. That's a lot of potential firepower in their ranks. Penn State has question marks (or worse) at their first three weights, but they're loaded for bear at pretty much every weight after that. Retherford (149) and Nolf (157) are almost locks to be finalists and Nickal (184) and Hall (174) could find themselves there as well. Joseph (165), McCutcheon (197), and Nevills (285) don't look likely to be heavyweights (all are on the same side as the top seeds at their respective weights), so the key for them might be how high those guys can finish on the All-America podium. Penn State should also have an advantage when it comes to bonus points, given Nolf, Retherford, Nickal, etc. I'd make them slight favorites right now.
5) Prediction time: tell me your finalists (and winner) at each weight.
|Me||Gilman d. Dance||Clark d. Brock||Jack d. Heil||Retherford d. Mayes||Nolf d. Kemerer||Martinez d. Massa||Jordan d. Hall||Dean d. Nickal||Cox d. Moore||Snyder d. Medbery|
|Rob||Gilman d. Dance||Tomasello d. Gross||Ward d. Ashnault||Retherford d. Collica||Nolf d. Palacio||Martinez d. Joseph||Valencia d. Jordan||Nickal d. Dean||Cox d. Pfarr||Snyder d. Medbery|
|Curt||Gilman d. Lizak||Tomasello d. Gross||McKenna d. Kolodzik||Retherford d. Mayes||Nolf d. Kemerer||Martinez d. Lewis||Jordan d. Hall||Dean d. Nickal||Cox d. Moore||Snyder d. Medbery|
|bscaff||Gilman d. Dance||Tomasello d. Gross||McKenna d. Kolodzik||Retherford d. Collica||Nolf d. Kemerer||Martinez d. Massa||Epperly d. Realbuto||Nickal d. Dean||Cox d. Moore||Snyder d. Medbery|
6) Finally, give me 1-2 dark horses in the tournament who might be able to make some noise and do some damage this weekend? I'm going to define a dark horse as anyone outside the Top 3 at their respective weight.
BSCAFF: I'm going way, way out on the stupid branch, and taking Alex Meyer, the 11-seed in the 174 bracket, from the University of Iowa. Sure, he had a not-good Big Tens. And that's why I'm picking him. He had been far too consistent most of this year. Now that he's back to giving us an occasional head scratching result, and everyone's mostly written him off, I think he gets hot.
ME: Dylan Palacio (Cornell, #7 at 157) missed a lot of the season due to injury, but he's back now and he's dangerous as hell. I don't think he can win 157 -- barring injury, I don't see anyone slowing down Jason Nolf at that weight -- but he can absolutely finish higher than his #7 seed, especially if he gets by Michael Kemerer in the quarterfinals. 174 is such a wild weight that there are quality wrestlers all over the top 10, but Mark Hall is every bit capable of finishing above his #5 seed -- and possibly even winning the whole shooting match at that weight.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't shout out a few of my Iowa boys, Cory Clark (#4 at 133) and Brandon Sorensen (#5 at 149). They could have some brutal semifinal match-ups (and their quarterfinals don't look like any picnics, either), but they've ever bit capable of going deep in their brackets if they wrestle to their potential. Fingers crossed.
Coleman Hammond CSU Bakersfield at 149
Stevan Micic of Michigan at 133
Does Sorensen count as a dark horse?
George DiCamillo Virginia 141. Dude has never been an All-American, but has been maddeningly close each year.
ROB: Well, as you can see from my finalist predictions, I'm going with 5-seed at 141, Anthony Ashnault, and 7-seed at 147, Dylan Palacio. Ashnault has a miserable road to win All-American honors, and he'd have to win a rematch with Matt Kolodzik and beat Dean Heil to even get to the final. Ashnault seems to have stepped his game up this March, and very well could end up being finalist.
Palacio has to get by Michael Kemerer but think that is possible for him, and think that Kemerer might be a bit vulnerable. I think he's far closer to the field than he is Jason Nolf. For me, whoever comes out of the bottom bracket is going to get pummeled by Nolf anyway, but Palacio has a lot of talent and can outwrestle his seed imo. I'd also watch out for 8-seed Nick Piccininni, I love the way that kid brawls and scraps, he's a fun one to watch.
Thanks again to everyone for participating. You can follow Robert's work at Roar Lions Roar and follow him on Twitter at @greenmanRD. You can follow Curt's work at Eleven Warriors and follow him on Twitter at @CurtHeinrichs. You can follow check out bscaff's work at Black Shoe Diaries.