Tournament season is almost upon us, which means it's time to look into some numbers. I'll be posting my projected seeds for the Big Ten Tournament tomorrow (the actual pre-seeds should be released early next week), but now we know the NCAA Tournament qualifier allocation numbers for each conference. What the qualifier allocations determine is what spot you need to finish in at your conference tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. There are 333 wrestlers at the NCAA Tournament, 33 at each weight, and the overwhelming majority of them qualify via automatic bids (283 of 333 this year, to be precise).
So what does that mean, exactly? Let's look at 125 lbs as an example. In the Big Ten, a wrestler needs to finish in the Top 10 in order to earn an automatic qualifying spot for the NCAA Tournament. In the Big 12 you need to finish in the Top 7, which adds a little added spice to that 7th-place match in the consolation rounds -- the winner of that match will not only place 7th at the Big 12 Tournament, he'll also earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament field at 125 lbs. The loser will be left to hope for one of four at-large spots at that weight. In the EWL or MAC you need to finish in the Top Two at 125, while a few leagues (EIWA, Southern) are single-bid leagues -- only the conference champion is guaranteed a spot at the NCAA Tournament.
As usual, the Big Ten has far and away the most automatic qualifier spots of any conference; their total of 80 is not far off the conferences with the next two highest totals combined (the EIWA and Big 12, with 92 spots combined). The Big Ten remains the gold standard in college wrestling and the quality of the league absolutely dwarfs that of any other conference.
So what does that mean for Iowa? It suggests that they'll have some work to do to qualify all 10 guys for the NCAA Tournament. Iowa has five guys ranked in the Top 5 at their respective weights (125, 149, 157, 165, and 285); Iowa should have little reason to worry about automatic qualification at those weights. Lee, Sorensen, Kemerer, Marinelli, and Stoll just need to be in (respectively) the Top 10, 9, 8, 10, or 7 at their respective weights. Lee, Sorensen, Kemerer, and Marinelli are each in the top two at their respective weights in the Big Ten, so there's not much to worry about there. Stoll is fourth or fifth in the Big Ten (depending on your feelings about Maryland's Youssif Hemida), so if he suffered an upset or two at heavyweight, it could send him tumbling outside of the Top 7 there. (That said, Stoll is also a shoo-in to get an at-large bid, if needed, but more on that in a moment.)
What about Iowa's other five weights? Joey Gunther needs to finish in the Top 7 at 174. InterMat currently ranks four Big Ten wrestlers in the Top 20 at that weight, but Gunther should certainly be right there with anyone else in the Big Ten at that weight. Mitch Bowman needs to finish in the Top 8 at 184. InterMat currently ranks seven Big Ten wrestlers in the Top 20 at that weight, but Bowman has been a fringe Top 20 guy for much of the season (and still is, as evidenced by the table below). Bowman doesn't have a whole lot of margin for error, but if he performs up to expectations he should be able to nab one of the Big Ten's final automatic bids at 184. 197 is the Big Ten's lightest weight -- they have only six automatic qualifiers there; every other weight has at least seven -- but it's light for a reason: the Big Ten also has just four wrestlers currently ranked in the Top 20 by InterMat at 197. On the downside, Wilcke's performances have been trending downward for most of the last month and a half; he looks like the most likely Iowa wrestler to suffer an upset at Big Tens. 197 is a fairly soft weight outside of the top 2-3, so Wilcke should be able to finish in the Top 6, but his recent form is cause for at least some concern. (That said, like Stoll, Wilcke should be a pretty strong candidate to get an at-large bid if it comes to that.)
That leaves 133 and 141, Iowa's two biggest problem child weights this season. On paper, Iowa is not expected to automatically qualify someone at either weight right now. The good news at 133 is twofold: one, that Glynn has wrestled better lately and two, that this is one of the Big Ten's weakest weights. There are currently just three Big Ten wrestlers ranked at 133 by InterMat, which means that four Big Ten wrestlers not currently ranked at that weight will earn automatic qualifiers for the NCAA Tournament -- Glynn just needs to be one of them. 141 looks trickier. Turk (or Happel; I went with Turk because he's wrestled the last few matches for Iowa at this weight and is ranked by a few services) needs to finish in the Top 8 here to get an automatic qualifying spot; unfortunately, while 133 is weak outside of 2-3 guys, the Big Ten currently has seven guys ranked at 141 lbs (and Turk/Happel is not one of them). Both Turk and Happel have shown the chops to beat some guys ranked near the bottom of the Top 20 in recent weeks, so if they bring that form to the Big Ten Tournament, they should have a good chance of finishing inside the Top 8 there.
So what about at-large bids? As the NCAA article explains, at-large selections are made based on this criteria: "head-to-head competition; quality wins; coaches’ ranking; results against common opponents; RPI; qualifying event placement; and winning percentage." Stoll and Wilcke rank pretty well in most of those categories, so if they did have disastrous Big Ten Tournament performances, they should still be able to take advantage of the at-large safety net. Turk (or Happel) might be able to do the same, although I think that would be dicey. I don't think Glynn has any shot to do so at all, particularly as he has a losing record (7-9). I think Glynn needs to finish in the Top 7 at 133 at the Big Ten Tournament or his season will be over. Of course, at-large selections are also contingent on what happens at the conference tournaments. If top guys get upset or are forced to medically forfeit out of the tournament, that will take spots away from potential fringe at-large guys like Glynn and Turk/Happel.
Before you grab your torches and pitchforks to storm RPI headquarters and demand to know why Lee and Marinelli aren't ranked, it's a technical issue: wrestlers must have a minimum of 17 matches against Division I opponents to be eligible for an RPI ranking. Lee has currently wrestled 15 matches against Division I opponents, while Marinelli has wrestled 14 matches against Division I opponents; they both have lower totals because of their injury-delayed starts to the season. Both guys should have enough matches after the Big Ten Tournament to be eligible for the RPI rankings, so they should be ranked in the final RPI rankings prior to the NCAA Tournament.
The better reason to grab your torches and pitchforks to storm RPI headquarters is because of the weirdness of the results -- and there are some very, very weird results. Taylor LaMont is ranked 1st at 125 by RPI; he's 8th at 125 via InterMat. Josh Albert is ranked 2nd at 141 by RPI; he's 9th there via InterMat. Michael Kemerer is 5th at 157 by RPI, but 2nd via InterMat. Josh Shields (who Kemerer beat at Midlands) is 1st at 157 by RPI, but 5th via InterMat. Sometimes the weirdness benefits Iowa, like at 149 where Brandon Sorensen is #1 via RPI, even if it makes little logical sense for Zain Retherford to be #3 at that weight despite being an undefeated bulldozer there all season long. And so on. And you thought RPI produced some odd results in college basketball... RPI is generated by looking at a wrestler's winning percentage, their opponents' winning percentages, and the winning percentages of their opponents' opponents, so wrestlers who have faced more difficult schedules (and whose opponents have also faced more difficult schedules) will see better results. Fortunately, RPI doesn't matter all that much in college wrestling most of the time.
The other rankings, from the NCAA wrestling coaches, and the most prominent independent ranking services, show much more conventional results. No surprise there.
Finally, Tom Brands announced on Wednesday that Iowa will be settling the uncertainty at the 141 and 174 lb weights with closed-door wrestle-offs tomorrow (Friday, February 22) between the challengers at those weights (so, Vince Turk and Carter Happel at 141 and Joey Gunther and Kaleb Young at 174). It seemed like Turk and Gunther had won those spots outright since they each wrestled in Iowa's last two duals of the season, at Penn State and at Iowa State.
Not so fast, says Brands.
“I’m not sure wrestle-offs are the best thing,” said Brands, who couldn't recall a wrestle-off to determine a postseason berth since at least 2014. “But this year, based on the results and how both guys are performing … we’re just going to settle it with a wrestle-off.”
Actually, two of them. An NCAA-certified official will be brought in for the matches, closed to the media and public.
I think the use of postseason wrestle-offs is a bit of a desperation or exasperation move from Brands; ideally, either Happel or Turk would have created some separation from one another at 141 (ditto Gunther and Young at 174) with their results this year. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, as all four guys had up and down seasons. So: wrestle-offs! Settle it in the ring... er, on the mat.
Both wrestle-offs will be rematches from the preseason wrestle-offs that took place back in November. There Turk beat Happel 6-2 and Gunther beat Young 4-2 in sudden victory. Those victories earned them some initial starts at 141 and 174, respectively, but inconsistent performances gave Happel and Young opportunities to compete too. Will the wrestle-off results be any different this time around? We'll soon find out. I'm most intrigued by 141, where both guys have improved since November, especially in recent weeks where they've had some of their best performances of the season. 141 is still far from a strength for Iowa right now, but it is intriguing... which is a pleasant development.
Chad Leistikow also has a podcast interview with Tom Brands, so be sure to check that out as well.