Let's get our preview hats on and dive into the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Tournament. I'm going to look at each weight and single out how the Iowa wrestler will fare (if applicable), predict the finals match-up, and name dark horse(s) and potential surprise All-Americans. To be considered a dark horse, a competitor has to be seeded a 5-seed or lower. To be considered a surprise All-American, a competitor has to be seeded a 9-seed or lower. As a reminder, the full brackets are available here. Without further ado...
|2||Nick Piccinnini||Oklahoma State||JR||30-0|
|4||Ronnie Bresser||Oregon State||SR||23-1|
|9||RayVon Foley||Michigan State||SO||31-4|
|10||Brent Fleetwood||North Dakota State||SR||24-4|
|12||Michael McGee||Old Dominion||SO||28-4|
National Champion. I just can't quit Spencer. I know he's lost to Sebastian Rivera (2x!) and Nick Piccinnini this year and there's a very good chance he'll have to beat them in the semifinals and finals this year to repeat as NCAA champion. I know he hasn't looked as good or as dominant in several matches this year. But... I still have faith in him to get it done in Pittsburgh this weekend. Hopefully he finds the exact same mojo that he had at last year's NCAA Tournament, when he blitzed the field on the way to a championship.
#3 Spencer Lee over #1 Sebastian Rivera
I've got Lee as champion, so I obviously have him as a finalist. Rivera has handled all comers at 125 and while he has some interesting challenges in the top half of the bracket (see below), I expect him to prevail and be on the big stage Saturday night.
DARK HORSE CONTENDERS
#5 Jack Mueller (Virginia) and #8 Vitali Arujau (Cornell)
That said, there's intrigue about the top half of the bracket because, frankly, as Iowa fans we haven't seen too many of them in action (sans Rivera). The bottom half of the bracket has Lee, Piccinnini, Russell, and Glory; we've seen all of those guys in action a few times this year in most cases. Mueller went undefeated (17-0) this year and was a bonus point machine; his 88.2% bonus rate was only a hair behind Lee's 88.9% bonus rate among 125ers. The issue for Mueller is that his schedule this year was lousy; he didn't attend any of the big tournaments (Cliff Keen, Southern Scuffle, Midlands) and Virginia's schedule didn't bring them any matchups against top 125ers, either. Near as I can tell the highest-seeded opponent he's beaten this year was NC State's Sean Fausz... the 15-seed. Mueller is good, but exactly how good is very much TBD.
Arujau is in a similar boat, as another east coast wrestler with a gaudy record but not a very great strength of schedule. He did go 21-1 this year against 125 lb competition and his only loss came against Princeton's Patrick Glory (7-seed) in the EIWA finals, where he lost 10-8. (He also pinned Glory in an earlier meeting this season.) Outside of Glory, though, Arujau's best wins are probably over Jacob Schwarm (22-seed) and Malik Heinselman (26-seed).
#12 Michael McGee (Old Dominion)
McGee won the 125 lb bracket at the MAC Tournament and seems to have a pretty decent draw to get to the podium this week. I have him losing to #5 Jack Mueller in the quarters and then needing to beat either #10 Brent Fleetwood or #15 Sean Fausz in the Round of 12 (R12) or bloodround to guarantee a spot in the Top-8. I think that's feasible.
|1||Daton Fix||Oklahoma State||RS FR||30-1|
|5||Luke Pletcher||Ohio State||JR||23-5|
|10||Roman Bravo-Young||Penn State||FR||21-4|
|11||Tariq Wilson||NC State||SO||14-3|
3rd place. DeSanto has a difficult, but mostly manageable, draw on the bottom half of the bracket at 133 lbs. #10 Roman Bravo-Young could be an interesting hurdle in the second round, given his third period surge against DeSanto in their match in the Big Ten Tournament, but I think DeSanto can get by him again and get to the quarterfinals. The big question there might be the condition of #2 Stevan Micic's leg/knee. He was in a giant brace at Big Tens and medically forfeited out of all matches after the quarterfinals; a healthy Micic could be a huge obstacle for DeSanto (though they did split two match-ups last year), but it doesn't seem like he's going to be anywhere near 100% health.
I have DeSanto's championship bracket run ending against #3 Nick Suriano in the semifinals, though; Suriano looked much improved in his rematch against DeSanto at the Big Ten Tournament. We know DeSanto can beat Suriano (he did so earlier this year), but Suriano made some very smart adjustments in the rematch and rode the hell out of DeSanto as well. I hope DeSanto is able to make his own adjustments in a potential rubber match, but right now Suriano looks like the better man.
In the consos, I think DeSanto will have to get by #4 Micky Phillippi, #5 Luke Pletcher, or #8 John Erneste to get into the 3rd-place match, where I suspect his opponent will be #6 Ethan Lizak. I like DeSanto's odds to get by Phillippi or Pletcher and while a rubber match with Lizak seems like a coin-flip, I think DeSanto can prevail if he can minimize his time underneath Lizak.
#1 Daton Fix over #3 Nick Suriano
As noted, I have Suriano coming out of the bottom half of the bracket. The biggest threat in his pod is #6 Lizak -- and Suriano absolutely dominated him at the Big Ten Tournament. He narrowly lost to #2 Micic earlier this year (3-2), but Suriano seems better and healthier right now if they meet up again. The biggest test for #1 Fix is probably #4 Phillippi, who is the only man to beat Fix so far this year. If they meet up again in the semis, I expect Fix to avenge that defeat. Fix beat Suriano by the slimmest of margins earlier this year and while I was impressed with how well Suriano wrestled at Big Tens, I still think Fix is the very slight favorite in a rematch.
DARK HORSE CONTENDERS
#7 Austin DeSanto (Iowa)
DeSanto has wins over all of the top contenders (Suriano, Lizak, Micic) on the bottom half of the bracket, either this year or last year, so it's not a matter of whether he can beat them this weekend -- it's a question of whether he can do so again. (He's also lost to all three guys this year or last year, but shhh.) We've seen DeSanto look very very good this year and it's not at all out of the question that he could put it all together on Thursday and Friday and book a spot in the finals on Saturday night.
#10 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State)
#11 Tariq Wilson (NC State)
#12 Montorie Bridges (Wyoming)
#13 Austin Gomez (Iowa State)
133 is an incredibly deep weight class, which is evidenced by several factors (DeSanto at the #7 seed, for one), including the fact that all of these guys are seeded to not make the podium, even though they very much have the talent to do so. Wilson was an NCAA semifinalist and 3rd place finisher a year ago and while he's struggled with injuries this year, he's very capable of putting it together in the NCAA Tournament again. His path is a lot easier if he can upset #6 Lizak in the second round, but he has a feasible path even if he loses that bout.
Of course, that feasible path could involve beating either Bridges or Gomez; if they win it would boost their own All-America chances. I think both have the potential to spring upsets and make the quarters (Bridges has #5 Pletcher, Gomez has #4 Phillippi), and if they do that, even losing in the quarters would just mean needing to beat someone like Wilson in the R12. (Losing in the second round could maen having to go through Micic or DeSanto in the R12.)
Bravo-Young has been rapidly improving all season and even if he loses to Desanto in R2, he'd likely need to beat #15 Ben Thornton and possibly #5 Luke Pletcher in the consos; he already has one win over Pletcher this year. One hiccup: Thornton and Pletcher also have wins over RBY this year. That said, he's my pick for PSU wrestler to wrestle well over his seed at the NCAA Tournament this year.
|2||Joey McKenna||Ohio State||SR||20-2|
|3||Nick Lee||Penn State||SO||27-2|
|9||Dom Demas||Oklahoma||RS FR||29-7|
DNP; R12 (2-2 or 3-2). On one hand, Murin has a plausible path to the quarterfinals -- upset #11 Tristan Moran in R1, then beat #6 Mike Carr for the second time in two weeks in R2. That would set up a likely match with #3 Nick Lee, who Murin wrestled somewhat closely for most of their bout at the Big Ten Tournament earlier in the month. On the other hand, Murin could easily lose to Moran and drop into the consolation bracket. I haven't seen quite enough from Murin to believe an All-America finish is on the cards this weekend. I think 2-2 or 3-2 and a loss in the R12 is more likely. If he loses to Moran, he'd likely face guys like #27 Anthony Sparacio, #13 Kyle Shoop, and #12 Cameron Kelly until the R12. Shoop and Kelly are higher-seed than Murin, but I don't know that they're that much better than he is.
#1 Yianni Diakmaholis over #2 Joey McKenna
Yianni is the undefeated returning national champion with a 70.8% bonus rate, so I feel pretty good about his chances of making the final, especially with #2 Lee and #3 McKenna (his biggest threats) on the other side of the bracket. On the other side of the bracket, McKenna and Lee have split two matches this year, but McKenna looked damn good in the Big Ten Tournament and I think that form carries over here. Yianni beat McKenna 7-5 at a dual earlier this year, so I like him to repeat that result -- and as NCAA champion.
#9 Dom Demas (Oklahoma)
I don't feel great about anyone's upset potential on the Yianni half of the bracket, but Demas is intriguing. He just won the Big 12 Tournament -- where he pinned Kaid Brock in 54 seconds. Demas has a few sketchy losses on his resume (Ryan Pomrinca, Ben Freeman?), but he also lost 1-point matches to Ian Parker, Josh Alber, and Sa'Derian Perry, which are the sort of results that could be flipped in a rematch (indeed, he did beat Parker at Big 12s). Granted, for Demas to make a run he'd probably need to beat #9 Kanen Storr in R2; Storr beat him 5-2 earlier this year. And if he gets by Storr, he'd almost certainly see Yianni in the quarters, which would be a daunting opponent. Still, he's a guy with definite potential for big move magic and those are the kind of guys I'd want to take a flyer on.
#11 Tristan Moran (Wisconsin)
Moran looks to have a very feasible path to a podium finish. He has a winnable R1 match (vs Murin) and his likely R2 opponent is #6 Carr who seems badly over-seeded and looked very beatable at the Big Ten Tournament (in fact, Moran beat him 9-4 at Big Tens). And in the quarters Moran could face #3 Lee, who he defeated 12-10 earlier this year. I'm not sure I see Moran beating Lee and McKenna, but if anyone can make a run on the bottom half of the bracket, he seems like the best bet.
|2||Micah Jordan||Ohio State||SR||25-2|
|6||Austin O'Connor||North Carolina||RS FR||29-3|
|7||Kaden Gfeller||Oklahoma State||RS FR||28-4|
|8||Jarrett Degen||Iowa State||SO||25-6|
|9||Justin Oliver||NC State||SR||18-5|
|12||Brady Berge||Penn State||RS FR||18-3|
DNP; R12 (2-2 or 3-2). I wish I felt better about Lugo's chances, but I just don't like his draw or likely routes in the consos very much. If Lugo gets by #12 Gfeller in R2 (he beat Gfeller 7-4 last month), he'd likely get #2 Micah Jordan, who I think is a terrible match-up for Lugo based on his size, length, and pace. If Lugo loses that bout, he could see #12 Brady Berge in the R12; Berge beat him 4-2 in 2OT at Big Tens. It was a close match, but Lugo also never looked terribly close to finishing a shot on Berge, which makes me wary about a rematch. If Lugo loses to Gfeller, he could see #25 Russell Rohlfing in the consos; Rohlfing beat Lugo 10-9 earlier this year and his lankiness makes him a difficult match-up for Lugo. If he gets by Rohlfing (or doesn't have to face him), Lugo could see #15 Max Thomsen in the next conso round and either #4 Brock Mauller or #5 Matthew Kolodzik (2-0 vs Lugo this year) in the R12. Tough sledding for Lugo.
#1 Anthony Ashnault over #2 Micah Jordan
On the top half of the bracket Ashnault is 27-0 and he's rarely been threatened much this season. Mauller or Kolodzik could make things interesting in the semis (though Ashnault beat Kolodzik 10-2 earlier this year), but I think he'll make it to the final unscathed. On the bottom half of the draw Jordan is 25-2 and those losses were both against Ashnault (the most recent being a narrow 8-6 loss in the Big Ten Tournament final).
#6 Austin O'Connor (North Carolina)
I think the top guys are head and shoulders above most of the contenders at this weight, so it's hard to find a decent dark horse option. O'Connor had a lot of hype entering the season as a highly-ranked recruit coming off a 20-3 redshirt campaign and he's mostly lived up that hype with a 29-5 season to date. Three of his five losses were against Duke's Mitch Finesilver (#3 seed) and the others were to #2 Jordan and #5 Kolodzik. No bad losses there. The problem with a dark horse run is that it will probably mean beating Finesilver in the quarters (Finesilver has gone 3-1 against him so far this season; yes, this would be their fifth match-up of the season if it happens) and Jordan in the semis (Jordan beat him 7-3 earlier this year). O'Connor has the talent to make such a run plausible, at least.
#12 Brady Berge (Penn State)
Yeah, I don't like it, either. But he has a good path to the podium, either on the championship bracket, where he could face #5 Kolodzik (21-3, but who suffered some puzzling losses late in the year) or #4 Mauller (whose 29-2 record was built in part on a soft schedule), or on the consolation bracket. If Berge loses to Kolodzik in R2, he could see a beatable opponent in his first conso match, followed by #13 Anthony Artalona in the next conso match. Then he could get #7 Gfeller or #10 Lugo in the R12, both of whom seem beatable (Berge already has a win over Lugo this year).
|1||Jason Nolf||Penn State||SR||26-0|
|5||Hayden Hidlay||NC State||SO||20-2|
|7||Larry Early||Old Dominion||JR||22-5|
|9||Christian Pagdilao||Arizona State||SR||22-8|
|11||Ke-Shawn Hayes||Ohio State||JR||20-9|
6th. I think Young has a good path to the quarterfinals; he should beat #27 Dan Reed in R1 and his likely R2 opponent is #11 Ke-Shawn Hayes, who Young beat 11-1 in the Big Ten Tournament consos. But I don't like his likely quarterfinal match-up with #3 Ryan Deakin; Deakin beat him 6-2 at the Midlands final earlier this year. Young could see #8 Josh Humphreys, #9 Christian Pagdilao, or #16 John Van Brill in the R12; I think he could defeat those guys (he beat Humphreys 4-1 earlier in the year). He could see #7 Larry Early or #10 Steve Bleise in the next conso round and while both would be tough matches, I do think he could win those. But he could get either #4 Alec Pantaleo (who beat him 2x at Big Tens) or #5 Hayden Hidlay (NCAA runner-up last year) in the consolation semis, and I don't feel great about Young against either guy. Whichever of Pantaleo or Hidlay he doesn't see in the consolation semis could be his 5th place match opponent and, again, I don't like him against either guy.
#1 Jason Nolf over #2 Tyler Berger
Nolf won an NCAA title on one good leg last year; the only question this year is how many bonus points he can amass on his way to title #3. Berger's only losses this year are to Nolf (x2) and a baffling OT upset to #19 Griffin Parriott, but I don't see him tripping up before a third round with Nolf in this bracket.
#10 Steve Bleise (Minnesota)
Bleise has dark horse potential to make the final, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. Still, if he can get by Early in R2, he'd likely get Berger in the quarters. He went 0-2 against Berger this year, but those losses were 6-3 (at Big Tens) and 3-1 in OT (at a dual), so he was fairly close against Berger. If he upsets Berger, he'd probably face Deakin in the semi -- and Bleise beat him 7-5 at Big Tens (though he also lost 10-1 to Deakin at Big Tens in their other bout there). This bracket feels pretty chalky to me, though.
#10 Steve Bleise (Minnesota)
TOMORROW: We'll look at 165-285.