The NCAA Wrestling Tournament wrapped up last weekend, with Penn State winning their 8th national championship in the last nine years and Iowa finishing in fourth place. How you feel about Iowa's performance this year may depend on your perspective. On one hand, five of Iowa's nine wrestlers finished at or better than their pre-tournament seeds, Iowa maintained their streak of having an NCAA finalist for the 30th straight season, and Spencer Lee did Spencer Lee things. On the other hand, Iowa's fourth place finish was worse than their third place finish last year, they finished with over 20 points less than they did last year and they finished over 60 points back of the eventual national champions.
Here were the final team standings at the NCAA Tournament:
1) 137.5 -- Penn State
2) 96.5 -- Ohio State
3) 84 -- Oklahoma State
4) 76 -- Iowa
5) 62.5 -- Michigan
A year ago, Iowa finished in third place with 97 points. That total would have been good enough for a runner-up finish this year, although they still would have been 40 points back of Penn State. So what changed? Iowa actually had more All Americans this year (6) than they did last year (5). In fact, they had the second-most All Americans of any team at the NCAA Tournament (only Penn State had more, with 7). So what gives? Placement, for one thing. Iowa had four top-5 finishers in 2018, but that dipped to 3 top-5 finishers this seasons.
Iowa cannot -- and will not -- contend for more championships until they can place more wrestlers in the semifinals and, ultimately, the finals at each weight. Iowa had a very good Thursday this year, going 16-2 across two rounds and placing seven wrestlers into the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, they went 15-15 after that, including 2-5 in the quarterfinal round. They sent just two wrestlers into the semifinals; by comparison, Penn State sent six, Ohio State sent five, and Oklahoma State sent four.
Iowa needs to have more bullets in the chamber, essentially. You're not going to place every semifinalist into the finals, but the more opportunities you give yourself, the better off you're going to be. Plus, semifinalists are guaranteed to finish no worse than sixth place; that would have resulted in some useful extra points for Iowa, considering they had two seventh-place finishers and an eighth-place finisher. Ohio State had five All Americans, one less than Iowa, but finished 20 points ahead of Iowa in large part because they had three wrestlers in the finals and two others in the third-place match. One of the biggest reasons that Penn State is the gold standard in the sport and the team everyone is chasing is because of their ability to monopolize spots in the finals. They've had four straight seasons with five finalists. Considering that a finalist is worth (roughly) 20 points on average, that's 100 points right there from just half your team. To put it another way, Spencer Lee scored 24.5 points for Iowa, which is nearly one-third of Iowa's entire point total (76).
The other factor to consider is bonus points. That's another area where Penn State has routinely excelled during their recent stretch of dominance and it's one where Iowa has often been lacking. Iowa flipped that script last year and scored a staggering 29.5 bonus points to lead the entire field. That number crashed down to just 13 points this year. Had Iowa been able to duplicate last year's bonus point total, they would have been able to edge Oklahoma State for third place.
The big difference in bonus points this year? Fewer pins. A lot fewer pins.
|YEAR||PINS||TECH FALLS||MAJ DEC||OTHER|
Iowa had a whopping 10 pins last year, led by Sam Stoll whose three pins helped him win the Gorriaran Award, which goes to the wrestler at the NCAA Tournament who had the most pins in the least amount of time. Iowa also had two pins apiece from Lee, Alex Marinelli, and Michael Kemerer, as well as a surprise pin from Cash Wilcke at 197. This year Iowa's only pin came from Lee over Sean Russell in the quarterfinals.
On a weight-by-weight basis, you can see the difference in bonus points. Reminder: pins (and DQs/forfeits) are worth 2 bonus points, technical falls are worth 1.5 bonus points, and major decisions are worth 1 bonus point.
|165||2 pins||4.0||1 MD||1.0||-3.0|
|197||1 pin||2.0||1 MD||1.0||-1.0|
The only weight where Iowa improved in bonus point production was 133, where they went from having no qualifier (2018) to having Austin DeSatno this year, who managed to get a DQ win and a major decision win among his five wins at the NCAA Tournament. Iowa got fewer bonus points from every other weight (except 174, where having no qualifier this year was no different from a bonus point perspective than having Joey Gunther there last year). The biggest drop-off was at heavyweight, where Sam Stoll went from a bonus point fiend to no bonus points at all this year.
There are reasonable explanations for at least some of the drop-off, of course. Injuries were a big one. Injuries reduced Stoll to a shell of the wrestler he was last year and made just getting a win from him something worth celebrating, even if it came with no bonus points. Injury also kept Michael Kemerer, one of Iowa's best bonus point scorers in 2017 and 2018, out of the lineup entirely this year. Alex Marinelli also got a pretty brutal draw at 165 that limited his ability to secure bonus points. But the net result is a significant decline in bonus points and yet another thing that definitely hurt Iowa's score this year. Iowa needs wrestlers who are out there looking for -- and locking up -- bonus points in more of their wins.
The main thing Iowa needs to do is simple (or at least simple to identify; it's much harder to implement): just win more matches and secure higher placements. The big points come via placement at the NCAA Tournament and finishing higher on the All America podium is going to do the most to boost Iowa's point total and give them a chance to contend for a title. But bonus points matter, too, especially in closer title races. Securing another 8-10 bonus points could be critical to edging past opposing squads in a tightly-bunched title race.
Some quick weight-by-weight thoughts:
125: #3 Spencer Lee (5-0, 1st) -- 24.5 pts
There were some doubts about Lee heading into this year's tournament, given the fact that he had shown some vulnerability in losing three times in the regular season. But with the lights shining at their brightest, Lee once again came through in a big way, scoring bonus points in his first three wins, then avenging one of his three losses on the season with a solid win in the semifinals. His finals match this year was almost a carbon copy of his finals match a year ago: 5-1 then, 5-0 this year. Not exactly flashy, but a firmly in-control performance. Nothing to complain about here.
133: #7 Austin DeSanto (5-2, 5th) -- 13 pts
It's hard to be upset with anything Desanto did at this tournament, particularly given the incredible depth of talent in this bracket. My complaints are more quibbles; like, it would have been nice to see him get more bonus points -- but, again, this was a very very tough bracket, so scoring bonus points wasn't easy. Likewise, a fifth-place finish feels a smidge disappointing given that DeSanto was ranked as high as 3rd this season and has a win over the eventual national champion at this weight (Nick Suriano). But that's another quibble -- DeSanto's two losses came in 1-point defeats to two very good wrestlers, Michigan's Stevan Micic and Ohio State's Luke Pletcher (the latter of which featured some wonky scoring when it came to stalling points, frankly). He also reversed defeats from earlier this season against Minnesota's Ethan Lizak and Iowa State's Austin Gomez. Overall, this was a really strong performance for DeSanto and it should be celebrated as such. If there's any disappointment, it's only that he flashed enough this season to get us dreaming big about the possibilities for him at this weight. But he also has two years to continue improving and trying to turn those possibilities into realities.
141: #22 Max Murin (2-2, R12, DNP) -- 2 pts
Murin had a bit of an odd tournament. On one hand, he finished in the R12, exceeding his pre-tournament seed of #22. He also managed to score two upset wins in his first two matches, beating 11-seed Tristan Moran (Wisconsin) and 6-seed Mike Carr (Illinois) in a pair of 1-point wins. His only two losses came against two eventual All Americans, Penn State's Nick Lee (5th) in the quarterfinals and Nebraska's Chad Red (8th) in the Round of 12. Both matches were close as well. Overall, this was a pretty positive showing for Murin in his first appearance at the NCAA Tournament -- he'll need to show more on offense going forwardbut this was a good building block for a redshirt freshman making his NCAA debut.
149: #10 Pat Lugo (3-3, 8th) -- 5.5 pts
Lugo was a two-time qualifier for the NCAA Tournament at Edinboro, but failed to get over the hump and become an All-American on those two previous trips. This year, in his first year in the Iowa lineup, Lugo broke through and made it on the podium, giving Iowa an All-American at this weight for the fifth straight year. Lugo largely beat the wrestlers he was "supposed" to beat -- his three wins came against wrestlers seeded below him (one of whom, Minnesota's Tommy Thorn, he had already beaten twice previously this season) and his losses came against wrestlers seeded ahead of him, including NCAA runner-up Micah Jordan (a disastrous stylistic matchup for Lugo) and 4th place finisher Mitch Finesilver. He also lost the 7th place match to Iowa State's Jarrett Degen, who beat Lugo earlier this season and whose lanky frame, like Jordan's, can make for a challenging match-up for Lugo. 8th place was a very solid finish for Lugo.
157: #6 Kaleb Young (4-2, 5th) -- 12.5 pts
Young is another wrestler who exceeded his pre-tournament seed and he did so by recording a pair of breakthrough wins over 3-seed Ryan Deakin (Northwestern). The first came in the NCAA quarterfinals and punched Young's ticket to the NCAA semifinals; the second came in the 5th place match and allowed Young to end his tournament on a high note. Both matches had identical scores -- 7-5 in OT -- and featured Young besting Deakin for a match-winning takedown in sudden victory. Deakin beat Young in the Midlands final earlier this season, so it was gratifying to see Young reverse the result (twice) last weekend. Prior to the Deakin match, Young also ran roughshod on his early round competition, scoring a technical fall and a major decision; he was one of Iowa's best source of bonus points at this event outside of Spencer Lee. It was great to see Young cutting loose on offense and rolling up points and staying aggressive. His losses were disappointing, particularly as his offense was unable to trouble either Nebraska's Tyler Berger or Michigan's Alec Pantaleo at all, but overall this felt like a quality showing for Young.
165: #1 Alex Marinelli (4-2, 7th) -- 7.5 pts
It's still a little painful to reflect on Marinelli's NCAA Tournament performance, given the high expectations we all carried going into the event, especially after his thrilling win in the Big Ten Tournament final. But the benefit of hindsight does make it easier to appreciate how difficult his path was; he lost to the eventual national champion (Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis), who had a breakout performance last week and displayed his incredible defense and lightning-quick offensive attacks, and the 3rd place finisher (and two-time All American), Lock Haven's Chance Marsteller. Not exactly slouches. And, frankly, Marinelli came closer than either Evan Wick (Lewis' semifinals opponent) or Vincenzo Joseph (Lewis' finals opponent) to taking down Lewis and beating him in that fateful quarterfinals match. Marinelli had to beat a former All American in his very first match and another one in the Round of 12; outside of his second round win over NC State's Thomas Bullard (a 12-4 major decision for The Bull), there were precious few times where Marinelli wasn't being severely challenged in this tournament. The 7th place finish is still a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes the bracket gods spurn you. Hopefully Marinelli will have better fortune next season.
184: #12 Cash Wilcke (2-2, DNP) -- 2.5 pts
Wilcke, too, ended up running into some of the best guys at this weight in his run through the bracket. His two losses came against Cornell's Max Dean (the eventual NCAA runner-up) and Illinois' Emery Parker (who finished 5th). There's no shame in losing to them, although it was disappointing to see Wilcke lose against Dean after his strong start to the match and get pinned by Parker. He did add a bonus point for Iowa in the consolation bracket, earning an 8-0 major decision win over Wisconsin's Mason Reinhardt. The old concern with Wilcke -- a lack of urgency on offense -- shone through in a few of his matches, though, and if he wants to finish his career as an All American, he's going to need to kick that habit.
197: #5 Jacob Warner (5-2, 7th) -- 7.5 pts
Warner finished 7th, below his pre-tournament seed, mainly due to a narrow 5-4 loss to Fresno State's surprise All American Josh Hokit in the consolation bracket. That was a little disappointing, as were some of Warner's early matches -- he made a comfortable first round win into a nail-biter after getting caught in a big move late in the match against Drew Phipps and then struggled to get needed escapes against Cal Poly's Thomas Lane in a second round upset defeat. But Warner rebounded well on the backside, earning a major decision win and then a solid win over Virginia Tech's Tom Sleigh in the Round of 12 to lock up a spot on the podium. He also came through in the 7th place match and was able to end his tournament on a relative high note. There are are definitely areas where Warner will need to improve this offseason, but I think a podium finish is a good start for him as a redshirt freshman.
285: #28 Sam Stoll (2-2, R12, DNP) -- 2 pts
Stoll is another Iowa wrestler who had an odd tournament overall. He went 2-2 and only ended up scoring two points for Iowa. On the other hand, those were two more wins (and two more points) than most expected him to score for Iowa, given his struggles all season with his knee and his particular struggles in his last few matches (Stoll entered NCAAs having lost four of his last five bouts). Stoll was able to knock out 5-seed Mason Parris in the first round thanks to veteran savvy, his formidable Greco skills and upper body strength, and a ref who was very happy to whistle Parris for stalling. And he was able to follow that up with a narrow win over longtime foe Conan Jennings in the next round. Stoll's Cinderella run ended with losses in his next two matches, both of which highlighted in his weakness on the mat with his injured leg and his difficulty in getting escapes. Given the limitations that Stoll was dealing with physically, I think we have to grade him on a bit of a curve.