2020 NCAA Wrestling: Assessing The Contenders

By RossWB on February 13, 2020 at 9:02 am
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© Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
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We're about a month away from the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament, so it seems like a good time to check in on the contenders for the title (and the other trophies, just for fun) and discuss their respective strengths and weaknesses. The list of teams that can legitimately contend for top honors this year is pretty short -- just three teams (Ohio State, Penn State, and Iowa). And if we're being honest with ourselves, it's probably really just two teams: Iowa and Penn State. 

THE FAVORITES

TEAM 125 133 141 149 157 165 174 184 197 285 PROJ PTS
Iowa 1 3 8 4 4 2 1 8 5 3 130
Penn State NR 2 2 19 NR 1 2 6 13 16 81
Ohio State NR 21 1 1 33 12 7 12 1 25 72.5

(all rankings via Trackwrestling)

#1 Iowa Hawkeyes

STRENGTHS

* No other team has the top-to-bottom quality in the lineup that Iowa has this year, which is evident in that table. All 10 Iowa wrestlers are ranked in the Top 10 -- none worse than 8th. If those rankings translated into actual NCAA Tournament finishes, Iowa would end up with 10 All-Americans. Only one other team has ever finished with an All-American at every weight -- 2001 Minnesota. They won a national title that season and, somewhat miraculously, did so without any individual national champions. If Iowa can duplicate that 10 All-American feat, they'll win the national title this year. 

* In addition to the overall quality in Iowa's lineup, they also have a healthy amount of elite talent this year. Four different Iowa wrestlers have been ranked #1 at their respective weights at one time or another this season, more than any other team. Currently Iowa has two #1 wrestlers (Spencer Lee, Michael Kemerer), another wrestler at #2 (Alex Marinelli), two wrestlers at #3 (Austin DeSanto, Tony Cassioppi), and two more at #4 (Pat Lugo and Kaleb Young). The big points are in those upper-half of the podium finishes and right now Iowa is in line to get more guys in those spots than any other team. 

WEAKNESSES

* Health is probably the biggest question mark -- and concern for March -- for Iowa. Austin DeSanto hasn't wrestled in Iowa's last two duals since tweaking his knee in the Penn State dual. Max Murin has wrestled with a bulky shoulder brace the entire season and has missed Iowa's last three duals. The overall strength of Iowa's team gives them a little wiggle room -- but not that much. Iowa would still have a decent shot at the national title without DeSanto or Murin; that would get very challenging without both of them, though. 

* The other question mark for Iowa: can they deliver in the clutch at the NCAA Tournament. Spencer Lee is the only current Iowa wrestler who's wrestled in the NCAA Tournament finals. He and Marinelli are the only current Iowa wrestlers who have wrestled in the semifinal round at the NCAA Tournament. (ED. NOTE: Completely forgot that Kaleb Young was a semifinalist last year, so make that three Iowa wrestlers who have competed in the semifinals at the NCAA Tournament.) Things are going to get hot and heavy from the quarterfinal round on and Iowa is going to need guys to step up and deliver when the spotlight is shining brightest. We're not going to know if they can do it... until they actually do it. 

#2 Penn State Nittany Lions

STRENGTHS

* On the flip side, Penn State has two of the best pressure performers in recent college wrestling history leading their team this season. Iowa has only one wrestler who's been in an NCAA final; Penn State has two wrestlers who have never failed to make the NCAA finals in Vincenzo Joseph and Mark Hall. They know what the pressure feels like in the biggest moments and they know how to respond and get results in those matches. And, frankly, Penn State is still the four-time defending champion; until they're finally defeated, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. 

* Like Iowa, Penn State also has a lot of high-end talent in their lineup. They currently have one top-ranked wrestler (Joseph) -- as well as three #2-ranked wrestlers (Hall, Nick Lee, and Roman Bravo-Young). That could translate to four potential NCAA finalists, which would be an outstanding foundation for a title push. During their recent run of dominance, Penn State has won with five finalists and little else; they're not too far off from being able to do the same this year (especially if a blue-chip recruit like Aaron Brooks gets hot in March). 

WEAKNESSES

* That said, this Penn State lineup also has several holes. They'll be lucky to get any points at all out of 125. And the situations look very murky at 149, 157, 197, and 285, due to health issues and inconsistent performances at those weights. It's certainly not impossible that one or two of the wrestlers at those weights could go on a run and make the podium -- but it's probably equally as likely that they could end up winning just a match or two before bowing out of the tournament. When the point projection for half your lineup is that shaky, it puts a lot of pressure on your sure things -- and also lowers your ceiling a bit.

* As noted in the last section, injuries have been an issue for Penn State this year. Their projected starters at 197 and 285 to start the year -- Kent State transfer Kyle Conel at 197 and returning NCAA champion Anthony Cassar at 285 -- are both out of action (though some rumors continue to swirl about Cassar attempting a return for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments). Of the two, Cassar is the bigger loss -- he was a revelation a year ago and looked like one of the surest things for PSU this year; taking him out of the lineup probably takes around 20 points from Penn State's projected point total at the NCAA Tournament, which is significant. They're also dealing with injuries at 157, where Brady Berge has only been able to wrestle one match this season, and Shakur Rasheed has looked inconsistent in his return from injuries at 197, too. 

#3 Ohio State Buckeyes

STRENGTHS

* Like Iowa and Penn State, Ohio State is well-represented when it comes to high-end talent. In fact, no other team can match their trio of #1-ranked wrestlers (Luke Pletcher, Sammy Sasso, and Kollin Moore). If those three all make the NCAA finals, that would give Ohio State a solid foundation of around 60 points from those three wrestlers alone. That's a great starting point. 

WEAKNESSES

* But where do the rest of their points come from? The Buckeyes don't project to get many points at 125, 133, 157, or 285. There's more potential at 165, 174, and 184, but all three of those weights also project more as fringe All America contenders than wrestlers likely to finish high on the podium and score big points. Outside of their big three, the Buckeyes just don't appear to have enough firepower elsewhere in the lineup. 

THE SECOND TIER

Iowa, Penn State, and Ohio State are the odds-on favorites to finish in the top three at the NCAA Tournament -- they have the most studs and/or the best overall teams. Any of the teams below cracking the top three would be quite a feat. That said, the NCAA awards trophies out to fourth place at the NCAA Tournament and while some of the teams who should be in the hunt for the fourth place trophy this year are old hands at NCAA trophies (Minnesota, Oklahoma State), some are not (like Princeton or Northwestern). As Iowa fans, the title race is certainly where our attention is going to be focused -- but the race for 4th place could be pretty exciting, too. 

TEAM 125 133 141 149 157 165 174 184 197 285 PROJ PTS
Arizona State 8 30 NR NR 13 6 9 1 11 4 52.5
Minnesota 13 NR 4 5 32 27 8 16 25 1 52
Wisconsin 31 1 5 17 31 4 NR 26 NR 7 50
Northwestern 10 4 NR 16 1 11 26 NR 7 NR 44.5
Princeton 3 NR NR 7 5 NR NR 28 4 NR 42.5
Oklahoma State 4 NR 12 3 19 7 14 14 10 NR 42
Nebraska NR 11 6 18 17 5 6 9 8 17 40

#4 Arizona State Sun Devils

STRENGTHS

* Four of the teams profiled here have a #1-ranked wrestler (basically, all of the #1-ranked wrestlers not on Iowa, Penn State, or Ohio State), because, hey, having a top-ranked wrestler is a great head start when it comes to racking up points at the NCAA Tournament. The best of those #1-ranked wrestlers is probably Arizona State's Zahid Valencia, a three-time All-American and two-time defending NCAA champion (at 174 lbs) and one of the big favorites to win the Hodge Award (wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy). Zahid is going to be heavily favored to win a title at 184 this year -- and to pick up a lot of bonus points on the way to that title, too. 

* In addition to Zahid, Arizona State has four other wrestlers with a good shot at earning All America honors, led by Tanner Hall (285) and Jake Shields (165), plus a few other fringe All America possibilities in Kordell Norfleet (197) and Jacori Teemer (157). If 3-4 of those guys hit in March, the Sun Devils should bring a team trophy back to Tempe. 

WEAKNESSES

* Outside of Zahid, though, Arizona State is light on sure things. Hall and Shields should finish on the podiums... but that's no guarantee, particularly at heavyweight, which features a lot of good wrestlers in the second tier (behind title contenders Gable Steveson and Mason Parris). If a few guys stumble -- or Arizona State doesn't get the 1-2 pleasant surprises they probably need -- then Sparky could go home empty-handed. 

#5 Minnesota Golden Gophers

STRENGTHS

* If Zahid Valencia isn't the best #1-ranked wrestler among this collection of teams, then that title probably belongs to Gable Steveson. Steveson was a super-recruit out of high school who stormed through the field as a true freshman last year -- before coming up short to Penn State's Cassar in the Big Ten finals and NCAA semifinals. Steveson looks better than ever this year and with Cassar (seemingly) out of the picture, his path to a title looks pretty clear (give or take Mason Parris). And, as with ASU and Valencia, having one sure thing superstar gives you a nice head start on a top-four finish.

* Minnesota also has three other wrestlers who should be pretty good bets to earn All America honors, too, in Mitch McKee (141), Brayton Lee (149), and Devin Skatzka (174). If they turn in podium finishes -- and especially if McKee and Lee's placements match their Top 5 rankings -- the Gophers will have a great shot at a top four team finish. That said, Lee is just a (redshirt) freshman and Skatzka's results have been somewhat inconsistent, so there are no guarantees here. 

WEAKNESSES

* Outside of their top four, though, Minnesota has plenty of holes. They're going to struggle to get points from 133, 157, 165, and 197. Patrick McKee (125) and Owen Webster (184) could win a match or two, but they don't profile as likely All Americans right now. A lot rides on Minnesota's top four delivering at their weights; if they don't, it's hard to see where the Gophers might be able to make up the difference.  

#6 Wisconsin Badgers

STRENGTHS

* Seth Gross is a two-time NCAA finalist and one-time NCAA champion, so he profiles as a pretty big point-getter for the Badgers. He's also shown a bit more vulnerability than many of the other #1-ranked wrestlers this year -- he's already split two matches with Austin DeSanto this season and he very narrowly beat (6-5) Roman Bravo-Young last week. Gross looks like a good bet to make the NCAA semifinals (and likely score a decent amount of bonus along the way; he has bonus points in 74% of his wins this season), but the prediction gets a little murkier from there (although if DeSanto and Bravo-Young are on the same side of the bracket -- very possible -- that would be a nice boost to Gross making the 133 lb final). 

* Like Arizona State and Minnesota, Wisconsin also has a pretty decent shout at getting four All Americans. Tristan Moran (141), Evan Wick (165), and Trent Hillger (285) all project for Top-8 (i.e., podium) finishes right now. Four All Americans (especially if one of them is an NCAA finalist) should be a pretty good platform to vie for a top four finish. 

WEAKNESSES

* Finding many points for Wisconsin outside of those four weights isn't very easy, though. They aren't going to score many points at 125, 157, 174, or 197. Johnny Sebastian (184) is mercurial, and while he has the ability to go on a run, it doesn't seem very likely. Cole Martin might win a match or two at 149, but anything beyond that looks unlikely. Wisconsin seems likely to ride or die with their top four guys. 

* And that's a bit of a concern, too, because Moran and Hillger haven't always been the most consistent sorts. Moran has never made the podium before and while two of his losses this year were to Nick Lee and Luke Pletcher (no shame there), he also lost to Campbell's Josh Heil and Iowa's Max Murin -- guys like that are who he'll need to beat to place in the top eight. Hillger has an All America finish (8th last year), but as mentioned above, heavyweight looks fairly deep in the second tier, so one off match could have rotten consequences. 

#7 Northwestern Wildcats

STRENGTHS

* Finally, Ryan Deakin (157) is the fourt and final #1-ranked wrestler not on Iowa, Penn State, or Ohio State. He's looked like a man possessed this year -- 15-0, 67% bonus rate, wins over several top contenders at this weight. He looks like the man to beat at 157 in a post-Jason Nolf world. 

* Northwestern has reasonably high upside for a top four finish thanks to the presence of Deakin and some promising pieces elsewhere in the lineup. Sebastian Rivera was an All American at 125 lbs last year and has looked good at 133 this year, too. Lucas Davison has had a really strong freshman year at 197 and definitely looks the part of an All America contender. You can even squint and see potential podium finishes at 125 and 165 with a few good breaks. 

WEAKNESSES

* Unfortunately, that best case scenario may not be very attainable. Rivera hasn't actually wrestled at all since Midlands (where he had to injury default out of his final match in the tournament) and it's unclear if he'll be able to compete in March -- and how good he might be if he can wrestle. Davison has looked promising, but he's also just a true freshman and the cauldron of the NCAA Tournament has chewed up plenty of promising freshmen in the past. And it's just as likely that DeAugustino (125) and Thomas (165) come up short as make the podium.  Northwestern isn't likely to score points at any other weights, so if the wheels on their best case scenario come off (and at least in terms of Rivera, one of those wheels is already looking very shaky), they're not going to come close to a top four finish. 

#8 Princeton Tigers

STRENGTHS

* Like a lot of the teams in this tier, Princeton has a really solid quartet of wrestlers. It was actually just a trio, but Matthew Kolodzik ended his Olympic redshirt this month -- and returned to the lineup just in time to help Princeton end Cornell's 92-dual winning streak against Ivy League teams... and clinch Princeton's first Ivy League regular season title since 1986. Heady times for the Tigers. Kolodzik is a major addition to Princeton's lineup; while Track ranks him just #7 for now, that's only because he's barely wrestled this year. He's a surefire All America contender and a legitimate NCAA finalist possibility. He could easily add 15-20 points to Princeton's total come March. 

* The non-Kolodzik members of Princeton's fantastic foursome are pretty good, too. Patrick Glory was an All American at 125 last year and looks primed for a top four finish again this year; he could be an NCAA finalist with the right draw. Quincy Monday has been strong all year at 157; ditto Patrick Brucki at 197. Princeton might not have a strong national title contender like some of the other teams in this tier (depending on how strongly you feel about Glory and Kolodzik), but their big four doesn't look as shaky as some of the others. 

WEAKNESSES

* Like so many of the other teams at this level, though, Princeton is certainly going to ride or die with that big four. They have notable holes at almost every other weight (though Stefanik could win a match or two at 184), so they absolutely must have the big four come through if they're going to have any chance of a top four team finish.

#9 Oklahoma State Cowboys

STRENGTHS

* Oklahoma State's case for a top four finish would look a lot stronger if they had Daton Fix (NCAA runner-up a year ago) in the lineup, but he's using an Olympic redshirt this year, which is a big reason they find themselves among the riff-raff hoping to squeeze enough production out of the rest of their lineup for a top four finish. Even without Fix, though, they have some potent wrestlers -- Nick Piccininni is a two-time All-American at 125 lbs and a solid bet for a top four finish, while Boo Lewallen was an All-American in 2018 and has been ranked around the top 5 all season this year. That's a good starting point. 

* While the current rankings don't necessarily support it, Okie State has another 3-4 wrestlers who could contend for podium finishes, like Wyatt Sheets (157), Travis Wittlake (165), Joe Smith (174), Dakota Geer (197), and maybe even Dusty Hone (141). There's a lot of potential there, so if 2-3 of them get hot in March... 

WEAKNESSES

* On the other hand, those guys are ranked where they are this season for a reason: their actual results don't support better rankings. Oklahoma State has kind of sleepwalked through much of this season; it may be asking too much for almost half their team to flip a switch at the NCAA Tournament and find the consistency necessary to be an All America-caliber wrestler.  

#10 Nebraska Cornhuskers

STRENGTHS

* Nebraska provides a very nice example of what makes a good dual teams versus what makes a good tournament team. Nine of Nebraska's 10 wrestlers are ranked in the top 20 at their respective weights (all but 125); they don't really have any glaring holes (outside of, perhaps, 125). That makes for a pretty strong dual meet team because it enables them to be competitive at almost every weight. Unfortunately, "general competence" doesn't translate well to a tournament setting, where it's more valuable to have a handful of studs who can score a lot of points by themselves. Nebraska doesn't really have anyone like that on this team. 

* That said, Nebraska does have four wrestlers who would earn All America finishes if they can match their current rankings -- and that doesn't even include Taylor Venz at 184, who actually is a returning All-American. Beyond those five, Nebraska has also shown flashes at 133, 149, and 157; if enough of those guys put it all together, and earn podium finishes, Nebraska could be in the thick of the race for fourth place, even without a superstar leading the way. 

WEAKNESSES

* Not one of those projected All-Americans is slotted higher than fifth place, though. The big points are in the top half of the podium, particularly the first few places. Bottom half of the podium finishes can still be valuable, but usually just as a supplement to bigger points elsewhere. It's tough to put together a big point haul solely from bottom of the podium finishes; that's a volume-based approach that can be tough to swing at the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska profiles as a team with a fairly low ceiling, but a reasonably high floor -- they have a lot of guys who can win a few matches and score some points at the NCAA Tournament. The trick will be getting enough of them to win 3-4 matches and earn All-America finishes. 

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