In a better universe, one where the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn't put a halt to virtually every sporting event in the world (shout-out to Australian Rules Football for... gamely? insanely?... carrying on), we'd be in the middle of the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament, cheering on the Hawkeyes as they vied for a national championship. Would they have sealed the deal and won that elusive 24th national title? We can't know for sure, but... yes. Yes, they would have.
How can we say that? It's all about the math. Just as it did for the 2020 Big Ten Tournament, the math strongly favored Iowa at the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Tournament. And while Nebraska was able to mount a stronger-than-expected challenge to the Hawkeyes there, it would have been difficult for another team to do so at the NCAAs, barring some pretty significant underperformance by Iowa.
I'll be honest: I hadn't crunched the numbers on Iowa's likelihood to win the NCAA Tournament since the final seeds and brackets were released last week. I was pretty busy when they were released last Tuesday -- and I had a sinking feeling that the NCAA Tournament wasn't going to end up happening. That sinking feeling only got worse over Wednesday and Thursday as more and more sports announced suspensions of play or outright cancellations -- including, of course, the NCAA Tournament itself on Thursday afternoon. After that I was too depressed at the prospect of no NCAAs to do the math.
But curiosity finally got the better of me and I did the math. It definitely isn't going to help my depression about the loss of this year's NCAA Tournament, but it does reinforce the notion that Iowa was going to bring home title #24 this year. Here are the projected points for the top contenders, assuming their finishes matched their seeds at each weight.
Those point totals account for more than just placement and advancement points at each weight. I calculated points per seed using the average points each Top 8 placement scored at the 2019 NCAA Tournament. For instance, the 10 champions last year scored between 20 and 27 points, with an average of (roughly) 23 points per 1st place finish. Obviously individual wrestlers would have scored more or less than that; Spencer Lee exceeded 23 points in both of his previous NCAA championship runs (27 in 2018, 24.5 in 2019), while Pat Lugo would likely have finished closer to 20 points if he had won a national championship. But overall I think the averages balance things out well enough.
Here are the points per projected finish for each seed:
Also: a few points here or there probably don't matter all that much when Iowa was such a massive favorite. Based on those numbers they were favored to win by 55.5 points! That would be more points than the entire projected point tally of the fourth place finisher. That would have given Iowa an enormous cushion in their pursuit of the title.
Of course, not every wrestler will finish according to seed (given how the brackets work, it's actually impossible for that to happen). So how likely was underperformance by Iowa at this year's NCAA Tournament? Let's break it down weight-by-weight.
125: C'mon, Spencer Lee is Spencer Lee. He's one of the surest of sure things in college wrestling this year. He could have had a rematch of the 2019 NCAA finals in the semis this year, against #4 Jack Mueller (Virginia) as well as a likely finals showdown with either #2 Pat Glory (Princeton) or #3 Nick Piccininni (Okie State). None of those would have been easy matches... but Lee also has a lifetime 6-1 record against that trio, with bonus points in half of those wins. I'm not worried about Spencer Lee.
133: Austin DeSanto earned the #6 seed and would have had a good path to matching that finish. In fact, to guarantee a Top-6 finish, the key for DeSanto would have been winning his quarterfinal match. If he managed that, any wins beyond that would have just improved his finish from his seed. In the quarters, DeSanto would have likely faced either #3 Chaz Tucker (Cornell) or #14 Ridge Lovett (Nebraska). Tucker was 31-0 this season, but faced a weak schedule. Despite his unassuming seed, Lovett's length, defensive skill, and mat game have made him a difficult match-up; DeSanto only managed a narrow 1-0 win over him at Big Tens. If DeSanto lost that quarterfinal match, he would have needed to likely beat either #8 Montorie Bridges (Wyoming) or #9 Noah Gonser (Campbell) in the Round of 12 to assure a podium finish and then likely beat either #7 Travis Piotrowski (Illinois) or #10 Sammy Alvarez (Rutgers) to assure a Top-6 finish. DeSanto didn't look at his best at Big Tens and his health would have been a factor at NCAAs, but ultimately I do think he had a very good chance to grind his way to at least a Top-6 finish.
141: Max Murin earned a #7 seed and was in line to face several familiar faces. Murin likely would have faced #10 Mitch McKee (Minnesota) in the second round; he was 1-1 against McKee this season (technically 2-1, but the second win was via medical forfeit, so we're going to ignore it), with a 6-4 overtime win at the dual and a 3-1 loss at Big Tens. If he got by McKee, he would have likely faced #2 Nick Lee (Penn State) in the quarterfinals; barring a stunning upset, that would have been the end of Murin's journey in the top half of the bracket.
If Murin lost to Lee, he would have likely needed to beat either #12 Dresden Simon (Central Michigan) or #13 Michael Blockhus (UNI) in the Round of 12 to assure a Top-8 finish. If he lost to McKee, the path would have been much trickier. He likely would have needed to beat #15 Tariq Wilson (NC State) or #18 Mitch Moore (Virginia Tech) in the consos, followed by a win over (probably) either #4 Ian Parker (Iowa State) or #5 Dom Demas (Oklahoma) in the Round of 12. If Murin beats McKee, I feel good about his odds of making the podium. If he doesn't, it gets pretty dicey.
149: Pat Lugo was the second of Iowa's three #1 seeds, which means anything short of a championship would have technically been an underachievement for him. How likely was a top of the podium finish for Lugo? It wouldn't have been easy, but Lugo has been so consistent and so good this year -- especially near the end of the season -- that I would have certainly had a lot of confidence in him.
That said, there were some real pitfalls in his path, too. A potential quarterfinal match with #8 Jarrett Degen (Iowa State) would have been no picnic; Degen was 2-1 lifetime against Lugo and all of their matches had been tight, nervy affairs with Degen's length giving Lugo fits. That said, Lugo also won their most recent encounter (4-3 earlier this season). Lugo likely would have faced #4 Brock Mauller (Missouri) or #5 Boo Lewallen (Okie State) in the semis; he's never faced the (awesomely-named) Mauller in his career, and is 1-0 against Lewallen, pinning him about a month ago at the Iowa-Okie State dual. Though Lugo did pin Lewallen in that bout, I would have expected a potential rematch to be a close match. In the final, Lugo likely would have seen #2 Austin O'Connor (North Carolina), #3 Sammy Sasso (Ohio State), or #6 Matthew Kolodzik (Princeton). Lugo beat O'Connor and Sasso earlier this year (he also lost to Sasso) and he has a win over Kolodzik from a few years ago (Kolodzik has also beaten him in their more recent encounters). All those matches would have been close... but Lugo certainly had a knack for winning matches like that.
157: Kaleb Young was the source of some of the biggest question marks (and concern) on the Iowa team heading into the NCAA Tournament after his struggles to end the season (including an 0-2 performance at the Big Ten Tournament). That said, he still received an at-large bid -- and even got the #8 seed in the 157 lb bracket. To live up to that seed, all he had to do was make the podium -- could he have done that?
Young likely would have faced #9 Jacori Teemer (Arizona State) in the second round. If he had won that match, he would have almost certainly faced #1 Ryan Deakin (Northwestern) in the quarterfinals. Young did beat him in their two previous matches... but Deakin was wrestling a lot better this year than he was then, while Young has been wrestling much worse than he was back then. I think Young making the NCAA semifinals for the second-straight year would have been a heck of an upset this time.
If Young had lost to Deakin, he likely would have faced either #11 Wyatt Sheets (Oklahoma State) or #14 Jarrett Jacques (Missouri) in the Round of 12. Young has never faced Jacques and is 1-1 against Sheets, including a 9-4 loss to him at the dual about a month ago. If Young had lost to Teemer, he would have likely faced either #16 Jared Franek (North Dakota State) or #17 Justin Thomas (Oklahoma) in the consos, followed by a probable match with either #3 David Carr (Iowa State), #6 Kendall Coleman (Purdue), or Sheets in the Round of 12. I have to admit, given Young's form, I don't feel especially confident in him making the Top-8, especially with those potential match-ups. This weight seems like it's ripe for under-performance for Iowa. Fortunately, Young is also projected to contribute the second-lowest point tally (6.5) to Iowa's total, so that under-performance wouldn't be especially crippling.
165: Alex Marinelli was the third of Iowa's three #1 seeds and while he was wrestling exceptionally well, once again the bracket gods didn't exactly smile upon him. This draw might not have been as merciless as the one he received a year ago, but it's still full of challenges. The Bull could have faced #8 Evan Wick (Wisconsin) in the quarterfinals; it's unclear what condition Wick might have been in given the undisclosed medical issue that forced him to medically forfeit out of the Big Ten Tournament, but a fit Wick has always been a massive challenge for Marinelli (though The Bull has bested him in their last four showdowns).
A likely match with either #4 Travis Wittlake (Okie State) or #5 Isaiah White (Nebraska) would have loomed in the semifinals and while Marinelli has a 3-0 lifetime record against them, the matches have been tight affairs; his wins over Wittlake and White this season both required third period takedowns. And if he made it to the final, Round V with #2 Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) was likely waiting. Marinelli absolutely could have run that gauntlet and seized his first-ever national championship... but it definitely would NOT have been easy.
174: Michael Kemerer earned a #2 seed, making him the fourth Iowa wrestler to be a projected NCAA finalist this year. Though Kemerer had never made it beyond the quarterfinals in his two previous NCAA Tournament appearances (getting stunned by Cornell's Dylan Palacio in 2017 and losing to Penn State's Jason Nolf in 2018), he would have had a great opportunity to make it to Saturday night this year. In the quarter he would have likely faced either #7 Devin Skatzka (Minnesota) or #10 Mikey Labriola (Nebraska). Skatzka would have been the preferred opponent for sure, given that he beat him twice this year, once by pin and once by 21-9 major decision; he was 1-0 against Labriola, but it was a 3-1 decision that required a third period takedown. In the semis, Kemerer would have likely faced #3 Jordan Kutler (Lehigh). Kutler is a tough opponent, and difficult to score on, but I would have still liked Kemerer's odds of making the final.
184: Abe Assad was the lowest-seed wrestler for Iowa at the 2020 NCAA Tournament, receiving a #11 seed. That also made him the only Iowa wrestler not projected to earn an All America finish. Consequently, an under-performance by Assad (only projected to earn around 2.5 points) would have a negligible impact on Iowa's projected point total.
That's good because, frankly, Assad had a pretty rough draw. In the second round Assad was slated to face #6 Cameron Caffey (Michigan State), who went 2-0 against Assad this season and whose flexibility and defense gave Assad fits in both of those matches. Even assuming he managed to beat Caffey, Assad likely would have faced #3 Aaron Brooks (Penn State), who beat Assad 7-3 at the dual this year. If Assad had lost to Caffey, he would have faced either #12 Zach Carlson (South Dakota State) or #21 Billy Janzer (Rutgers) in his first consolation match, followed by #14 Rocky Jordan (Ohio Sate) or #19 Brit Wilson (Northern Illinois) in his next conso match and a possible match with #8 Andrew Morgan (Campbell) or #9 Anthony Montalvo (Okie State) in the Round of 12. If he upset Caffey but lost to Brooks, he likely would have faced either Morgan or Montalvo in the Round of 12. I actually think he would have had a decent shot at cracking the bottom of the podium -- although he likely would have needed to do quite a bit of work in the consos.
197: Jacob Warner earned the #5 seed but had some definite landmines in his quest to earn a second-straight All America finish. In the second round he could have faced either #12 Nathan Traxler (Stanford)... or #21 Shakur Rasheed (Penn State). Rasheed would have been an exceptionally dangerous matchup... if he was healthy (which was a big question mark, given how gimpy he was at the end of the Big Ten Tournament). If Warner got by Traxler/Rasheed, he would have likely faced #4 Ben Darmstadt (Cornell) in the quarterfinals; Warner has no past history with him, but Darmstadt is very good and would have been a big threat. Assuming Warner knocked off Darmstadt, he likely would have faced #1 Kollin Moore (Ohio State) in the semis. That would have been a difficult match, but a win the quarters also would have locked up a Top-6 finish for Warner, putting him on track to match his seed.
If Warner had lost to Darmstadt, he likely would have needed to beat #10 Greg Bulsak (Clarion), #15 Lucas Davison (Northwestern), or #18 Jake Woodley (Oklahoma) to earn a Top-8 finish and then probably beat either #8 Pat Brucki (Princeton) or #9 Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State) to assure a Top-6 finish. Not easy (especially Brucki), but doable. If Warner had been upset by Traxler/Rasheed, he likely would have needed to beat either #13 Thomas Lane (Cal Poly) or #20 JT Brown (Army) in his second consolation match, #7 Jay Aiello (Virginia) or #10 Bulsak in the Round of 12, and probably either #6 Christian Brunner (Purdue), #8 Brucki, #9 Norfleet, or #11 Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State) to assure a Top-6 finish. Warner could have faced a lot of familiar faces in that run -- Lane beat him at NCAAs last year, Sloan beat him at Midlands last year, and Aiello and Brucki beat him at Midlands this year.
If Warner got a win in the quarters, he was all but a lock to match (or come very close to) his seed-projected point total. If he lost that match (or lost in the second round), though, he would have a very fraught path to a Top-6 finish, one that could require him to exorcise a lot of past demons.
285: Finally, Tony Cassioppi earned the #3 seed at 285 as he seemed to be pretty clearly the best heavyweight in the country other than #1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota) and #2 Mason Parris (Michigan). Cassioppi was set to face either #14 Carter Isley (UNI) or #19 Gary Traub (Ohio State) in the second round; he beat Isley 11-5 at Midlands this year and went 2-0 against Traub this season. In the quarters, he was in line to likely face #6 Trent Hillger (Wisconsin) in the second round; he went 2-0 against Hillger this year, including a comfortable 4-0 win in the 3rd place match at Big Tens. And in the semis he likely would have faced Parris, who pinned him at the dual last month.
Assuming Cassioppi was unable to avenge that loss to Parris, he'd likely face one of #4 Tanner Hall (Arizona State), #5 Matt Stencel (Central Michigan), #8 Tate Orndorff (Utah Valley), or #9 Jordan Wood (Lehigh) in his first consolation match; he went 1-0 against that crew this year (a 5-1 win over Stencel at Midlands). His most likely 3rd place match opponent would have been either Hall or Stencel. No gimmes, but given what we've seen from Tony all year, that would have been an eminently manageable path.
Here's another way of looking at the title race: who could catch Iowa and how would they do it? Penn State and Ohio State are the closest pursuers, but each has big problems. Penn State was only sending 7 wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament, meaning they were guaranteed zeroes at 125, 157, and 285. Ohio State was only ending 8 guys, with no selections at 133 or 157. Furthermore, one of Ohio State's qualifiers (125) was likely to score few (if any) points and two more (184, 285) were projected to score very minimal points. So they're already down to essentially five point-scorers -- and that fifth presumptive point-scorer (Ethan Smith at 165) projects as more of a Round of 12 guy than a serious All-America threat.
Penn State would start out with just seven possible point-scorers -- and two of that group (149, 197) would project to score only minimal points. A healthy Rasheed would have significant upside potential at 197, but it's anyone's guess what his health would have been like (he certainly didn't look that good by the end of the Big Ten Tournament). So assuming they didn't get much from 149 or 197, they would also be down to just five real point-scorers. The good news for Penn State is that all five of those point-scorers could realistically make the NCAA finals. If they did that, that would give Penn State around 100 points, with the potential to get to the 110-120 range with several wins in those championship matches, plus whatever points they managed to get from 149 or 197.
Iowa was projected to have nine All-Americans and four NCAA finalists. Assuming Lee, Lugo, Marinelli, and Kemerer make the finals, that would give Iowa around 80 points. Splitting those finals matches would give them another 8-10 points, putting them at around 90. Could the remaining six Iowa wrestlers get 30-40 points to put Iowa over the top? I'd feel pretty good about that, even if you don't figure on Young or Assad getting a lot of points. DeSanto, Warner, and Cassioppi all look like pretty solid bets for strong podium finishes.
Friday would have been a huge day for Iowa, especially the quarterfinal round in the morning. Iowa had a realistic shot to put 8 wrestlers into the semifinals, with Warner and DeSanto having the most difficult matches of those 8 to do so. (Young and Assad would have even more challenging matches in the quarters if they made it that far, but I wasn't including them among the 8 Iowa wrestlers with a good shot to make the semis.) If Iowa put all 8 in the semis, that would have been a huge move in the team race as it would have assured them of 8 wrestlers with at least a Top-6 finish. There still would have been pressure to deliver in the semifinals (a lousy performance there would have really lowered the ceiling on Iowa's possible points), though they wouldn't have needed to sweep their matches or do anything outrageous; a 4-4 performance in the semis would have kept them on track to match their projections.
And that's probably the key: Iowa needed to match projections to win and would still be in solid position to win even with underperformance at some weights; Penn State needed to outperform their seeds AND get some help from Iowa dropping points. Penn State would also have virtually no margin of error given that basically all of their points would be coming from five wrestlers. I certainly don't think Iowa would have won by the projected 55-point margin; Penn State had a good chance to exceed their projections (I wouldn't have been at all surprised to see Bravo-Young or Brooks make the finals) and it was very unlikely that Iowa would match their projected total. But I think Iowa could have had a strong grip on the team race after the quarters, an even stronger grip after the semis, and a real chance to lock up the title in the Saturday morning consolation round (or perhaps early in the championship round; how satisfying would it have been to see Spencer Lee to win a third-straight individual title and secure Iowa's first team title in 10 years? Alas).
We'll never know for sure, but it certainly looks like Iowa's combination of top-end firepower and overall quality depth would have been too much for any other team to match (or exceed) at this year's tournament. That's small consolation in a year with a canceled tournament, but it's what we've got. Salute to the 2020 Iowa wrestling team, the uncrowned champions of the 2020 season.