This weekend is a bonanza of college sports action, with not one, not two, but three high-profile NCAA Tournaments all getting underway. Iowa is competing in all three tournaments, but while we're very excited to see how the men's and women's basketball teams do, there's only one tournament where Iowa is truly favored to bring home hardware: the 2021 NCAA Wrestling Tournament, taking place March 18-20 in St. Louis.
We'll break down the individual weights in greater depth tomorrow, but today let's look at the team title race. Here's how the team race shapes up in terms of the top contenders. The table below lists their qualifiers at each weight (plus the seed) they received, while the column at the end adds up their projected team points. The projected team points total only includes placement points (earned by finishing 1st-8th-place at a weight) and advancement points (worth 1 point per win in the championship bracket and worth 0.5 points per win in the consolation bracket).
Winning an NCAA championship in wrestling is a numbers game, in a few different senses. One, it helps to have the horses -- you want to have a lot of qualifiers to give yourself multiple opportunities to score points. You can win with just a handful of point-scorers if they're elite talents who can score points by the bushel, but that really ups the degree of difficulty. Two, you need to have the right kind of horses -- it's not enough to have NCAA qualifiers, you need to have NCAA championship contenders. Those are the guys who are going to score a lot of points for you.
Look at Iowa and Missouri in that table. Both teams qualified 10 wrestlers for the NCAA Tournament (the only teams to do so, to the best of my knowledge). But Iowa is projected for 69 more points (nice), based on placement and advancement points, than Missouri. Why? Because Iowa has four projected finalists (four projected champions, no less) and Missouri has zero projected finalists. In fact, Iowa has eight wrestlers projected to finish in the top-5 of their respective weights (if they wrestle to seed); Missouri has one. Getting NCAA qualifiers is good. Getting NCAA All-Americans is better. Getting NCAA title contenders is best.
If Missouri wrestles to seed, they could have six All-Americans, a highly respectable total. But they would have no finalists and just one finisher higher than sixth place. That just isn't enough points to seriously contend.
The points at the NCAA Tournament tilt heavily towards the top of the podium. A first-place finish is worth a minimum of 20 points (16 for placement, 4 for advancement), while a runner-up finish is worth a minimum of 16 points (12 for placement, 4 for advancement). A 3rd-place finish is worth a still-healthy 13.5 points (10 and 3.5), while 4th-place is worth at least 12.5 points (9 and 3.5). 5th-place is worth 10 points (7 and 3), 6th-place is worth 9 (6 and 3), 7th-place is worth 6.5 (4 and 2.5), and 8th-place is worth 5.5 (3 and 2.5). Being one of the eight best wrestlers at a weight and earning All-America honors is a tremendous accomplishment, full stop. But in terms of winning a team championship, you need more than just guys who get on the podium -- you need guys who finish high on that podium.
Now it's worth noting that these projected points are inherently on the low side -- I only projected points for wrestlers seeded to finish in the top-8 at a given weight. That means just four Penn State wrestlers contributed to their projected total of 65.5 points. Penn State's other five qualified wrestlers (they did not qualify a wrestler at 149 lbs) are not going to score zero points for them at the NCAA Tournament. But the reality is that if you can't crack the podium (i.e., finish in the top-8 at your weight), there is a very low ceiling on the number of points you can realistically score for your team. That ceiling is generally right around 4-5 points, max.
In theory, a wrestler could lose his opening match and then pin his way through the consolation bracket until the Round of 12, where a loss would end his NCAA Tournament. A run like that would be worth 7.5 points (2 points for each pin, plus 0.5 advancement points for each of his three wins in the consolation bracket). But scoring like that is very, very rare. If a guy can pin three straight opponents, he probably should be winning more matches, right? And without those bonus points, his team point contribution drops off a cliff. A wrestler who follows that same path (R1 loss, three straight wins, R12 loss) but gets regular decisions instead of pins would score just 1.5 points for his team. A 3-2 record at the NCAA Tournament and a Round of 12 exit is a pretty respectable showing, all things considered. But it's not going to contribute many points to your team's total.
As noted, those projected points only factor in placement points and advancement points. Wrestlers can also score bonus points that factor into the team total with wins via major decision (1 additional point), technical fall (1.5 points), or pin (2 points). That will help the teams chasing Iowa (particularly Penn State, which has been a bonus point magnet under Cael Sanderson)... but it will also help Iowa, too. Spencer Lee is a bonus point fiend and guys like Jaydin Eierman, Michael Kemerer, and Tony Cassioppi have been regular bonus point scorers as well.
Frankly, bonus points (and points scored by wrestlers seeded outside the top-8 at their respective weights) don't seem likely to be decisive in this team race because, well, look at that gap between first and second again. Based on seeds, Iowa is projected to out-score Penn State by 57 points. If Iowa simply takes care of their own business, they will turn this NCAA Tournament into a complete rout.
Do I think the actual gap between Iowa and Penn State is that big? No. Absolutely not. Those seeds are closer to a best-case scenario for Iowa (they will, undoubtedly, have wrestlers fail to hit those expectations), while Penn State has plenty of room to exceed expectations. But 57 points is a very big margin of error. That gives Iowa the luxury of knowing that they can still win a title even if a few guys under-achieve, relative to their seeds.
The biggest key for Iowa is those projected finalists. If Lee, Eierman, Marinelli, and Kemerer all make the finals at their respective weights, that's a minimum of 64 team points for Iowa -- without factoring in any bonus points they might score on their way to the finals and without factoring in what any of the other six wrestlers on the Iowa team might do. Each win in the finals would be worth an additional four points. If all four won titles, that would be worth 80 points alone for Iowa. Factor in likely bonus points and they could score around 90 team points for Iowa -- again, without the other six Iowa wrestlers even scoring a point. If those four wrestlers are able to handle their business, Iowa will be very, very, very difficult to catch in the team race.
The team title race at the NCAA Tournament generally has three phases, which correlate to each day.
Thursday (Day 1): Don't screw up. You can't win an NCAA title on the first day, but you can lose it if enough of your wrestlers suffer losses in the first two rounds.
Friday (Day 2): Moving day. Friday is when most of the points in the team race are handed out. Wins in the quarterfinals are worth at least seven points because a spot in the semifinals means you can finish no worst than 6th-place overall. So you get six points for a guaranteed 6th-place finish (and you can add to that placement point total with more wins), plus a point for advancing to the semifinals. Wins in the semifinals are worth a further seven points each because a spot in the finals means you can finish no worse than 2nd-place overall. So you earn a further six for points for a guaranteed 2nd-place finish (2nd-place is worth 12 placement points, but you already received six of those with your quarterfinal win), plus another advancement point. A wrestler who wins twice in the championship bracket on Friday at the NCAA Tournament will score at least 14 points for his team (more if those wins happen to include any bonus points). That's a lot of potential points up for grabs.
- Saturday (Day 3): Individual glory. Everyone wrestling on Saturday is guaranteed All-America status, it's just a matter of where they land on the podium. There are very few advancement points left to hand out and the difference between 3rd/4th, 5th/6th, and 7th/8th is just one point. For the most part you're wrestling for individual pride on Saturday -- or an individual championship if you're fortunate enough to be competing on Saturday night. In a close team title race, those battles for individual glory -- and especially the championship matches, which are worth at least four points to the winner -- can be hugely important. But, as noted exhaustively above, right now this doesn't look to be a year with a close team title race. We'll have to see exactly how things pan out once the action starts on Thursday.
Look, the purpose of this post is not to seem arrogant or overconfident. The purpose of the post is to lay out the team title race for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. On paper, Iowa is heavily favored. But the Hawkeyes are not guaranteed a 24th national championship this weekend. Lofty seeds are nice, but they aren't worth any tangible points in the team title race. Iowa still has to go out and compete on the mat and win matches. They need all 10 wrestlers to wrestle as best as they can for three days this weekend. If they all do that, Iowa will be in very good shape to end that 11-year national title drought. But the work's not done yet. They've put themselves in excellent position to win it all -- now it's time to finish the job.