Day One at the NCAA Tournament is about avoiding disaster and keeping as many of your wrestlers as possible on the right side of the bracket. Day Two at the NCAA Tournament is about those wrestlers winning matches in the quarterfinals and semifinals and racking up as many points as possible. Iowa and Penn State both made their moves on Friday -- and some key results late in the Friday night session helped Iowa build a 14.5 point lead heading into the final day of the tournament. Is the tournament over? No. Is Iowa still in a good position? Yes. But let's break down how we got to this point.
|125||#1 Spencer Lee||MAJ DEC (10-2)||#9 Devin Schroeder (Purdue)|
|133||#4 Austin DeSanto||MAJ DEC (13-5)||#5 Micky Phillippi (Pitt)|
|141||#1 Jaydin Eierman||FALL (3:49)||#9 Dresden Simon (Central Michigan)|
|149||#4 Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State)||DEC (6-4 SV)||#12 Max Murin|
|165||#8 Shane Griffiths (Stanford)||DEC (3-1 SV)||##1 Alex Marinelli|
|174||#1 Michael Kemerer||MAJ DEC (13-4)||#8 Daniel Bullard (NC State)|
|197||#4 AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State)||DEC (3-2)||#5 Jacob Warner|
|285||#5 Tony Cassioppi||DEC (4-1)||#4 Cohlton Schultz (Arizona State)|
Iowa entered the day with eight quarterfinalists. Four of those wrestlers were clear favorites (Lee, Eierman, Marinelli, and Kemerer). One of those wrestlers was a clear underdog (Murin). The other three wrestlers were in essentially coin-flip matches (DeSanto, Warner, Cassioppi). If Iowa could hold serve in the matches where they were favored and spring an upset or win a few of the toss-up matches, they'd be sitting pretty heading into the semifinal round.
Good news: Lee, Eierman, and Kemerer not only hold serve in their matches, they picked up bonus points in the process. Lee and Kemerer each recorded major decision wins, while Eierman locked up one of his patented cradles and got an emphatic pin in the second period. Also good news: Iowa won two of the three coin-flip matches, highlighted by DeSanto's total demolition of Phillippi and a very solid win from Cassioppi.
Bad news: Not all of Iowa's #1 seeds held serve; Alex Marinelli suffered an upset loss in the quarters, going down to Stanford's Shane Griffith 3-1 in sudden victory. Marinelli chased him for three periods and had more than a few good attacks on Griffith's legs, but a combination of outstanding defense from Griffith and bad luck from Marinelli kept any of those attacks from turning into points. In sudden victory, Griffith was able to counter another Marinelli attack and came out on top in the scramble, once again ending Marinelli's NCAA Tournament run well short of the finals. (There was worse news re: Marinelli, but we'll get to that in a moment.) Also bad: Murin didn't get the upset over Lewallen and Warner was unable to solve Ferrari's smothering ride. Still, 5-3 in the quarterfinals was not a bad outcome.
|157||#5 Kaleb Young||DEC (8-2)||#22 Benjamin Barton (Campbell)|
|184||#22 Devin Kane (North Carolina)||MAJ DEC (15-4)||#12 Nelson Brands|
|157||#5 Kaleb Young||DEC (5-1)||#13 Hunter Willits (Oregon State)|
Young and Brands were the only Iowa wrestlers to lose on Thursday, which meant they would need to win their first three matches on Friday in order to secure All-America status. Young got off to a good start on that quest, scoring a very comfortable 8-2 decision win over Barton in his first conso match, before following that up with a 5-1 decision win over Willits in his second conso match of the day. He did what he needed to do to stay in contention for a podium finish. The same could not be said for Nelson Brands, unfortunately; he got mauled by Kane in his first (and only) match of the day. Brands looked a little flat-footed at times against Kane and was unable to get anything going in the match.
|125||#1 Spencer Lee||MAJ DEC (11-0)||#4 Drew Hildebrandt (Central Michigan)|
|133||#1 Daton Fix (Oklahoma State)||DEC (3-2)||#4 Austin DeSanto|
|141||#1 Jaydin Eierman||FALL (2:59)||#4 Tariq Wilson (NC State)|
|174||#1 Michael Kemerer||DEC (8-1)||#12 Bernie Traux (Cal Poly)|
|285||#1 Gable Steveson (Minnesota)||MAJ DEC (16-6)||#5 Tony Cassioppi|
Iowa entered the semis with five wrestlers, three of whom were favored (Lee, Eierman, and Kemerer) and two of whom were considerable underdogs (DeSanto, Cassioppi). While DeSanto had looked excellent in this tournament, Fix had looked even better, shredding his competition en route to the semis. And we've seen Cassioppi-Steveson several times and it only seems to get worse for Tony each time out. Iowa needed their #1 seeds to take care of business -- and hope that either DeSanto or Cassioppi could pull a miracle.
There were no miracles for the underdogs, but the favorites did take care of business. Lee notched another major decision victory, an 11-0 win over Hildebrandt that gave him his fourth bonus point win in four matches this week (he and Mason Parris are the only wrestlers to score bonus in every match they've had at this year's tournament). Lee got a first period takedown and a tilt to open up a 6-0 lead, but he did get ridden hard by the lanky Hildebrandt for much of the second and third periods and was definitely laboring at times. But he was still able to finish the match with another takedown and, hey, an 11-0 win in the NCAA semis is still pretty wild.
Eierman made it two pins in a row with an outrageous pin of NC State's Tariq Wilson in his semifinal bout. Wilson got in deep on a shot late in a scoreless first period -- only for Eierman to dip into his bag o' tricks and use his funk to step over Wilson and lock up a pin near the edge of the mat, right at the end of the period. It was an outrageous bit of skill -- but also the sort of thing we've seen Eierman do several times already this season. He is a truly spectacular -- and unique -- talent and it's a blast to watch him compete for Iowa.
In comparison, Michael Kemerer is far more workmanlike -- but his peerless fundamentals make him a tremendous all-around wrestler. He used a pair of early takedowns to open up a lead on Traux, a #12 seed and one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament, and racked up a solid amount of riding time from those takedowns. Traux also rode him hard at one point, but Kemerer was able to get an escape before adding a late takedown (and riding time point) to pad his margin of victory. This wasn't a particularly flashy win, but it more than did the job.
Of Iowa's two underdogs, DeSanto had the closer showing against his #1 seed opponent. He gave up a first period takedown to Fix that proved decisive in the end, but he managed to get escapes against Fix relatively easily (a big change from their match two years ago, when Fix rode the hell out of him) and put a lot of pressure on him in attack, even though he struggled to turn that into any real points. On the other hand, Cassioppi's matches against Steveson aren't getting any closer the more they wrestle -- if anything they're getting more lopsided. Steveson did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted in this match. After watching these two matches, it's conceivable to me that DeSanto could beat Fix in a match at some point. I don't see how Cassioppi can beat Steveson unless the officials let him use an elephant gun in the match.
|149||#8 Jaden Abas (Stanford)||DEC (2-1 OT)||#12 Max Murin|
|157||#5 Kaleb Young||MAJ DEC (10-2)||#23 Jacob Wright (Wyoming)|
|165||#11 Cameron Amine (Michigan)||MED FFT||#1 Alex Marinelli|
|197||#5 Jacob Warner||DEC (4-1)||#10 Cameron Caffey (Michigan State)|
|157||#6 Brayton Lee (Minnesota)||DEC (3-2)||#5 Kaleb Young|
|197||#5 Jacob Warner||DEC (6-3)||#8 Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming)|
The consolation matches were a mix of good and bad for Iowa on Friday night, but ultimately ended on a very high note. First, though, the bad. Max Murin followed up his narrow loss to Boo Lewallen in the quarterfinals with... a narrow loss to Jaden Abas in the Round of 12. A takedown-less match (and sudden victory) gave way to the tiebreaker periods, where Abas won when he got an escape in his 30-second period, while Murin was unable to get an escape in his 30-second period. Murin had chances to score from his feet in regulation (and sudden victory), but was unable to complete the decisive takedown.
Even worse news followed hot on the heels of Murin's loss, though -- Alex Marinelli was going to medically forfeit his Round of 12 match at 165 lbs, ending his NCAA Tournament one win shy of All-American status and preventing him from contributing any more team points to Iowa's total. Thus far no definitive word has emerged on what's ailing Marinelli, though there have been some (unconfirmed) reports of a rib injury. Brands offered only this response when asked about Marinelli after Friday night's action:
#Iowa coach Tom Brands on Alex Marinelli: "Marinelli is doing well. He has good priorities in his life. Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good. Not going to get into the details. He's a winner. Tough kid, winner, leader."— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) March 20, 2021
Whatever the cause, it was a brutal blow to Iowa for Marinelli to exit the tournament so early. And, of course, it's an even crueler blow for Marinelli himself, who once again saw his national title dreams dashed before the NCAA championship match. Hopefully Marinelli's injury is nothing serious and he heals up quickly.
After a strong afternoon showing, Kaleb Young had a mixed evening in consolation action -- though he did win the match he (and Iowa) really needed to have, his R12 showdown with Wyoming's Jacob Wright. Young needed that match to secure All-America status for the third time in his career -- and Iowa needed the 3.5 points that would come with his victory. Job done -- and with some flair even, as he got a 10-2 major decision win in the process. It would have been nice for him to win his second consolation match, but he came up just short against Brayton Lee, falling 3-2. Young will wrestle for 7th place on Saturday morning.
Fortunately for Iowa, Jacob Warner came through in a big way for the Hawkeyes and their team title aspirations. Warner rebounded from his frustrating loss to Ferrari in the quarterfinals to record a solid 4-1 victory over Cameron Caffey in the R12, earning another set of All-America honors for himself (and 3.5 points for Iowa). Then he followed that up beating Wyoming's Stephen Buchanan in his second match of the evening, earning Iowa another 3.5 points and ensuring that he can finish no worse than 6th place tomorrow. More importantly, his win also preserved the ability for him to add more points to Iowa's tally tomorrow morning in further consolation action.
In fact, that win was part of a pivotal 10 minutes of action. Warner and two Penn State wrestlers -- 197er Michael Beard and heavyweight Greg Kerkvliet -- were in action at roughly the same time, with Iowa's team lead having narrowed after Aaron Brooks won at 184 for Penn State and with Tony Cassioppi getting smashed by Steveson at 285. Warner won his match, while Beard and Kerkvliet both lost their bouts, locking them into the 7th place match at 197 and 285 tomorrow. That turn of events was worth just 3.5 points for Iowa in the moment -- but it preserved the possibility of another 4.5 points for Warner tomorrow and cost Penn State a total of 14 potential points (as Beard and Kerkvliet went from having the possibility to finish 3rd to now being able to finish no better than 7th). Just a potentially massive turn of events in the team race heading into the final day of action.
Iowa has three wrestlers in the finals, while Penn State has four. There are two head-to-head matchups, at 141 and 174. But Iowa will have three wrestlers in action in the consolation semifinals, plus Kaleb Young wrestling for 7th place; Penn State will have just Beard and Kerkvliet wrestling for 7th in the morning session on Satuday. That means that Iowa has the potential to score a lot more points than Penn State in medal round action (when 3rd/5th/7th place are determined), which would allow them to expand their lead over Penn State from 14.5 to well over 20 points heading into the final session. Even if Penn State went 4/4 in their finals matches, that would only be worth a further 16 team points before any bonus points are factored in, though making up a further four points via bonus points would require multiple pins. And while Penn State has head-to-head matches with Eierman and Kemerer and can try to beat them to prevent Iowa from adding more team points from their matches, they can do nothing to stop Spencer Lee in his match.
|125||#1 Spencer Lee, 11-0||vs||#3 Brandon Courtney, 15-0 (Arizona State)|
|141||#1 Jaydin Eierman, 12-0||vs||#2 Nick Lee, 12-1 (Penn State)|
|174||#1 Michael Kemerer, 11-0||vs||#2 Carter Starocci, 12-2 (Penn State)|
Lee has never faced Courtney before. Eierman-Lee and Kemerer-Starocci are rematches of the Big Ten Tournament finals from less than two weeks ago; Eierman and Kemerer won those matches, so hopefully fortune shines upon the Hawkeyes again. While we've grown accustomed to seeing Spencer Lee lead off the action for Iowa over the last four years, we're going to have to wait to see him action on Saturday night.
#NCAAWrestling Finals will start with 133 pounds and end with 125 tomorrow night on ESPN. Plan accordingly.— Cody Goodwin (@codygoodwin) March 20, 2021
The Spencer Lee-Brandon Courtney match will be the main event of the finals session. The 133 lb finals (Daton Fix vs Roman Bravo-Young) will kick things off followed, by 141, 149, 157, and so on. As the team race tightened during the day on Friday, I was thinking that the NCAA would choose to end the finals with either 141 (Eierman-Lee) or 174 (Kemerer-Starocci), either of which would be Iowa-Penn State tilts. But instead the NCAA is putting their two biggest individual stars (Gable Steveson and Spencer Lee) in the final two matches of the night, perhaps expecting Iowa to have already clinched the team title by then. Here's hoping they're right.
|133||#4 Austin DeSanto, 10-2||vs||#9 Michael McGee, 13-2 (Arizona State)|
|197||#5 Jacob Warner, 12-3||vs||#26 Jake Woodley, 12-8 (Oklahoma)|
|285||#5 Tony Cassioppi, 11-3||vs||#14 Trent Hillger, 10-5 (Wisconsin)|
|157 (7th)||#5 Kaleb Young, 9-3||vs||#33 Wyatt Sheets, 11-8 (Oklahoma State)|
Iowa can take some very big steps toward clinching that team title with a strong showing in the consolation matches on Saturday morning. DeSanto, Warner, and Cassioppi are all in the consolation semifinals; win and they'll wrestle for 3rd place, lose and they'll wrestle for 5th place. Wins in the consolation semifinals are worth 3.5 points each (plus any bonus points scored), which could provide Iowa another 10.5 points in the team race if DeSanto, Warner, and Cassioppi all win -- 10.5 points that Penn State will be powerless to cut into.
Fortunately, DeSanto, Warner, and Cassioppi all seem to have pretty favorable match-ups on paper. Cassioppi has had a great deal of success against Hillger in his career; we need him to channel that again in this bout. DeSanto has looked excellent against everyone but Fix, so hopefully he carries that same form into the bout with McGee. Woodley went on a terrific run to the NCAA semifinals from the #26 seed, but he's certainly not an unbeatable opponent. Let's hope DeSanto, Warner, and Cassioppi are all on their game for these matches -- if they are, Iowa will move even closer to their first national championship in 11 seasons. Time to go out and finish the job.