Is it too early to start thinking about the race for the 2021-22 NCAA wrestling championship? No, probably not -- especially now that we know that Iowa will be bringing back all 10 starters from the team that won the 2020-21 NCAA wrestling championship, ending the program's 11-year drought and claiming a 24th team title. Iowa will enter 2021-22 as the favorite to win again, given that they're the current title-holders and they're returning all 10 starters. A repeat championship is not guaranteed, though -- Penn State finished as runners-up to Iowa this past season, but claimed four individual national champions. All four return next year and the key for Penn State's title challenge will likely be how much improvement they can get from the other six weights in their lineup.
I'm going to limit the focus here to Iowa and Penn State because all of the other contenders seem to be fighting for 3rd-5th, not the top honors. Michigan finished fifth this past season, but were 60 points behind Iowa. Arizona State was fourth, but they were 54 points back of Iowa. Do I think either of them can make up 50-60 points on Iowa (and Penn State)? No. Oklahoma State was closer in third place, with 99.5 points, but they still appear to have a few too many holes in the lineup to fully contend with Iowa and Penn State. So for now our focus remains on the Hawkeyes and the Nittany Lions.
To handicap the title race, let's look at things weight-by-weight:
|WT||IOWA (129)||FINISH||PTS||PENN ST (113.5)||FINISH||PTS||DIFFERENCE|
|125||Spencer Lee||1st||24.5||Robert Howard||DNP||1.5||23.0|
|133||Austin DeSanto||3rd||19.5||Roman Bravo-Young||1st||22.5||3.0|
|141||Jaydin Eierman||2nd||21.5||Nick Lee||1st||23.5||2.0|
|149||Max Murin||DNP||2.0||did not qualify||n/a||n/a||2.0|
|157||Kaleb Young||7th||8.5||Brady Berge||DNP||3.0||5.5|
|165||Alex Marinelli||DNP||4.0||Joe Lee||DNP||0.0||4.0|
|174||Michael Kemerer||2nd||20.0||Carter Starocci||1st||21.0||1.0|
|184||Nelson Brands||DNP||1.0||Aaron Brooks||1st||21.5||20.5|
|197||Jacob Warner||4th||12.5||Michael Beard||7th||9.5||3.0|
|285||Tony Cassioppi||3rd||16.5||Greg Kerkvliet||7th||11.0||5.5|
Iowa has an enormous edge at this weight and will continue to do so as long as Spencer Lee suits up in black and gold. Cornell's Vito Arujau and Princeton's Patrick Glory (both of whom did not compete in 2021 due to the Ivy League's decision not to play sports in 2020-21) will spice up the ranks at 125 lbs (assuming they return to that weight), but the biggest question for Spencer Lee for the next year will be his health. How healthy will he be by the time the next wrestling season rolls around? Will he compete on a limited schedule? Regardless, if Lee can walk and turns up at the NCAA Tournament next March, we're picking him to win again.
For Penn State, the key at 125 is how many points they can claw back. After several years of this weight being an absolute zero for them, they finally have a promising competitor there in Robert Howard, a blue-chip recruit who went 2-2 at the NCAA Tournament and upset 10-seed Malik Heinselman. That said, he did go 7-6 overall this past season, so pegging him for All-America honors is premature at this stage. Still, he gives them more opportunity to score points at this weight than they've had in several years.
An impressive showing at the NCAA Tournament solidified Austin DeSanto's credentials as the third-best wrestler at 133 lbs. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to show that he can beat either of the current top two competitors at that weight, Oklahoma State's Daton Fix or Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young. Until he can do that, 3rd starts to look like his ceiling -- although with his bonus point potential, that's still a pretty friendly ceiling. DeSanto did beat RBY in their first two encounters, back in 2019, but he's 0-3 since then and has struggled mightily to get his offense to be effective against Bravo-Young. He'll need to solve that riddle to have a chance to be on top of the heap at 133 lbs. A potential DeSanto-RBY match could be pivotal in the team title race next year.
Like 133, 141 is another weight where a head-to-head showdown could be very important in the team title race. Jaydin Eierman and Nick Lee met up twice in 2021, first in the Big Ten Tournament final (an Eierman win) and again in the NCAA Tournament final (a Lee win). They could meet up three times next season, if there's an Iowa-Penn State dual meet on the schedule and they face off in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments. They were very evenly matched this year, but Lee got the last laugh (and the current upper hand) with his win at the NCAA Tournament. It will be up to Eierman to make adjustments to prevail in their next encounter(s).
No weight contributed less to either team's point total in 2021 than 149, which is a little surprising considering some of the studs that both schools have boasted at this weight (Brent Metcalf, Brandon Sorensen, Frank Molinaro, Zain Retherford). Max Murin went 2-2 for Iowa at the NCAA Tournament, earning just two points. Both of his losses, a 6-4 defeat to eventual 4th-place finisher Boo Lewallen and a 2-1 loss to eventual 7th-place finisher Jaden Abas, came in overtime, but close only goes so far. Murin has had plenty of narrow defeats over his three seasons in Iowa City; to finally get on the podium in 2022, he'll need to turn some of those losses into actual wins. He has the skill to do so, but the key is putting together 3-4 good matches at a big tournament; he hasn't yet shown the ability to do that yet.
Penn State failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament at 149 lbs, as Beau Bartlett went 8-3 overall but 0-2 at the Big Ten Tournament. Bartlett's more natural weight is at 141, though, and he profiles as the heir apparent to Nick Lee, not their next regular starter at 149. Instead, Penn State is likely to turn to true freshman Shayne Van Ness at this weight. Van Ness was one of the very best overall recruits in the Class of 2021, so his upside should be very high. How good he becomes by March is likely to determine his ceiling, but we've seen too many stud freshmen deliver big-time results in March for Penn State to discount his ability to do so.
Iowa returns Kaleb Young at this weight, who went 4-2 at the NCAA Tournament and placed 7th. Can Young repeat that performance? Yes, probably -- he's a two-time All-American at 157 now, so he has a pretty decent track record of delivering at the NCAA Tournament. Can he move higher on the podium? Maybe. The concern with Young, both in terms of seeing him finish higher in the All-America spots and in avoiding an untimely upset to finish off the podium, is that he wrestles so many close matches. As we know, that can bite you.
Penn State has more questions at 157 lbs. Brady Berge has been their choice here for several seasons, but he recently announced plans to retire due to persistent injuries (most notably, concussions). That's awfully sad to hear and we wish him the best as he moves ahead with the next steps of his life. In his absence, there are many directions Penn State might go, including Matt or Joe Lee, who happen to be Nick Lee's younger brothers (all of whom are unrelated to Iowa's own Spencer Lee). Joe Lee wrestled at 165 lbs for Penn State in 2021 (going 6-7 and 0-2 in the NCAA TOurnament) and might be an option to cut down to 157. Matt Lee might be a more natural fit at 157, but hasn't seen much action so and wasn't a superstar recruit like Van Ness. Right now, 157 does not profile as a weight where Penn State is likely to score a lot of points.
Iowa returns Alex Marinelli at this weight, as he tries to become a four-time All-American and end some of the heartbreak and bad luck he's experienced at the national tournament. It seems hard to believe, but Marinelli's best finish at the NCAA Tournament came back in 2018 as a redshirt freshman, when he placed 6th. Despite winning a Big Ten Championship at 165 each of the past three seasons (and entering as the #1 seed all three years), he's failed to place higher than 7th. (Though he, like everyone else, was denied a chance to compete in 2020 due to COVID-19.) In both 2019 and 2021, Marinelli was upset by an 8-seed in the quarterfinal round (and both times the 8-seed went on to win the entire tournament, curiously enough).
In 2019, Marinelli lost again in the consos and fell to 7th, while an injury kept him from even competing in the consolation rounds this past year. As good as the Big Ten Tournament has been to Marinelli, the NCAA Tournament has been just as bad. If Iowa's going to improve on their 2021 performance at the NCAA Tournament, Marinelli represents their best opportunity to do so and score big points in the process. He scored just four points this year, but clearly has the potential to score so much more; making the finals alone would likely be worth another 12 points at minimum. A healthy Marinelli who can deliver at the NCAA Tournament would go a long way in helping Iowa repeat in 2022.
165 is likely to be another weight where Penn State turns to a true freshman and, like Van Ness at 149 lbs, they could have a blue-chipper ready to go. Alex Facundo was one of the top recruits in the Class of 2021 and top-ranked at 170 lbs; if he can cut down to 165 lbs, he could have PSU a lot of firepower at this weight. Joe Lee manned this weight in 2021, but scored zero points for the Nittany Lions at the NCAA Tournament; it (obviously) wouldn't take much for Facundo to improve on that return.
See: 141, basically. This weight is basically that weight, plus 30 pounds. While Nick Lee and Jaydin Eierman were top-ranked challengers who split a pair of matches in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament finals at that weight, this weight features Carter Starocci and Michael Kemerer, who did the same. Kemerer vanquished Starocci 7-2 at the Big Ten Tournament, but dropped a 3-1 rematch in sudden victory in the NCAA Tournament final. That was a heartbreaking result, but Kemerer is back for one final season to try and avenge that result.
Starocci was the latest Penn State wrestler to go from superstar prospect to instant contender (and eventual national champion). He's going to be a bear to contend with for the next 4-5 seasons. Both teams should expect big points out of this weight in 2022 and head-to-head wins here could be crucial in the Big Ten and NCAA team races next March.
This weight is the inversion of 125 lbs; where Iowa has a dominant champion at that weight and Penn State has struggled to find wins (and points), at 184 lbs Penn State has a dominant champion and Iowa is the one struggling to find wins (and points). Nelson Brands got the nod at this weight in 2021, but an 8-6 record this season, including a 1-2 mark at the NCAA Tournament, doesn't exactly suggest that he has an iron grip on the starting job. A healthy Abe Assad is likely to push hard for the starting job in 2022 and, whoever wins, Iowa needs more points out of this weight next season.
Getting just one point out of this weight didn't matter for Iowa in 2021, but if the title race tightens up, earning some additional points here would be much-appreciated. 184 seems like a somewhat shallow weight nationally, so Brooks looks like a good bet to contend again in 2022, so go ahead and pencil in a lot of points for Penn State here. Young earned 8.5 points for Iowa with his 7th place finish at 157 lbs, so finding a wrestler who can scrap together a podium finish would be worth an additional 7-8 points for Iowa, at minimum. That would certainly be appreciated.
There were five weights where Iowa and Penn State each had All-Americans, but just two where they didn't each have a top-3 finisher: 197 and 285. Iowa got 4th and 3rd place finishes, respectively, at those weights, while Penn State carded a pair of 7th place finish. How well either team can improve upon those finishes could be pivotal in the NCAA team title race.
Jacob Warner lost a narrow 3-2 decision to eventual NCAA champion A.J. Ferrari in the NCAA quarterfinals, but rebounded with three straight wins in the consolation bracket, before falling 5-3 to Michigan's Myles Amine in the 3rd place match. Warner earned Iowa some key team points with his run in the consolation bracket, which was great to see. While Warner's passivity on offense can be frustrating to watch at times (and he, like Young, tends to wrestle a lot of close matches that can make outcomes touch-and-go at times), his results have been strong. Two All-America finishes and some wins over good wrestlers along the way speak to that.
Penn State counters with Michael Beard, who went 10-6 overall but did finish on the podium this year. He benefited from a bracket that blew open before him -- he beat the 18- and 31-seeds before falling to the 26-seed. He went 2-1 in the consolation round, but among those four total NCAA wins were three major decision wins, a testament to his ability to contribute to Penn State's bonus point tally. I don't know if he'll be ready to contend for places closer to the top of the podium in 2022, but he still looks like a threat to chip in 8-10 points for Penn State's title chase next year.
Like DeSanto at 133, Tony Cassioppi used the NCAA Tournament to solidify his claim as the third-best wrestler in his weight class. Unfortunately, he's shown even less ability than DeSanto to contend with the men ranked ahead of him. The gap between Cassioppi and top-ranked Gable Steveson has widened with each match and his match-up with second-ranked Mason Parris might be even worse, considering his past matches with Parris have all ended with Cassioppi getting pinned. But he's beat all other comers; over the last two years he's 33-0 against everyone but Steveson and Parris and 0-6 against them. Assuming Steveson and Parris both return in 2022 (they're eligible to do so), 3rd place certainly looks like Tony's ceiling -- but it also looks like something he can very much achieve.
Penn State counters with another high-upside freshman in Greg Kerkvliet, who finished 7th but earned a whopping 11 team points thanks to the 4.5 bonus points he earned with the three major decisions and technical fall he secured in his four wins. Kerkvliet is a guy with huge scoring potential and he figures to be a dangerous challenger at this weight for several years. Cassioppi dominated him in a 9-0 major decision win at the Big Ten Tournament, but time will tell how well Kerkvliet is able to narrow that gap. He definitely looks like a threat to improve on his 7th place finish in 2022, and his ability to rack up bonus points makes him even more dangerous.
Iowa won the 2021 national championship over Penn State by 15.5 points -- a healthy, but by no means insurmountable margin of victory. If Penn State inserts Van Ness and Facundo into the lineup at 149 and 165 and they deliver results comparable to two of this year's freshman starters (Beard and Kerkvliet), they would make up that 15.5 point difference with ease. (And if either delivers results comparable to guys like Starocci or Brooks... welp.)
Penn State contended in 2021 with four NCAA finalists (all eventual champions) -- all of whom should have good opportunities to match those results in 2022. That would give Penn State around 80 points right there. They only cobbled together 25 points from their other six weights this year; if they can improve on those weights in 2022 (and there's certainly reason to think they might be able to do so), they're going to be much stronger challengers. 149-157-165 looks like a pivotal stretch for them; they got all of three points from those three weights in 2021, so there's plenty of room for improvement there.
Iowa won a title with 129 points in 2021, but it's very likely that 129 points won't win a national championship in 2022. Fortunately, there are definitely ways for them to improve their own point total. One key area figures to be head-to-head matches with Penn State wrestler, since Iowa and Penn State figure to have top contenders again at 133, 141, and 174; if they square off in the NCAA Tournament, Iowa needs to figure out how to win at least some of those bouts (Iowa went 0-3 against Penn State wrestlers at the 2021 NCAA Tournament). There's also room for Iowa to improve at several weights. 165 is the big one -- getting Marinelli to produce at the NCAA Tournament like he has at the Big Ten Tournament (or in the regular season) would be extraordinarily helpful -- and getting wrestlers onto the podium at 149 and/or 184 could really add up as well.
As I said, Iowa will enter 2022 as the favorite to repeat, thanks to having 10 returning starters and Penn State having question marks at several weights. But Penn State isn't going anywhere and they're very likely to mount an even stronger challenge to Iowa next year than they did this year. Iowa better be ready to answer that challenge if they want to hoist a 25th NCAA title a year from now.