After a chaotic 2020-21 season that was cobbled together hastily and erratically as a result COVID-19 impacts, sporting calendars look set to return to something approaching normal for the 2021-22 seasons. Although in college wrestling it looks like the new season will bring the return of not just the regular events from pre-COVID times, but also an event that's been gone for a few years: the National Wrestling Duals.
WHAT: National Duals has always been a tournament pitting dual meet teams against one another until one dual meet team is left triumphant as the champion. It's gone through a variety of sizes, formats, and brackets over the years. For this latest incarnation, they're looking at a two-day event, with day one featuring a mini-group stage (four groups of three; so each team would wrestle two other teams) and then day two featuring a four-team bracket with the winners of the groups on day one. (It's unclear how potential ties in the group stage standings would be resolved.)
WHEN: Monday, December 20, 2021 and Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Those dates raise a few questions regarding attendance and other competitions that I'll discuss in a bit.
WHERE: NW Florida State College in Fort Walton Beach, FL
WHO: The press release explains who was invited:
Invitations were extended to the two top returning teams in each conference. #22 Central Michigan, the top returning team in the MAC, was the only team in the conference to accept the invitation. Hofstra, who was 4th in the EIWA last year replaced a second team from the MAC. All representatives from SoCon conference declined.
That does not explain the absence of Penn State, who finished second at the NCAA Tournament and should have been ahead of Michigan in the selection order. Nor does it explain the absence of Oklahoma State, who finished third at the NCAA Tournament and should have been ahead of Missouri* in the selection. (It also doesn't explain the selection of Northern Iowa, who finished 19th at the NCAA Tournament, behind Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Iowa State.) Presumably those teams -- Penn State, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State -- declined to participate in this event.
*- Missouri actually competed in the MAC last season, but they announced plans to move back to the Big 12 during the current offseason.
In the end, the 12 teams currently slated to participate are:
- #1 Iowa Hawkeyes (Big Ten)
- #4 Arizona State Sun Devils (Pac 12)
- #5 Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
- #6 NC State Wolfpack (ACC)
- #7 Missouri Tigers (Big 12)
- #15 Virginia Tech Hokies (ACC)
- #19 UNI Panthers (Big 12)
- #22 Central Michigan Chippewas (MAC)
- #31 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (EIWA)
- #44 Hofstra Pride (EIWA)
- #46 Oregon State Beavers (Pac 12)
- UN Cornell Big Red (EIWA)
The release provides more detail on the planned composition of the groups as well:
The twelve teams will be placed in four pools of three by seed but also avoiding conference opponents. On Day 2, winners of the pools will advance to a four-team bracket for semi's and finals to determine a National Dual Champion. The remaining schools will wrestle extra duals vs. teams of correlating pool placement.
You could have a set-up like this:
Pot 1: Iowa, Arizona State, Michigan, NC State
Pot 2: Missouri, Cornell, Virginia Tech, UNI
Pot 3: Central Michigan, Lehigh, Hofstra, Oregon State
Cornell is the wild card there since they didn't compete last year and don't have final results to draw on; that said, Pot 2 seems like a reasonable place to slot them based on their recent results.
So you could wind up with groups that might look like this:
Group A: Iowa, UNI, Central Michigan
Group B: Arizona State, Virginia Tech, Hofstra
Group C: Michigan, Cornell, Oregon State
Group D: NC State, Missouri, Lehigh
Iowa-UNI would have plenty of interest in Iowa; despite being the two best teams in the state (usually) for the last several seasons, they haven't met in a dual meet for many years. This would be a fun way to end that drought. But, really, any of the potential Pot 2 opponents would offer intrigue for Iowa; a Virginia Tech dual will always have some added spice as long as Tom Brands is at Iowa, Missouri is a border rival who has had some cracking showdowns with Iowa in duals and tournaments in recent years, and Cornell projects to be a very solid team next year. (There's not much love lost between Tom Brands or Cornell head coach Rob Koll, either.) The Pot 3 opponents offer less intrigue (particularly with Jim Zalesky having retired at Oregon State), but you can't win 'em all.
And Day 2 showdowns with (potentially) some combination of Arizona State (which could feature a rematch of the 125 lb national championship between Spencer Lee and ASU's Brandon Courtney), Michigan, and NC State could produce some matchups that are a) fun and b) fairly fresh for Iowa (moreso in the case of Arizona State and NC State than Michigan, of course). Always nice to see some new faces on the mat.
The timing (and location) of this event does raise a few questions, though. National Duals has been held at several sites over the years. For years it was held at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. Then it rotated among various campus sites. Putting it in Florida, hundreds of miles from the nearest competing team's campus, is, uh, a choice. That decision, plus having it on a Monday and Tuesday, and having it the week before Christmas does suggest that in-person attendance is not a key factor here. This is very clearly a made-for-TV -- or, rather, made-for-streaming -- event. Which is a perfectly fine decision, although as anyone who's watched sporting events over the last few years can attest, there's a big difference in watching an event with a passionate in-person crowd and an event with no one there.
I also wonder what this event means for the Midlands Championships. Like many events, that tournament was not held last season due to COVID-19, but it's traditionally taken place in late December, shortly before New Year's. That would put it roughly 7-10 days after this event; they may not technically overlap, but that would potentially be a lot of high-level wrestling in a short period of time, at a point in the season where coaches are typically just beginning to ramp things up. Iowa has long been the anchor team for Midlands, but I can't see Tom Brands having his team compete in both events, at least not at full strength. If a more full strength roster competes at National Duals, I could envision a team of backups and redshirt wrestlers competing at Midlands.
But all those details will likely be sorted out in the weeks and months to come. For now, National Duals is back, giving Iowa another trophy to try and add to their 2021 haul, which already includes an NCAA Championship, a Big Ten Championship, and a Big Ten dual meet championship. Gotta win 'em all.