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NCAA Wrestling Championship preview: The Team Race

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Shaffe and BST have done a great job with previewing each of the individual weight classes. The Beef now takes a look at the team race as a whole with how he sees some of the other front-runners stacking up

Can Brian Smith and company lead the Tigers to their first National title?
Can Brian Smith and company lead the Tigers to their first National title?
The Beef

With only a day before the action kicks off in St. Louis, let's spend some time checking out the other teams which we believe will be in contention for the championship crown. As discussed by BST in his interview with the good folks at Black Shoe Diaries, gone from this list (for this year) is four-time defending champ Penn State, where Cael Sanderson decided to turn over his lineup just a bit before the start of the season in red-shirting a couple of sure-fire All Americans. This certainly does not signal the end of Penn State's dominance, but perhaps a window through which a new king can emerge.

In deciding on which teams to examine, I relied greatly on Intermat's Team Tournament rankings. An exciting development of the past few seasons has been the genesis of tournament rankings vs dual rankings. In dual rankings, there is little question who the #1 team is. But in a tournament, the answer could certainly be different, and so these have given us more discussion points and chances to talk wrestling.

For this year, it seems Intermat believes there is a pretty big gulch between the top five schools and number six, so we will stay within the top five. Since we've already covered Mizzou in the past two days, allow me to introduce you to four teams who appear pretty likely to be right in the mix with the Tigers this weekend. I will take a look at total wrestlers, seeded (top-12) wrestlers, AA-seeded (top-8) wrestlers and a bit on school history.

  • Iowa
  • Ohio State
  • Minnesota
  • Cornell

Let's take them in order from the bottom to the top, which means we start with the Big Red of Cornell

Cornell:

  • Wrestlers Placed: Nine (tied a school record)
  • Wrestlers Seeded: Six
  • AA Seeded: Four
  • Best previous finish: Second place (multiple)
  • Conference Finish: First in EIWA (Bracket/Scores)

When we talk about Mizzou and the chance for three national champs, the same could certainly be said for Cornell, who come into STL with a #1 seed at 184 (Dean) and two #2 seeds (Garrett at 125 and Realbuto at 157). The first two are certainly big names who have delivered for most of the season (except for when Garrett was overweight against Waters...oops), but Realbuto is a sophomore who has really come on strong in what is a really young weight class at 157 pounds.

The Big Red also have Chris Villalonga at #5 in a stacked 149 bracket which includes some high-end folks who have no seed (Hunter Steiber of tOSU and Josh Kindig of Okie State). They round out their seeded wrestlers with a 9 at 197 in Bennett and Dylan Palacio, who is 12 at 165. Mark Grey comes back to the NCAA's at 133 and there are two newcomers at 174 and HWY. The Big Red missed at 141.

The EIWA is a strong wrestling conference, getting the second most allocated spots in the nation (ahead of the MAC). Cornell has a decade of dominance going, and the scene in STL should not be too big for their program. They've come up short a few times with some runner-up finishes, so they know what it will be like to be in the mix. Seems strange to be thinking of them as a fifth-place team with strong contenders like Dean and Garrett at the top.

That said, Dean has two losses this season against Meeks (5th) and Zilmer (6th), so his spot might be up for grabs. Garrett has two losses on the season, both to Mizzou wrestlers, as he lost back to back matches to Waters (at the Scuffle) and Synon (in our dual). The core of this team is really young, so next year might be the year for Cornell, but it looks like they will come up just a bit short.

Minnesota:

  • Wrestlers placed: Eight
  • Wrestlers seeded: Seven
  • AA seeded: Five
  • Best Previous Finish: Champions (3 times)
  • Conference Finish: Third (Bracket/Scores)

Been a bit of a strange year for the Gophers through my limited exposure to them. When able to watch some of their duals on BTN, I often try to because Williams Arena is one of the greats for wrestling, especially if Penn State or Iowa are in the house. It seemed to be that there were times this year where Minnesota just did not quite put together a full team effort and came up just short. They certainly have national title contenders in Chris Dardanes (#1 at 133) and Dylan Ness (#3 at 157, but who spent a good part of the year at #1).

Ness is tremendously fun to watch, and certainly can bring in big points through bonuses. But at the Big 10's, he was handled pretty easily by eventual national #1 seed Martinez of Illinois by a 12-5 score. For Dardanes, the number one seed and down a weight from last year, he came into last year's NCAA as the #6 (at 141) and did not place. In fact, his brother Nick was #2 last year at 149 and did not place either. Minnesota lost to Penn State by 5.5 points. If they had held serve, the Nittany Lions would have only been three-time defending champs.

At any rate, Nick is back, now at 141 and is seeded 6th. Will the sting of last year be the driving factor for one or both of them? If so, and with Ness, they certainly have the makings of a team with high finishes, especially if Scott Schiller regains the form which had him at the top of 197 for a decent part of the year (but now seeded 5th). But with only eight total wrestlers, they cannot afford any of the hiccups that seemed to have plagued the team and the individuals from time to time this season.

Ohio State:

  • Wrestlers placed: Ten
  • Wrestlers seeded: Seven
  • AA seeded: Six
  • Best Previous Finish: Runner-Up (multiple times)
  • Conference Finish: T-First (Bracket/Scores)

I will admit to not being nearly as high on the Buckeyes as a number of people, which was why their tie against Iowa at the Big 10's surprised me. But in looking at their team, I can see a little more about why folks think they will be right there. Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first: Logan Steiber is going to win his fourth national title at 141. He's not lost this year, he's only lost three times in his career and the fourth is not happening this weekend. With that out of the way, let's look at the rest of the group.

The Buckeyes have a number of folks in the 4-6 seed range, with Tomasello (125), DiJulisus (133) and Snyder (197) all at four, Bo Jordan (165) at five and Josh Demas (157) at six. The difference between third place and seventh place may certainly be enough to tip the scales, so it is likely this group which will determine the final placement for tOSU. Tomasello, Jordan and Snyder all come to the NCAA's for the first time, so how they react on the biggest stage is a huge factor.

Beyond that group, the most intriguing name is Hunter Steiber at 149. Steiber enters the tourney unranked, and actually is below .500 at 3-5. He has battled injury all season, but if he is right, he could be the X-factor. I dont believe the odds he IS right are very good, considering he took a medical forfeit in the semis of the Big 10's to Tsirtsis of Northwestern. But if he is, he could be the key.

After that, the Bucks will look to pick up points from Mark Martin (10th at 174), Kenny Courts (not seeded/ranked 18th) and Nick Tavanello (not seeded/ranked). Something from Martin could obviously be big here, especially when things get as close as they might at the top. All that said, between the injury status of Hunter Steiber and the youth of their big three, I just don't see it adding up for the Bucks.

Iowa:

  • Wrestlers placed: Ten
  • Wrestlers seeded: Eight
  • AA Seeded: Seven
  • Wrestlers in Top Two: None
  • Best Previous Finish: You are kidding, right? (23 times)
  • Conference Finish: T-First (Bracket/Scores)

Yeah...I added a bullet. This is a really strange Iowa team to me for a few reasons. As it pertains to the bullet, it blows my mind the Hawkeyes dont have someone that close to the top. This is a program with 53 NCAA Champions accounting for 81 individual titles. It just seems strange to not have someone at the top of the conversation in any of the weight classes.

But holy smokes, what depth. To have seven guys seeded in the top-8 (and really, it is seven guys between 3-6) is just staggering. But I think it also speaks to the other point I was going to make and that, like Minnesota, there have been times this season where Iowa just has not put all the pieces together as you would expect. Case in point: They tied for the team championship at the Big 10's WITHOUT A SINGLE CHAMPION. Depth, but lacking at the top.

As we go through the lineup, it is kind of a head-scratcher. There is seasoning (five seniors make the trip) and lots of NCAA experience (four guys in their third tournament or more). There is also some exciting youth, but what is lacking is someone who has won it all (or really come terribly close).

The closest anyone has come is sophomore Cory Clark, who finished 4th at 125 last season (now #3 at 133) and senior Bobby Telford, who did the same in 2014 at HWY. They both are the highest Hawk seeds at #3 along with senior Mike Evans at 174, with frosh Brandon Sorenson (149) behind them at 4th. Josh Dziewa (141) is 5th and then we find Thomas Gilman (125) and Nathan Burak (197) at 6th. Rounding out the seeds is Sammy Brooks, who is 9th at 184, with Nick Moore (165) and Michael Kelly (157) going unseeded.

I've been on record that I believe Iowa will end up winning. The more I look at it, the more I second guess it. Iowa wrestlers, at least a number of THESE Iowa wrestlers have made it a (bad) habit of under-performing at the NCAA's. BST spoiled the surprise yesterday, but there was a great piece on who has peaked the best at the NCAA's written by Ben Askren. The article does throw a few numbers at this concept, with Iowa coming up short of their seed most often.

Considering this team can't feel great about itself right now (home loss to Mizzou followed by a tie with no champions at the Big 10's), and with its offense coming under fire recently, it certainly feels like maybe I am over-valuing them. Tom Brands will have had a week and a half to get them turned around. Will he be able to?

And just for comparison sake, here is how Mizzou stacks up against the bullets.

Mizzou:

  • Wrestlers placed: Ten
  • Wrestlers seeded: Eight
  • AA seeded: Five
  • Wrestlers in Top Two: Three
  • Best Previous Finish: Third (2007)
  • Conference Finish: First

The history and pedigree is not real close to those schools above us. But it certainly feels like this should be our time.

Come on back tomorrow and all through the weekend for the Live Threads (probably to be found in the Fan Post section since we will also have NCAA Basketball Live Threads and Watercoolers going on at the same time).