Come January, when the Iowa football team again goes into hibernation for another nine months, what's a Hawkeye fan to do? Well, pay attention to our
preseason consensus cellar dweller up and coming basketball team... but you could also give a little time to the wrestling team and their quest for a fourth national championship in the last five years. It is the one sport we're really, really good at, after all. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series for football, we bring you A Winner is You!, a weight class-by-weight class breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down each Thursday (ish) from the weight class we have the most confidence in to the weight class we have absolutely no clue about.
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
I considered starting this series off with Montell Marion and 141 lbs., since he appears to have that spot on lockdown, while there are still the occasional rumors of Matt McDonough vacating 125 lbs. and moving up to 133 lbs. But ultimately none of those rumors have been particularly firm and if we want to start off this series with the biggest sure thing on the roster, then there's no bigger "sure thing" than the McDominator, one of only two returning wrestlers in the country to be a two-time NCAA Tournament finalist. (The other? Cornell's super-freak, Kyle Dake.)
McDonough enters the season with a career record of 64-3 and a set of accomplishments -- 2010 Big Ten Runner-Up, 2010 NCAA Champion, 2011 Big Ten Champion, 2011 NCAA Runner-Up -- that would comprise a solid career for many wrestlers... and his Iowa career has only reached the halfway point. He went from being the most pleasant surprise on the 2010 team to the cornerstone of the 2011 team, ably assuming Brent Metcalf's leadership role. He also picked up Metcalf's penchant for racking up bonus points: he earned bonus points in 22/27 wins last year, including 14 falls. In fact, he damn near pinned his way through the Big Ten in the regular season: he pinned seven straight Big Ten opponents (only Minnesota's Zach Sanders was able to avoid conceding a pin). He was, to put it mildly, an utter wrecking ball for Iowa, a status made even more valuable by his usual role as the lead-off man in the Iowa line-up. Anytime you can start a dual meet off up 6-0, you're going to be sitting pretty. So yeah: McDonough is good. Very, very good.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Let's make one thing clear: no one currently on the Iowa roster is beating McD for his spot at 125. There will be some heated battles at a handful of weights in the Iowa line-up -- but 125 ain't one of 'em. That said, what happens if McDonough does opt to move up to 133 lbs. or (god forbid) he sustains an injury? If McD moves to 133, the smart money is on Tony Ramos moving down from 133 lbs. to take over at 125 lbs. He was recruited to Iowa as a 125'er and that's probably his more natural weight. Ramos could probably be a terror at 125, given his unstoppable motor and his ever-increasing skill; his biggest problem at 133 was the fact that larger guys at the weight could simply overpower him. Presumably, that wouldn't be an issue at 125.
If not Ramos, then there are a few other options at 125. The current roster* lists three other wrestlers at 125: Tyler Clark, J.J. Krutsinger, and Matt Gurule. Clark, a former Iowa State transfer, wrestled exclusively at 133 a year ago (and that's the weight he's been more commonly linked with), going 6-3 and finishing 5th at the Midlands Championship. Stylistically, he would be an abrupt change from McDonough: he doesn't have a go-go-go motor or an aggressive mindset, although he does have rock-solid defense. Krutsinger also wrestled exclusively at 133, going 14-1 and winning three tournament titles (albeit at not-particularly prestigious tournaments and against not-particularly elite opposition). Gurule went 19-9 while wrestling unattached last year, winning two tournament titles and finishing second at a pair of other events. He struggled mightily against upper-level foes, though, and the reality is that he's buried pretty far down the list of options at 125.
* There's been some debate about the accuracy of the weights listed on the roster, but for now we're going to go with them unless there's solid evidence to the contrary.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
When your career record is 64-3, it's pretty obvious there haven't been too many potholes on the road. And when the three guys who handed you a loss (Indiana's Angelo Escobedo, Northwestern's Brandon Precin, and Arizona State's Anthony Robles) have all graduated, well, the road ahead starts looking pretty damn smooth. Among returning stars at this weight, McD is 4-0 against Minnesota's Zach Sanders (including a pair of major decisions), 3-0 against Stanford's Ryan Mango (all major decisions), and 1-0 against Oklahoma State's Jon Morrison. He hasn't wrestled Oklahoma's Jarrod Patterson or Kent State's Nic Bedelyon yet. In fact, the more intriguing challenge to McDonough's dominance may come from some of the underclassmen at this weight. Mizzou sophomore Alan Waters had a 38-7 record a year ago and looked threatening. And a handful of incoming freshmen, including Iowa State's Ryak Finch, Penn State's Nico Megaludis, and Illinois' Jesse Delgado, seem poised to do some damage at this weight in 2011-2012. It would be wise not to overlook them, too: after all, McD emerged out of nowhere as a near-unstoppable force as a freshman.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
I said this last year, and it still seems true this year (minus the four-straight national titles talk... weep):
Projecting a championship victory is always hard since anything can happen in one match (just ask Metcalf about the NCAA finals two years ago or the Big Ten finals last year), but there's no reason that McDonough shouldn't be in the thick of things, either: anything less than another trip to the semifinals would be pretty disappointing and another trip to the finals seems like a good possibility (and for Iowa to have a shot at making it four consecutive national titles, we probably need him to make it back to the finals.
In a one-match situation, anything can happen, particularly against fellow elite wrestlers. That said, McDonough has a few advantages on Metcalf: we know going into Metcalf's senior season that Lance Palmer and Darrion Caldwell were going to be tough challenges -- Caldwell had famously upset him in the NCAA Tournament final the year before thanks to a slick style and incredible athleticism and Palmer's combination of size, strength, and defense (not to mention self-tanner) always made him difficult to topple. McD's competition like that is gone; the guy with the rock-solid defense (Precin) and the guy with the freakish athleticism (Robles) aren't around to bedevil him. The guys who are left are mainly guys that he's basically had his way with thus far. He's going to enter 2011-2012 as one of the biggest prohibitive favorites to win a national title in all of collegiate wrestling, and justifiably so. Of course, the downside to being such a prohibitive favorite is that finishing anywhere other than the top of the mountain would be a disappointment. Fortunately, I think McD has the ability and the mindset to live up to the sky-high expectations and become Iowa's first three-time NCAA finalist and two-time NCAA champion since (who else?) Brent Metcalf.
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BONUS! BTN COVERAGE NEWS
BTN announced their coverage plans for the 2011-2012 season this week and Iowa will be featured on the channel a conference-best three times. Their dual meets at Nebraska (Jan. 13) and Penn State (Jan. 22) as well as their home dual against Minnesota (Jan. 29) will all be televised by BTN. The bad news is that they'll all be tape delayed until 9pm CST. Very odd that they wouldn't pick up the Iowa-Oklahoma State dual this year, since it will be taking place in Iowa City and could be historic. Presumably many other Iowa duals will be available for viewing as live streams on BTN.com, which might make that service an even more essential purchase this winter.