IOWA WRESTLING FINISHES 4TH AT NCAA TOURNAMENT; WHAT HAPPENED?

USA TODAY Sports

Go fourth, young Hawkeyes? Wait...

So... we should probably talk about Iowa at the NCAA Wrestling Tournament, right?  Because it was disappointing -- again.  Iowa stumbled to a second-straight fourth-place finish at the event this year, a clear step backwards after a strong showing at the Big Ten Tournament a few weeks earlier.  This year's finish was even more frustrating than last year's equivalent finish; last year, there was at least an understandable cause (injuries to Matt McDonough and Bobby Telford) that could be blamed for the under-performance.  Iowa entered this year's tournament with a clean bill of health -- or at least as clean as you're likely to get after a grueling season of wrestling -- and (for the first time since 2010) a full contingent of ten wrestlers, one at each weight.  And they still stumbled.

Technically, Iowa out-performed the expected finishes from their seeds at four weights: 125, 133, 197, and 285.  But of those four weights, only Burak at 197 seems like a significant positive surprise.  Clark was seeded 8th, but most people felt that was too low and a slight over-reaction to his loss in the consolation rounds at the Big Ten Tournament.  He seemed like a top-5 wrestler at 125 this year and, lo and behold, he finished 5th.  Ramos was seeded to finish 3rd, but I don't think there was a soul in Oklahoma City who didn't think that he had a very good chance of being an NCAA finalist again -- and winning the title.  Which is precisely what he did.  Telford was seeded fifth and finished fourth, but heavyweight was a crazy, mixed-up division this year and hardly any results among the top 6-7 seeds would have been surprising this year.  Burak was seeded 11th, though, and did well to make his way onto the podium for Iowa -- that was a real bright spot for the Hawkeyes.

Unfortunately, Iowa under-performed at the other five seeds -- sometimes dramatically.  Josh Dziewa was unseeded, which was a mild surprise for a wrestler that had been ranked around 8-15 for most of the season; technically, his 2-2 performance at the NCAA Tournament probably wasn't an underachivement, but it was still disappointing.  Brody Grothus was seeded 13th, but finished 1-2 and crashed out well before All-America contention.  Again, based on his low seed, those results weren't a huge under-performance (and his win was Iowa's first win at 149 at the NCAA Tournament since Brent Metcalf won his second national championship at 149 in 2010), but they were disappointing -- especially considering the fact that earlier this season he beat each of the wrestlers who ended up finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at the NCAA Tournament.

If not for a pair of wrestlers at heavier weights who stumbled far more egregiously, Derek St. John's fall to 5th place would have probably would have gone down as Iowa's most bitter disappointment and most striking example of under-performance at the NCAA Tournament.  Given DSJ's propensity to wrestle matches with a razor-thin margin, it wouldn't have been a surprise if he had found himself on the wrong end of one or two matches like that.  But that's not quite what happened, honestly -- he was handled pretty easily by Cornell's Brian Realbuto and Kent State's Ian Miller, which was very surprising.  DSJ has made hay his entire Iowa career on being a tough defensive wrestler; his normally tough defense was nowhere to be found in those matches, though, which was alarming. Realbuto and Miller are both good wrestlers, but it was still shocking to see them essentially manhandle St. John the way that they did.

But if St. John wasn't Iowa biggest disappointment here (and he wasn't), then it would have to be Nick Moore and Ethen Lofthouse.  Both men were seeded 5th and seemed good bets to make the podium this year.  Both had reasonably favorabel draws (especially Lofthouse) and seemed poised to rack up some solid advancement points for Iowa.  And then both guys lost in the first round.  In hindsight, both faced tricky unseeded opponents -- Moore faced Josh Veltre, the same man who eliminated him from the NCAA Tournament a year ago and who is clearly good enough to beat him, while Lofthouse faced Vic Avery, a good 184er who had a decent case to be ranked himself.  That said, if Moore and Lofthouse had wrestled those matches as well as they did most of their regular season matches, they likely would have won and moved on -- both guys (and particularly Moore) had been wrestling at a very high level this season, which made their early flameouts here even more stunning.  Unfortunately, neither guy was able to re-group and battle back to a spot on the podium through the consolation ranks, either; they lost on Friday afternoon and found themselves bounced out of the competition entirely long before any of us expected that to happen.

Finally, Mike Evans technically under-performed by finishing 6th after being seeded 4th and, yeah, it was disappointing to see him fall to Brown and Kokesh on Saturday morning, but it's hard to be too upset about his performance.  For one thing, the top four guys in the Big Ten at this weight (Evans, Brown, Kokesh, Storley) are insanely close in ability, which makes their matches very much toss-ups; Evans had won two narrow decisions in a row over Brown and it was always going to be difficult for him to win a third match over him in the span of two weeks.  But more important is the fact that, frankly, Evans shouldn't have even been in those matches Saturady morning -- he should have been preparing to take on Andrew Howe for a national championship at 174 lbs. on Saturday night.  That he wasn't was down to a poor strategic decision by himself and/or the Iowa coaches (he should not have chosen down against Chris Perry in the third period of their semifinal match -- he should have forced Perry to get a takedown to beat him) and due to some horrendous missed calls by the officials.  I wish he had wrestled better on Saturday morning and finished 3rd or 4th -- that would have been a decent way to cap off a solid tournament for Evans -- but I also can't be too upset with his performance when he was so badly screwed in the semis.

So... what's the matter with Iowa wrestling right now?

1) There's a disconnect that needs to be solved.

Just listen to Tom Brands' comments to the media after the championship finals last week.

His frustration is palpable.  I don't believe for a second that the message that Tom Brands preaches to his wrestlers has changed -- he still emphasizes aggression, attacking your opponent, and going to your offense.  Similarly, I have no reason to believe that that's not what's being practiced by Iowa in the practice facilities.  But something's being lost between that message and that practice and the time when the lights go on and the matches start counting.  In those situations, it's clear that there are too many Iowa wrestlers -- far too many of them -- who aren't aggressive, who aren't attacking often enough, and who aren't going to their offense.  I don't know how exactly Brands bridges that gap... but he needs to figure out how to do so in order for Iowa to improve on their recent dispiriting NCAA Tournament results.

2) Some of the wrestlers Iowa has don't mesh with "the Iowa style."

The reality is, there are a lot of Iowa wrestlers who seem more comfortable sitting back and waiting for an opponent's shot and then countering that into offense of their own.  And to be sure, that can be an effective strategy -- Derek St. John wrestled a lot of matches in that style and he had a pretty damn excellent career at Iowa.  It's also just as true that the idea of a pure "Iowa style" is a bit of a myth; there is, has been, and always will be a wide variety of styles among the wrestlers on the Iowa team.  Guys like Tom and Terry Brands and Brent Metcalf are the main exemplars of the Iowa style -- always attacking, always going forward -- but not everyone is (or can) wrestle like that.

But...there's a point when being so counter-happy goes too far and there's just too little aggression on display.  You need to score points to win matches and the best way to score points is to be aggressive and attempt -- and finish -- takedowns.  There were far, far too many matches involving Iowa wrestlers at this tournament (and this season overall) that ended 0-0 after the first period.  There were also far too many that ended with Iowa wrestlers in a deficit because their opponents completed takedowns off the opening whistle. Iowa wrestlers used to be the guys who did that and that's a mindset that they need to fix.

3) Wrestling in general has gotten too conservative -- and Iowa has followed suit.

The two best and most successful wrestlers on Iowa's team over the last few years have been Tony Ramos and Derek St. John.  Their success has been very laudable, but how you win matters, too.  It's impossible (and would be foolish) to discredit St. John's success, but he won countless matches with a single takedown -- or, occasionally, with no takedowns whatsoever (most memorably in last year's national championship match).  Tony Ramos finally reached the top of the mountain this year at both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments... but he also scored fewer bonus points than he had had in previous seasons.  That conservative approach reached its apex at the NCAA Tournament, where three of his wins featured a single takedown and his championship victory featured zero takedowns.

I don't think for one second that that diminishes Ramos' accomplishments -- or his overall career.  Let's face it, when we look back on Tony Ramos' career, we're probably not going to remember that he beat Tyler Graff for the title in a match with zero takedowns -- we're (rightly) going to remember that he was (mostly) a very aggressive wrestler who was a real goer, always moving forward and looking for more points because that's who he was for most of his career.  But it's hard not to wonder if there isn't a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team when the bellwethers for your team are wrestling more conservatively and strategically.  Just as guys like Brent Metcalf and Matt McDonough helped set the tone for their respective Iowa teams, so too did guys like St. John and Ramos set the tone for this Iowa team... but it may not have always been the tone we'd want to see being set.

Wrestling in general has gotten increasingly conservative and strategic -- lots of wrestlers (arguably most wrestlers) wrestle first and foremost not to lose.  Heavyweight-style wrestling -- plodding, short on offense, and determined by escapes, riding time, and one or two offensive moves -- has become prevalent at weights all across the sport.  And, unfortunately, there's no shortage of Iowa guys who wrestle that way, too.  That's not a winning formula for the sport's overall popularity -- and it's damn sure not a winning formula for Iowa to be successful.

4) Technique is not Iowa's strong suit.

For years, Iowa has relied on conditioning and workrate to win matches.  Unfortunately, those advantages have been steadily diminishing.  Iowa no longer has a conditioning advantage on the majority of the competition (and the presence of video reviews in the sport seems to have further eradicated the existence of conditioning advantages) and Iowa wrestlers rarely wear down their opponents and break them, leading to lopsided victories.

Moreover, too many Iowa wrestlers don't seem to have enough weapons in their arsenals to dominate opponents.  Iowa wrestlers by and large aren't very good with funk and while there's an argument that says that solid, fundamental wrestling beats funk... it doesn't always (for example, Jesse Delgado and Chris Perry, two of the most funk-happy wrestlers in the sport, have won back-to-back national championships).  Many Iowa wrestlers (but not all) seem to struggle in scramble situations, which makes them leery about taking shots and attempting takedowns; good offensive attacks get stymied by opponents who are able to scramble into stalemates -- or, worse, turn those situations into scoring opportunities of their own.

Too many Iowa wrestlers aren't terribly good on top, either, and ride opponents simply to hang on and amass riding time points.  Likewise, too many Iowa wrestlers struggle to get escapes from on bottom; I lost track of how many Iowa wrestles took down against an opponent... and promptly got ridden out (the most painful example of this was in the Mike Evans-Chris Perry semfinal match at 174).  There's an argument to be made that the mat wrestling portion of folkstyle wrestling needs to be seriously overhauled (riding time, in particular, seems like it's become the bane of good -- or at least exciting -- wrestling), but until those changes are made, Iowa needs to take better advantage of the system as it exists.

5) It's hard to win.

Finally, this is a pretty obvious point, but still: winning isn't easy.  You need a lot of things to go right to win a tournament: among other things, you need to get good draws, you need to get wrestlers to live up to their seeds and you need wrestlers to outperform their seeds, you need good health, and you need stud wrestlers who can make a difference (and rack up bonus points).  Iowa hasn't had many of those things happen for them over the last four years.  Some of those are in Iowa's control -- and some of them aren't.  Iowa needs to control the things they can (like recruiting the right wrestlers and tournament preparation) and hope that the things they can't control work out for them.

It's also gotten harder to win because the rest of the sport has caught up -- or at least several programs have caught up.  Iowa used to be far ahead of the field when it came to strength, conditioning, talent development, and the mindset it took to win.  That's no longer true and in part that's because Iowa is a victim of its own success to an extent -- Dan Gable's coaching tree is legendary but the practical reality is that it means a lot of programs out there are now doing many of the things that he used to make the Iowa program great.  The fact that there are fewer wrestling programs also works against Iowa somewhat, because it's helped concentrate talent that might have otherwise been more dispersed among several schools to a handful of schools instead, making them into major contenders.  Thanks to rapid improvements in technology (for scouting purposes) and the abundance of high-level tournaments at all age levels, wrestlers now enter college better-prepared to compete than ever before.  The emergence of so many freshman success stories in recent years seems unlikely to be mere coincidence.

Ultimately, I don't think Tom and Terry Brands have forgotten how to coach or become worse coaches since they won multiple NCAA championships just a few years ago.  Likewise, while the results at the NCAA Tournament in recent years are unsettling (3-3-4-4), the comparisons to Zalesky are unfounded right now.

Year Coach B1G Finish (points) Team Champion Point differential Ind. Champs
1998 Zalesky 1 (132.5) Iowa 12 3 (34, 42, 67)
1999 Zalesky 2 (121) Minnesota* -18 3 (41, 49, 57)
2000 Zalesky 1 (140.5) Iowa 8 4 (25, 33, 41, 57)
2001 Zalesky 3 (129.5) Minnesota -24.5 4 (24, 33, 41, 57)
2002 Zalesky 2 (129) Minnesota -45 2 (41, 49)
2003 Zalesky 2 (121) Minnesota -5.5 3 (33, 84, HWT)
2004 Zalesky 1 (129.5) Iowa 5 1 (41)
2005 Zalesky 4 (94.5) Illinois -35.5 0
2006 Zalesky 6 (86) Minnesota -52 0
2007 Brands 3 (91) Minnesota -65 1 (65)
2008 Brands 1 (127) Iowa 14.5 1 (49)
2009 Brands 1 (141) Iowa 27.5 2 (49, HWT)
2010 Brands 1 (156.5) Iowa 37 2 (74, HWT)
2011 Brands 2 (138) Penn State -1 2 (25, HWT)
2012 Brands 3 (126) Penn State -23 2 (25, 57)
2013 Brands 3 (133.5) Penn State -17.5 0
2014 Brands 2 (135) Penn State -5.5 1 (33)

Year Coach NCAA Finish (points) Team Champion Point differential Ind. Champs AA
1998 Zalesky 1 (115) Iowa 13 3 (34, 42, 67) 6
1999 Zalesky 1 (100.5) Iowa 2 2 (41, 49) 5
2000 Zalesky 1 (116) Iowa 6.5 1 (33) 6
2001 Zalesky 2 (125.5) Minnesota^ -13 2 (33, 49) 7
2002 Zalesky 4 (89) Minnesota -37.5 0 5
2003 Zalesky 8 (57.5) Oklahoma State -85.5 1 (HWT) 3
2004 Zalesky 2 (82) Oklahoma State -41.5 1 (41) 4
2005 Zalesky 7 (66) Oklahoma State -87 0 4
2006 Zalesky 4 (70) Oklahoma State -52.5 0 5
2007 Brands 8 (57) Minnesota -41 1 (65) 3
2008 Brands 1 (117.5) Iowa 38.5 2 (49, 65) 7
2009 Brands 1 (96.5) Iowa 4.5 0 5
2010 Brands 1 (134.5) Iowa 44.5 3 (25, 49, 74) 8
2011 Brands 3 (86.5) Penn State -21 0 5
2012 Brands 3 (107.5) Penn State -35.5 1 (25) 6
2013 Brands 4 (73) Penn State -50.5 1 (57) 4
2014 Brands 4 (78.5) Penn State -31 1 (33) 6

(HUGE H/T to Nickhawk08 for his considerable help with these tables.  Thanks, Nick!)

In the final years of the Zalesky Era, the Iowa program was taking on a lot of water -- particularly in the Big Ten arena of competition.  Iowa has certainly taken a step back (both nationally and at the Big Ten level) in recent years, but they're still ahead of the level that things had dipped to under Zalesky.

Just as the last four years were (mostly) a confluence of very good things for Cael Sanderson and Penn State (most notably, the overwhelming, once-in-a-generation-level success of David Taylor and Ed Ruth), I also think the last four years have been (mostly) a confluence of misfortune and missteps for the Brands brothers and Iowa.  There have been some costly injuries, some bad breaks at various tournaments, and a handful of recruits who just didn't pan out quite as expected.  Shit happens, in other words.  But even with that said there are still a lot of areas where Brands & Co. can improve Iowa heading into 2014-15 -- let's hope that we start to see some positive change in those areas and, furthermore, that that change leads to better results for Iowa at the Big Ten and NCAA levels.

FULL RESULTS for Iowa at the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Tournament

125: #8 Cory Clark (5-2, 5th place, All-American)
W, TECH FALL (18-2) Kory Mines (Edinboro)
W, DEC (8-5) #9 Tyler Cox (Wyoming)
L, DEC (10-5) #1 Jesse Delgado (Illinois)
W, DEC (7-6 OT) #14 Eddie Klimara (Oklahoma State)
W, DEC (10-4) Earl Clark (Iowa State)
L, DEC (5-2) #3 Nico Megaludis (Penn State)
W, DEC (8-1) #5 Dylan Peters (UNI)

133: #3 Tony Ramos (5-0, 1st place, NCAA Champion)
W, DEC (3-1) Shelton Mack (Pitt)
W, DEC (6-4 SV) #14 Zane Richards (Illinois)
W, DEC (3-1) #6 Mason Beckman (Lehigh)
W, DEC (5-1) #2 A.J. Schopp (Edinboro)
W, DEC (3-1 OT) #5 Tyler Graff (Wisconsin)

141: UN Josh Dziewa (2-2, did not place)
L, DEC (4-1) #13 Stephen Dutton III (Michigan)
W, TECH FALL (24-7) Nick Flannery (Buffalo)
W, DEC (8-3) #14 Edgar Bright (Pitt)
L, DEC (3-1 SV) #6 Chris Dardanes (Minnesota)

149: #13 Brody Grothus (1-2, did not place)
W, DEC (4-3) Mike Morales (West Virginia)
L, MAJ DEC (13-5) #4 Kendric Maple (Oklahoma)
L, DEC (3-1) Rylan Lubeck (Wisconsin)

157: #2 Derek St. John (5-2, 5th place, All-American)
W, DEC (4-1) Joey Napoli (Lehigh)
W, MAJ DEC (18-5) Aaron Walker (Citadel)
L, DEC (11-4) #7 Brian Realbuto (Cornell)
W, DEC (11-4) #12 Luke Smith (Central Michigan)
W, DEC (6-5) Anthony Perrotti (Rutgers)
L, DEC (14-9) #4 Ian Miller (Kent State)
W, MED FFT #7 Brian Realbuto (Cornell)

165: #5 Nick Moore (2-2, did not place)
L, MAJ DEC (15-7) Josh Veltre (Bloomsburg)
W, MAJ DEC (12-4) #12 Jackson Morse (Illinois)
W, DEC (3-1) #6 Corey Mock (Chattanooga)
L, DEC (8-1) #14 Dylan Palacio (Cornell)

174: #4 Mike Evans (3-3, 6th place, All-American)
W, DEC (8-2) Bryce Hammond (CS-Bakersfield)
W, DEC (7-3) Mike Dessino (Bloomsburg)
W, DEC (5-4 OT) #5 Matt Brown (Penn State)
L, DEC (3-2 OT) #1 Chris Perry (Oklahoma State)
L, DEC (10-4) #3 Robert Kokesh (Nebraska)
L, DEC (6-3) #5 Matt Brown (Penn State)

184: #5 Ethen Lofthouse (1-2, did not place)
L, DEC (5-3) Vic Avery (Edinboro)
W, MAJ DEC (10-2) Zack Hernandez (Colombia)
L, DEC (6-0) #11 Lorenzo Thomas (Penn)

197: #11 Nathan Burak (3-3, 8th place, All-American
W, DEC (8-2) Shane Woods (Wyoming)
W, DEC (4-3) #6 Richard Perry (Bloomsburg)
L, DEC (6-3) #14 Chris Penny (Virginia Tech)
W, DEC (5-2) Mario Gonzalez (Illinois)
L, DEC (4-2 SV) Conner Hartman (Duke)
L, DEC (3-1) #3 Morgan McIntosh (Penn State)

285: #5 Bobby Telford (4-2, 4th place, All-American)
W, DEC (6-1) Anthony Vizcarrondo (West Virginia)
W, DEC (3-0) #12 Spencer Myers (Maryland)
W, DEC (3-2 OT) #4 Adam Coon (Michigan)
L, DEC (4-2) #1 Tony Nelson (Minnesota)
W, DEC (1-0) #7 Mike McClure (Michigan State)
L, DEC (3-1) #6 Mike McMullan (Northwestern)

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