Tessa Hursh/The Daily Iowan
Recapping Iowa's weekend at the Big Ten Tournament. It was bad - but maybe not as bad as you think.
So for the third year running, Iowa did not bring home a Big Ten championship at the conference tournament. Despite a fairly brilliant session Saturday morning, when Iowa scored pins in three of its five pigtail matches and won nine of ten matches in the quarterfinals, placing a league-best nine wrestlers in the semifinals, things turned sour on Saturday night, as Iowa went just 4-5 in the semifinals. After a bounce-back performance Sunday morning, when all five Iowa wrestlers still alive in the consolation bracket won to get themselves into the 3rd-place match, Sunday afternoon brought more misery: Iowa went 3-2 in the 3rd-place matches, but a ghastly 0-4 in the championship matches. (You can find a thorough listing of all the results here.) For the first time since 2006 (and just the third time since 1970), Iowa went home without a single individual conference champion. So what went wrong?
* Iowa had no champions.
It's hard to win a title without individual champions. Iowa placed a healthy number of wrestlers in the finals -- four -- but all four failed to bring home top honors. The match-ups were tricky, to be sure: McDonough was facing a guy who had beaten him handily earlier this season and who owned a 2-2 career record against McD; Ramos was facing a guy he had never beaten before; Ballweg was facing a guy who had beaten him earlier this season; and Evans was facing a guy that he had only narrowly beaten earlier this season (4-3, thanks to a wild scramble late in the match). But unless you're David Taylor, championship matches aren't supposed to be easy -- you just need to find a way to win. Iowa couldn't do that.
* The Iowa offense was punchless.
No, this isn't a belated football comment. In Iowa's 4-5 semifinal performance, Iowa recorded a whopping four takedowns combined. In the final five matches of that round, Iowa scored zero takedowns. (Mike Evans managed to win his match anyway, thanks to some brilliant riding.) In the finals, that offensive power outage recurred, with Iowa not able to score a single takedown against their opponents. The only points they were able to score at all came off escapes -- and a penalty point for pulling Mike Evans' sock. Needless to say, that sort of toothless display just won't cut it. Incredibly obvious point alert: you can't win if you don't score points. And you can't score points if you don't shoot. Iowa wrestlers were either afraid or unable to take shots -- or anything more aggressive than a half-shot -- and they paid the price. This was not wrestling "Iowa-style."
* They let guys get to legs too easily.
Iowa guys are afraid to shoot, but apparently they aren't afraid to give up their legs to their opponents. McDonough, Ballweg, St. John, and Burak did it all too often all weekend and it proved costly: Iowa wrestlers either gave up takedowns or they got sucked into time-killing stalemates. Against McDonough, Jesse Delgado spent so much time on McD's legs that he should have had to pay rent. It's hard to score points when your opponent has one leg hoisted in the air and you're hopping around on one leg -- and it makes it far too easy for your opponent to score points of their own.
* Can't ride long enough, can't escape soon enough.
The mat game was also a problem for Iowa in several matches this weekend. McD was ridden hard by his first-round opponent (Malone) and by Delgado in the finals; Dziewa's struggles to get escapes directly led to at least one of his losses; St. John spent too much underneath Green in the semifinals, ultimately allowing Green to score a pivotal riding time point; and Evans was crushed to the mat by Brown in the finals at 174, to name a few issues Iowa wrestlers had in the bottom position. Iowa wrestlers also struggled to ride well on their own. The next time Burak rides an opponent hard may be the first time and several other wrestlers struggled to keep their opponents on the mat either at the beginning of a period or after a takedown. (That's not to say that this problem was universal, though; Lofthouse put on some strong rides in his non-Ruth matches and Evans rode well outside of the Brown match, for instance.) It's not pretty, but even if your offense from neutral isn't working, you can win matches by getting an escape of your own quickly and riding an opponent long enough to secure a riding time point. It leads to a lot of 2-0 or 2-1 scores, but hey: wins are wins. At Iowa, we call this The Morningstar Special. Unfortunately, Iowa couldn't really employ this strategy, either. If you can't score takedowns and you can't ride your opponent, you will lose -- it's that simple.
* Penn State keeps raising the bar.
For the second-straight year, Penn State posted a higher point total than they had in their title-winning performance the year before. In 2011, they won a title with 139 points. Last year, that total rose to 149 points. This year, they finished with 151 points. It's hard to catch them when they keep getting better (or their point totals keep getting higher, at least). For the third-straight year, the second-place team at the Big Ten Tournament finished with over 130 points (Iowa had 138 in 2011, while Minnesota had 134 last year and 139 this year); there have been a fair number of seasons in the not-so-distant past where that figure would have been enough to win the tournament. Iowa finished in third place this year with 133.5 points; as best as I can tell, that's the first time a third-place team has ever finished with 130+ points and the highest third-place finish, either. That's not much consolation -- third place is still third place -- but it should give you an appreciation of how difficult it's become to win a Big Ten Championship lately.
Of course, the reason the top teams in the Big Ten (Penn State, Minnesota, and Iowa) have been able to put so much distance between themselves and the field is not just the strength of their own squads, but also because of the increased weakness of teams at the bottom of the Big Ten. This year, four teams (Purdue, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan State) all finished with fewer than 40 points; based on my research, that appears to be a record for futility in the modern era of the Big Ten Tournament. The top of the Big Ten may have gotten better, but the bottom of the Big Ten has gotten worse. (Although there was also no one as bad as Wisconsin's rock-bottom 9-point showing last year.) It used to be routine for teams in the lower reaches of the league to score in the 50s and 60s -- even the 70s, on occasion -- because they had solid teams. Now teams in those same spots are lucky to have just two or three solid wrestlers. Right now, there are a lot of points up for grabs because those teams aren't good enough to hang onto them and Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State (especially the latter two) are doing the best job of sucking them up. For better or worse, the Big Ten is becoming a very top-heavy league.
* So why is Penn State so good?
I see two major reasons for Penn State's continued dominance: they start from a stronger position than any other team and they consistently get at least 1-2 guys to really overachieve in a tournament. In re: the first point, this is the Taylor-Ruth-Wright factor. They have three wrestlers who are so astoundingly good and so remarkably consistent that you can basically ink them in for titles at their respective weights, with the promise of a good number of bonus points along the way. With those three guys alone, Penn State is basically guaranteed around 80 points, minimum. That gives them an incredible head start on the field. Outside of Ramos, did Iowa have anyone who was a surefire guarantee to even make the finals? Not really. Ditto Minnesota, outside of Nelson.
As far as the second point goes, this is the Nico-at-the-2012-NCAAs or Brown-at-the-2013-Big Tens factor. Penn State gets guys to not just overachieve but to wildly overachieve, at least relative to their seed. Nico was a #7 seed at the NCAA Tournament last year; he finished as the national runner-up. Brown was the #5 seed at the Big Ten Tournament this year; he won the whole damn thing. That's a gigantic swing in expected points and this kind of thing seems to happen to them at every single tournament. Iowa had some nice surprises this year in terms of finishing positions, but still: there's a massive difference between Nathan Burak finishing 4th after being seeded 6th and Matt Brown finishing 1st after being seeded 5th.
In fact, Matt Brown -- and the 174 lb. weight class in general -- ended up being the lynchpin for the Big Ten title this year. This isn't exactly a shock, considering that it's the only weight where Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota all had a legitimate title contender. Had Minnesota's Logan Storley (the #1 seed and the presumptive champion at the weight) won the title, the results of the title race would have been different: Minnesota would have won the title. Had he simply made the finals (and lost), they likely still would have won the title. An Evans win alone wouldn't have swung the title for Iowa, but it was a necessary part of most realistic scenarios for Iowa to win a title (said scenarios also involved Derek St. John winning a title and probably either McD or Ramos winning a title, all things which were possible). 174 was a crucial weight this year and it swung Penn State's way.
The scary thing is that Penn State won this title even though multiple guys were technically underachieves -- Megaludis, Conaway, Pearsall, the Altons, and Lawson all finished below their seeds. Of course, that ties into another reason Penn State is so hard to catch: bonus points, bonus points, bonus points. Even when Penn State wrestlers get knocked out of the championship bracket, they have a remarkable knack for making up for that defeat by going on a bonus point-clinching warpath in the consolation bracket. PSU wrestlers picked up three pins and three major decisions after dropping into the consolations bracket; those points help offset (to a degree) the loss of placement points from their underachieving finishes.
* Were there any bright spots for Iowa?
Surprisingly, yes. While the overall reaction to this weekend for Iowa is negative, that's mainly because of all the high-profile failures, which ultimately crushed any hope of an Iowa title. But if you look beyond those (admittedly very painful) results, you can see that several guys had good showings this weekend. Outside of Josh Dziewa at 149, all nine of Iowa's wrestlers finished in the top-4 at their respective weight. Four Iowa wrestlers -- Ballweg, Lofthouse, Burak, and Telford -- performed better than their seed projected. In particular, guys that we'd had serious questions about as recently as a few weeks ago (lookin' at you, Ballweg and Lofthouse) looked much better and got quality results. That's encouraging as we gear up for the NCAA Tournament.
* What's the deal with this team -- how good are they?
One of the commenters this weekend asked if this Iowa team was a high floor, low ceiling team -- in other words, a team with a strong enough baseline of quality to be quite good, but not enough realistic top-tier potential to be a true contender. I don't think that description is too far off-base. The truth is that the most realistic finish for this team in Des Moines in a few weeks is probably between 2nd and 4th place, depending on how Minnesota and Oklahoma State perform. That said, a title also isn't entirely out of the question, nor does it require an insane sequence of events (like the Penn State bus getting lost in the Quad Cities for the entire weekend).
As I noted earlier, you really don't have to change very many results to turn this tournament into an Iowa win. If Matt McDonough, Derek St. John, and Mike Evans all beat guys that they have already beaten before, then the Iowa trophy cabinet would have some new hardware and we'd be much happier. That's easier said than done (especially in McDonough's case, sadly), but it's simply meant to illustrate the point that the gap between Iowa and the other teams vying for the title isn't an impossible chasm. I get that it looks bad because of what happened in the semifinals and again in the finals, but it's okay to back off the ledge. Things can (and hopefully will) be better.
But this tournament also made it clear just how important that match-ups are to the success (or failure) of this Iowa team. For some guys -- the Stiebers (or at leas Logan), David Taylor, Ed Ruth, etc. -- who they face is pretty much irrelevant -- they can and will beat pretty much everyone. That's not the case for this group of Iowa wrestlers. They all seem to have guys they struggle with or just can't seem to beat, which means that getting the right draws and right match-ups (and/or getting favorable upsets to break your way) are really important for Iowa. That certainly makes it harder to win (you'd rather have guys like Taylor and Ruth, obviously), but it doesn't make it impossible, either.
I really don't know what more there is to say at this point about McDonough. It's just sad to watch, frankly. It's clear that something (probably an undisclosed injury, given how long it's lingered on now) is bothering him because he barely resembles the McDonough that we've watched for the three years before this one. He lets guys get to his legs too easily (and struggles to counter or funk his way into scoring opportunities of his own), struggles to finish (and sometimes even attempt) his own takedowns, and just generally looks like a much weaker version of his old self. He looks like pod person Matt McDonough. And it sucks.
It would seem that he won't be adding this particular medal to his trophy collection, either:
This is the 2nd place 125 pound Big Ten trophy. We found it in the garbage. twitter.com/SamLouwagie/st…— Sam Louwagie (@SamLouwagie) March 10, 2013
Tony started Saturday like the beast we've seen all season, but then things went off-track. After a tougher-than-expected match with Quiroga, Tony looked like a completely different wrestler against Graff and Stieber. The aggressive, all-action Ramos of legend was replaced with a much more tentative, risk-averse version, one who was so cautious of giving anything to Graff and Stieber that he ended up unable to do much himself. His winning takedown against Graff didn't even come on his own shot, but off a counter to a Graff shot. Against Graff, I don't know if Tony was distracted by the pending match with Stieber or not, but he played right into Graff's gameplan, letting Graff circle away (or stall, cough cough) and conserve energy in hopes of getting a late takedown to win.
Ramos looked improved in some ways against Stieber (he was able to get an escape fairly easily, which was nice), but he still seemed leery of putting himself forward and attacking Stieber too much, for fear of opening himself up to something from Stieber in response. However prudent those gameplans may be, they don't play to Ramos' strengths -- or enable him to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Graff has notoriously bad cardio and Stieber's cardio is also questionable (although it's also rarely been tested, thanks to his propensity to win matches quickly), while one of Tony's biggest strengths is that he appears to have stamina to burn. He needs to exploit that and make these matches much more fast-paced. The good (or bad) news is that he'll probably get another chance at these guys in a few weeks in Des Moines.
My two main takeaways from Ballweg's performance this weekend: 1) thank god he's not as broken as he appeared at the end of February and 2) he has a very obvious ceiling. Ballweg was such a mess by the end of the season that I had no idea what to expect out of him at Big Tens and the NCAA Tournament, but mostly I was thinking that his stays in both tournaments would probably be short in duration. He proved me wrong at the Big Ten Tournament and hopefully he can do it again at the NCAA Tournament. Ballweg started quickly with a first-period pin, then recorded a comfortable decision win over Kiley, before avenging the ugly beatdown Dardanes handed out to him at National Duals two weeks ago.
The match with Stieber just hammered home the second point: Ballweg's potential has a very clear ceiling. There are just some guys that he isn't going to beat -- namely, the best guys at 141. But he's good enough to beat pretty much everyone else, which means that it's still possible for him to make it onto the podium in Des Moines. He's probably going to need some good draws (and, honestly, a lack of upsets at this weight would also be desirable; the last thing Ballweg needs is to run into a Stieber or a Kendric Maple in the consolation bracket), but there's a plausible path for him to be an All-America... which is more than I would have said about him a few weeks ago.
As expected, Iowa did not qualify a wrestler for the NCAA Tournament at this weight, making it three years in a row they've failed to do that. (Sigh.) Still, Josh Dziewa certainly acquitted himself well here, despite wrestling up a weight. Dziewa looked better than Grothus or Kelly had looked in their efforts at this weight, displaying some very impressive funk and a lot of natural ability in both matches (and also being the victim of some rather... questionable officiating). At times he got too cute, as in the match against Ervin when he spent too much time trying for a reversal (which he never got and which ended up getting him in a bad position that allowed Ervin to ride him for the entire period) instead of going for a simpler escape (which he probably would have been able to get). But for the most part he looked very solid and it will be exciting to see what he can do at his more natural weight (141) next year.
Green has been a scary match-up for St. John for two years now and he finally proved why on Saturday night, when he managed to beat DSJ in the semfinals. Quick, athletic opponents with explosive attacks are basically St. John's kryptonite and Green finally managed to make him pay in this match. Green got an early takedown and then another one near the end of the 2nd period; that proved to be enough to get the win. It was frustrating to see the referee allow Green to essentially run away the entire 3rd period, although DSJ wasn't able to force the issue enough, either, since taking a shot could expose him to one of Green's lightning-quick counter-shots. The trick to beating Green is to wear him out and exploit his shitty cardio; St. John couldn't do that in this match and that was a big reason why he lost. While that loss sucked, I was happy to see him respond well on Sunday, with a great win over Alton and an ugly-but-effective win over Demas (who, like Green, just appears to be a rotten match-up for St. John). I was also very happy to see Green lose in very schadenfreude-y manner in the finals on Sunday, to a pin in the final 30 seconds. That was some of the best wrestling schadenfreude since Bubba Jenkins pinned David Taylor and the most I've enjoyed a Northwestern win since Jake Herbert beat Mike Pucillo to help Iowa lock up a national title in 2009.
Like Ballweg, Nick Moore is another wrestler who appears to have a clear ceiling. I don't think his ceiling is necessarily as permanent as Ballweg's, since Moore is a sophomore rather than a senior, but for this year it is what it is. Of course, losing to David Taylor is one thing (although, goddamn, getting tech falled in the first period?!), losing to Cody Yohn, a guy Nick Moore had beaten three times previous, is another thing entirely. Maybe it was a case of familarity breeding contempt -- the Yohn-Moore matches got closer and closer all year -- but Moore really can't afford to lose to a guy like that at the NCAA Tournament if he wants to make it on the podium. Like Ballweg, I question Moore's ability to beat the top handful of guys at this weight, but beyond that anything is possible. Good match-ups are probably going to dictate whether or not he can make the podium in Des Moines.
Evans started well, with a strong bonus point win over Welch and another match against Blanton where he rode him into oblivion (or maybe Blanton just really likes mustache rides), but things went sour in the finals against Brown. Evans made one mistake in that match -- taking a sloppy shot on Brown -- but it was very costly, since Brown was able to use it against him and immediately take him down and get bonus points, which put Evans into a hole he'd never recover from. It also highlighted the fact that Evans' offense from neutral is still a weakness; it's hard to dig yourself out of a hole if you can't rack up takedowns. A very disappointing outcome for The 'Stache, but hopefully one that proves to be a good learning experience as well one that provides excellent motivation for Des Moines.
Of all the nice surprises for Iowa at this event (and, ultimate result aside, there were a few), the resurrection of Ethen Lofthouse was undoubtedly the biggest -- and the most welcome. For probably the first time all year, Lofthouse looked like the wrestler who made the podium at the NCAA Tournament last year. It wasn't just the results (although those were pretty good, obviously), it was the mindset he seemed to have (especially on Sunday): aggressive, on the attack, actively looking to score. He came out and scored quickly against both Dallago and Ihnen, immediately setting the tone for those matches. He was ultimately able to pin Dallago and cruise to an easy victory over Ihnen, a very solid 184er. Even his loss to Ruth was, all things considered, pretty damn respectable. It's performances like this that drive Iowa fans (and, undoubtedly, the Iowa coaches) crazy because they showcase the very real talent that Lofthouse has. He actually has some very good offense -- when he chooses to use it. Too often this year, he's seemed to keep it in check. Not so this weekend. I'm not entirely sure what got into Lofthouse this weekend, but I really hope it stays in him for another few weeks -- the Lofthouse that wrestled this weekend can crack the All-America ranks at the NCAA Tournament.
Next up in the pleasant surprise department: Nathan Burak. Burak started slowly with an ugly 4-3 win over Kolb that took several overtimes, but he earned a nice win over the defending Big Ten champion at 197 (Gonzalez) and took Schiller to the limit before losing. His weekend ended on a down note, with Gonzalez taking the rubber match between these two, but overall this was a very promising showing for a true freshman making his first appearance at the Big Ten Tournament. Burak needs to work on finishing his shots and on riding guys (his weakness in the latter department is not too surprising; he probably didn't spend a lot of time on mat wrestling at the Olympic Training Center), but overall the progress he's made from the start of the season until now has been remarkable. I feel much better about his chances of stealing a win or two at the NCAA Tournament.
Just like he did last year, Telford has shaken off a sluggish January for a strong February and March and it's great to see. Telford looked like the second-best heavyweight in the Big Ten this week, dispatching the 3rd, 5th, and 6th-seeded wrestlers in the bracket with relative ease. It's unfortunate that the draw forced him to face Nelson in the semifinals rather than the finals; it wouldn't have changed the outcome of the match (nothing will change that until Bobby can finally finish a takedown against Nelson), but it would have enabled him to get some more points for the team. But what's done with the draw is done; if Bobby hadn't lost to Capone (and been sick when Iowa wrestled Michigan and Michigan State), he very likely would have been on the opposite side of the draw from Nelson. His match with Nelson aside, I really liked the way Telford wrestled here: he was aggressive early in matches and remained fairly aggressive throughout and he repelled his opponents' offense pretty easily. And speaking of the match with Nelson, it was still gratifying to see him finally adopt a different approach against him and opt for a neutral start over one on bottom. Now if he can just finish one of those takedowns...