Temperatures are dropping, leaves are falling, and the days are getting shorter: winter is coming. It's time to strap on our headgear and get ready for the coming of the
White Walkers Iowa wrestlers. It's almost time to hit the mat again, which means it's definitely time to preview what to expect from the Iowa grapplers in 2012.
While we try to figure out this mystifying football team and anticipate the return of our postseason-aspirant basketball team, there's another team that's worth discussing: the Iowa wrestling team. They'll be going after their fourth national championship in the past six years, so it behooves us to preview that quest. In the spirit of our Assume the Position series of football, we bring you A Winner Is You!, a weight-by-weight breakdown of the Iowa wrestling team, counting down from the weight we have the most confidence in to the weight we have absolutely no clue about. Enjoy!
THE KNOWN QUANTITY
Mike Evans came to Iowa with more hype and greater expectations than any Iowa recruit since probably Brent Metcalf. He was the crown jewel of Iowa's glistening 2010 recruiting class, ranked #4 overall in the nation by d1collegewrestling and #1 at 174/184 by The Open Mat. (InterMat doesn't archive their old recruiting data very well, but Evans was highly-regarded by them, too.) After taking a redshirt year in 2010-11, Evans was expected to rip through the ranks last year. That didn't quite happen. He didn't have a bad year -- he went 26-9 and finished runner-up (to eventual Big Ten and NCAA champion David Taylor of Penn State) at the Big Ten Tournament. But he also crashed and burned at the NCAA Tournament, going 1-2 and failing to become an All-American (or, frankly, even get close to All-America status).
As, oh, the entire recorded history of sports tell us, hype guarantees nothing, least of all results. But that doesn't mean Evans is a bad wrestler (he's not) or that he's not fully capable of becoming a great wrestler (he is). Freshmen champions like McDonough or Kyle Dake are the exceptions, not the rule; even freshmen All-Americans are not that commonplace (although they aren't terribly rare, either, especially lately). Tony Ramos had some ups and downs as a redshirt freshman, culminating in an NCAA Tournament without All-America honors; last year he was arguably just a Logan Stieber away from being a Big Ten and NCAA champion as a sophomore.
The reasons for Evans' struggles last year (particularly at the NCAA Tournament) have never been entirely clear -- allegedly he struggled with the weight cut to 165; he definitely struggled to generate offense from a neutral position. Time will tell on the weight cut front, but hopefully an off-season of work in the Iowa training room has improved his offense. Evans remains a hammer on the mat and a guy capable of picking up big points for Iowa when he can get a match there, but the trick for Evans will be consistently getting his opponents to the mat. For that, he's going to need some good, consistent shots. Hopefully he's added them to his arsenal.
In the meantime, we can still celebrate his tremendous facial hair. This is from his current official pic on the Iowa roster:
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
The list of possible options at this weight really begins and ends with Nick Moore. The official roster also lists Joe DuCharme and Patrick Rhoads as options at 165; they competed at 149 at last weekend's wrestle-offs. It also lists Walt Gillmor (who went 3-4 in limited action last year) and true freshman Alex Vargas (who I know nothing about). If something happens to Evans, Moore will be the man at this weight. He was part of the same famed 2010 recruiting class as Evans and was an utterly dominant high school wrestler for Iowa City West (183-1, 4-time state champion). Unfortunately, at Iowa he's found his path to the lineup largely blocked: there's a two-time All-American down at 157 (Derek St. John) and another talented wrestler who keeps getting the better of Moore in their one-on-one matchups (Evans). Perhaps things will shift around and open up a spot for him next year, Gambrall graduates and frees up a spot at 174. (I don't think Moore would wrestle at 174, but Evans might, which would open up a spot for Moore at 165.)
In the meantime, Moore bides his time. He was able to see some action last year at 157, when Derek St. John went down and missed a large portion of the season with an injury, but the results down there were underwhelming (9-6). But in fairness to Moore, he's seemed better at 165 -- he just hasn't had much of an opportunity to strut his stuff there with Evans also manning that spot. For now, Moore remains a bit of a mystery, a figure of (seemingly) immense untapped potential.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
Even if Evans makes the necessary improvements to his game (and conditioning, perhaps), he's still going to have to contend with a 165 lb. weight class that's as loaded as any weight class in recent memory. The top of the division features two wrestlers with five NCAA finalist appearances and four national titles between them -- Cornell's Kyle Dake (#1) and Penn State's David Taylor (#2). Dake edged Taylor in a folkstyle match at the NWCA All-Star Classic event a few weeks ago, but they're likely to meet at least once more (at the Southern Scuffle tournament) and probably once more after that (at the NCAA Tournament). Dake and Taylor are both phenomenal wrestlers, with extraordinarily diverse and well-rounded skill sets and they're going to be incredibly difficult for anyone else to beat.
Of course, Tyler Caldwell isn't chopped liver, either. He was the Big XII and NCAA runner-up two years ago (finishing behind future Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs in both events) and after redshirting last year and transferring to Oklahoma State (from Oklahoma), he figures to be right back in the mix as well. His presence adds even more firepower to the top of this division and threatens to make the title hunt into a three-horse race. (Incredibly, this weight could have been even more loaded if Andrew Howe (three-time Big Ten champion, two-time NCAA finalist, 2010 NCAA champion) wasn't redshirting this season.)
Those three names will garner most of the attention, but there are some other very good wrestlers in the division, too, including Virginia Tech's Peter Yates, Illinois' Conrad Polz, Oklahoma's Bubby Graham, Virginia's Nick Sulzer, Minnesota's Cody Yohn, and another super-stud true freshman, Michigan's Taylor Massa (the top overall recruit in the class of 2012). Outside of David Taylor, the Big Ten looks manageable for Evans (he beat Polz and Yohn last year), but nationally this weight looks like an absolute bear.
11/16/12: #9 Nick Sulzer, Virginia (non-conference dual; Chattanooga, TN)
12/16/12: #14 Corey Lear, Bucknell (non-conference dual; New York City, NY)
1/13/13: #3 Tyler Caldwell, Oklahoma State (non-conference dual; Stillwater, OK)
1/18/13: #7 Taylor Massa, Michigan (B1G dual; Ann Arbor, MI)
1/26/13: #10 Cody Yohn, Minnesota (B1G dual; Minneapolis, MN)
2/1/13: #2 David Taylor, Penn State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/8/13: #6 Conrad Polz, Illinois (B1G dual; Champaign, IL)
2/16/13: #18 John Greisheimer, Edinboro (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
Evans certainly won't lack for experience against top competition before the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments this year. He's currently slated to face six of the InterMat top ten in the regular season this year and eight of the top twenty. Matches with Caldwell (1/13/13) and Taylor (2/1/13) should give us a good idea of just how close (or far) he is from the elite talents at this weight.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
Given the intense competition at this weight and given Evans' inconsistent form last year, what's a realistic expectation for Evans this season? Good question. I think repeating as a finalist at the Big Ten Tournament is very doable -- as noted, he does own wins over Yohn and Polz (although Massa could be a wildcard here if he's as good as the hype). As far as the NCAA Tournament goes... being an All-American seems like a solid -- and attainable -- goal. Cracking the top three is going to be insanely tough this year. I don't know if Evans will live up to his surprisingly lofty preseason ranking (#4, per InterMat), but even if he doesn't manage that, I think he'll still finish on the podium next March.