Can we return to this in 2011-2012? Let's hope so.
As we discussed in the NCAA Tournament recap last week, this year's results left us with a slightly bittersweet feeling. Losing is never fun, so it was painful to come up short in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, especially because they were competitive and had opportunities to win -- they just couldn't take advantage of them as well as Penn State. Still, at the beginning of the season -- hell, as late as the end of December, when Iowa stumbled to an ugly 4th-place finish at Midlands -- it seemed unlikely that this Iowa team could legitimately challenge for championships. They were too young, too inexperienced, too inconsistent and this was simply too much of a rebuilding job.
I thought a top-3 finish at Big Tens and a top-5 finish at NCAAs would be the height of Iowa's ambition and I thought that surely the dual winning streak would end -- that Iowa might even lose as many as three times. And I'm quite happy to say that I was wrong. Technically speaking, the dual meet winning streak did end (with the 15-15 tie against Oklahoma State in Stillwater), but all it really did was morph into a dual meet unbeaten streak and while it doesn't have quite the same cache, it's still pretty impressive. Things really started clicking after that Okie State dual, too: they ran off seven straight dual wins, including impressive road wins over Penn State and Minnesota, finished a mere point behind Penn State at the Big Ten Tournament, and pushed for the title at the NCAA Tournament before finishing in third behind Penn State and Cornell.
There's not really a place for moral victories in Iowa wrestling and this season will never go down as one of the all-time greats when there was such a lack of hardware, but the progress the team showed was damn impressive and with eight starters expected to return and the nation's top recruiting class in 2010 coming off their redshirt year, the future is very bright indeed. So let's take a look at that future, shall we?A note about the tables below: the left-hand column lists the 2011 All-Americans; wrestlers that are highlighted are non-seniors expected to return in 2011. I gave unique, color-coded highlights to the members of the teams that should be major contenders next year (Iowa, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Cornell, Minnesota, and Wisconsin); returning wrestlers from other teams got a plain gray highlight. The right-hand column lists wrestlers expected to return in 2011 who didn't attain All-America status, but who are still threats worth knowing about. It also lists some of the notable freshmen who could cause a stir next year, including both freshmen who redshirted in 2010-2011 and incoming freshmen for 2011-2012. These lists aren't comprehensive, so feel free to mention anyone I may have omitted.
Also: most of the time, the look-ahead to next year assumes guys won't be moving weights at all (unless otherwise specified); obviously in some cases guys will be moving to different weights. Likewise, next year also brings the possibility of a few guys using an Olympic redshirt year* to try and make the team for the London 2012 games. Both of those things could (and probably will) shake up these projections, so just treat these as a very rough look at what might be coming down the pike in 2011-2012.
* They are very, very hard to get, though, so they won't be an option for too many guys. We'll know more about who will be eligible for them after some of the off-season tournaments this spring/summer.
125: Matt McDonough (SO, 27-2)
The Reasonable Expectation:
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). (via)
The Result: 1st place, Big Ten Tournament; 2nd place, NCAA Tournament
The Verdict: There's no doubt that the year didn't quite meet McDonough's expectations -- nothing short of another national title would have done that. It certainly stung to see him come up short in that regard, but there also isn't much shame in making it to the finals and losing to an undefeated (and highly unorthodox) wrestler who's a lead-pipe lock to take home th Hodge Trophy. McD did win the one major title that eluded him his freshman year (a solo Big Ten Championship) and on the whole we'd have to say he had a pretty marvelous year. He led the team in dual meet points (80), falls (14), bonus points (a lot) and even if he had to settle for runner-up honors at the NCAA Tournament, we couldn't have asked for too much more from him.
Four All-Americans (including McDonough) return next year, although this weight class does lose a few heavy-hitters (like Robles and Precin). There are also a few guys returning who flopped a bit at the NCAA Tourney (Bedelyon, Waters, Morrison), plus the return of Purdue's Cashe Quiroga, who finished sixth at the 2010 NCAA Tournament (though it also sounds like he might be moving up a weight). This weight is also slated to see some promising freshmen debut next year: Stieber and Finch were two of the 2010's top recruits, while Megaludis and Thielke are two of 2011's best recruits (though they might redshirt in 2011-2012).
All that said, this weight really might come down to what McDonough decides to do next year. He has a career record of 64-3 and the only three guys to beat him (Robles, Precin, Indiana's Angel Escobedo) have left the scene. Among returning All-Americans, McD has multiple wins over Sanders and Mango (as well as a pair over Quiroga in 2009-2010) and most of those wins haven't even been close. The incoming freshmen are wildcards, but the only guys to beat McD so far have been a trio of seniors who were very experienced and very strong. If McD decides he the weight situation at 125 is manageable, he'll be a very heavy favorite to regain his crown. If he decides the weight cut is getting to be too much, though, you'll probably see Tony Ramos down here instead. He had a good season at 133, but struggled at times with the size of some guys at that weight. It's unclear how good he would be at 125, but he seems to have the tools to succeed here. Still, without McD here, this weight is a free-for-all; if he is here, everyone else may just be battling for second place.
133: Tony Ramos (rsFR, 25-6)
The Reasonable Expectation:
It would be disappointing if he wasn't at least in the top four at the Big Ten Tournament, and he's very capable of more. Nationally, he should have a good opportunity to make All-American; anything beyond that would be gravy. (via)
The Result: 3rd place, Big Ten Tournament; R12, NCAA Tournament
The Verdict: That preview was actually written in reference to Nate Moore (who we assumed was going to be the starter here), but it wound up fitting Ramos pretty well, too. He did finish in the top four at the Big Ten Tournament (he rebounded nicely in the consos after a tough loss to Tyler Graff in the semifinals), but he couldn't quite make All-American at the NCAA Tournament. He came close (bowing out in the Round of 12; a win there would have guaranteed him no worse than 8th place), but ultimately a tough draw and an inability to deal with some of the things that plagued him all year (getting out from underneath, getting behind early, dealing with unusually large or long opponents) ended his season earleir than we would have liked. Still, overall his season has to be marked down as a success. 125 is probably his optimal weight, but he more than held his own at 133 -- he went undefeated in Big Ten duals and notched a very nice win over Andrew Long, who won the Big Ten Tournament and finished 3rd at the NCAA Tournament. Given more experience (and, possibly, weight-training) he should only get better. He already has two things that you like to see -- an aggressive, point-scoring attitude and a high-energy motor.
Perhaps the biggest surprise this year was the emergence of a slew of new(ish) faces at this weight in the Big Ten. There was a pretty big talent drain after last season when Dan Dennis (Iowa), Jayson Ness (Minnesota), and Franklin Gomez (Michigan State), but they were replaced by a pretty impressive group of guys this year: Andrew Long moved up from 125 (and moved to Penn State from Iowa State) and wound up winning the Big Ten Tournament, Tyler Graff emerged as a top-five guy, BJ Futrell finished as an All-American, and Ramos finished just shy of All-America status. That's not too shabby. All those guys are returning in 2011-2012, as are Jordan Oliver and Scotti Sentes on the national scene. Compared to 125, the freshmen here aren't quite so highly touted (and Schenk won't see action unless he or Oliver move to a different weight), though Surber could make a little noise.
And this weight could get even more returning firepower if McDonough decides to move up from 125. We can't say definitively how good he'd be at 133 until he actually wrestles at that weight -- but Long certainly made the transition very smoothly, so there's reason to think McD would be near the top at 133, too. But assuming he stays at 125, what's Ramos' ceiling at this weight? Pretty high, most likely -- he couldn't figure out Sentes (and, frankly, that will probably always be a nightmare match-up for Tony), but he has a win over Long and a few wins over Futrell, as well as a very close loss to Graff. Oliver seems like another bad match-up, but with some more seasoning (and, perhaps, a slightly more favorable draw), Ramos should have an excellent opportunity to be a solid All-American. It's also worth noting that Iowa has two other guys (Tyler Clark and Nate Moore) who will be pushing Ramos for this spot; he's certainly the favorite to be starting here next year after his accomplishments this year, but don't ignore the possibility of one of them stepping up and taking over.
This was only going to be one post, but then it got big. And then it kept getting bigger. So I'm splitting it into a series of posts.
NEXT: 141 and 149