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Deja Bronze: Iowa Wrestling Finishes Third Again At NCAA Wrestling Tournament

It's been tough to write this recap -- and not just because Iowa once again came in third, once again behind two of our most hated rivals (in the for real-sense, not the Delany decreed it-sense), Penn State and Minnesota. It's been tough because, really, what is there to say about this tournament that I didn't already say after the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago? Iowa finished third there, too, behind Penn State (the winner) and Minnesota (the runner-up). Once again, Iowa lacked the depth and team-wide ability to get bonus points to compete with those teams.

Tom Brands characterized Iowa's problem this year as " a lack of firepower" in his post-tournament comments and he's right. Minnesota had the most overall firepower of any team this year -- they had seven All-Americans, more than anyone else (Iowa and Penn State had the second-most, with six All-Americans) -- while Penn State had the most potent firepower (they had five finalists and three champions and all six of their All-Americans finished 3rd or better). Iowa had six All-Americans, but two finished 5th or worse. Iowa got a solid amount of firepower from their big three at the lower weights -- McDonough (125), Ramos (133), and Marion (141) all finished 3rd or better and combined for 62.5 points. St. John (157) and Telford (HWT) also added a respectable amount of points -- 33. Unfortunately, Iowa's other three qualified wrestlers, Evans (165), Lofthouse (174), and Gambrall (184) combined for just 12 points and finished below their seed. (Technically, Gambrall didn't finish below his seed since he was unseeded, but after a 3rd place finish last year, a 2-2 finish this year was pretty disappointing, especially since he didn't end up losing to All-Americans.) That was a problem.

125: #1 Matt McDonough: 5-0, 1st place finish
133: #3 Tony Ramos: 5-1, 3rd place finish
141: #3 Montell Marion, 4-1, 2nd place finish
149: N/A
157: #2 Derek St. John, 4-1, 2nd place finish
165: #5 Mike Evans, 1-2, DNP
174: #5 Ethen Lofthouse, 5-2, 7th place finish
184: UN Grant Gambrall, 2-2, DNP
197: N/A
HWT: #5 Blake Rasing Bobby Telford, 5-2, 5th place finish

1) Penn State -- 143 pts
2) Minnesota -- 117.5 pts
3) Iowa -- 107.5 pts
4) Cornell -- 102.5 pts
5) Ohio State -- 68.5 pts
6) Oklahoma State -- 66 pts
7) Illinois -- 62 pts
8) Lehigh -- 61 pts
9) just Northwestern -- 42.5 pts
10) Oregon State -- 40.5 pts
34) UNI -- 12 pts
35) Iowa State -- 11.5 pts

Iowa entered the tournament with two holes -- 149 and 197 -- which was probably too many to begin with. Lackluster performances from Evans and Gambrall quickly turned 164 and 184 into holes as well and dug Iowa a hole they had no hope of climbing out of in this tournament. I'm reluctant to characterize Lofthouse's 7th place finish as "a hole," but it was disappointing, considering it was two spots lower than his seed (at a weight with no real standouts beyond the top three guys) and also because he was unable to garner any bonus points for Iowa despite wrestling a roster of guys that offered ample opportunity to pick up bonus points (all but one of his opponents was unseeded or seeded lower than him and his two early opponents were unseeded guys with .500-ish records). Iowa needed more from him -- and Evans and Gambrall.

The problem is that Iowa had a line-up of guys who either met expectations or underachieved -- they had no one who overachieved. (Technically, Montell Marion did "overachieve" based on his seed... but going from 3rd to 2nd doesn't add that much to the team score.) McDonough, Ramos, St. John and Telford all matched their seeds, while Evans, Lofthouse, and Gambrall all failed to perform to the level of their seeds. Compare that to Penn State, who had guys like Nico Megaludis (seeded 10th, finished 2nd at 125), Dylan Alton (seeded 7th, finished 3rd at 157), and Quentin Wright (seeded 6th, finished 2nd at 184). Or Minnesota, who had guys like Chris Dardanes (seeded 10th, finished 4th at 133), Dylan Ness (seeded 7th, finished 2nd), and Sonny Yohn (seeded 10th, finished 5th). It wasn't all sunshine and roses for them -- Zach Sanders (125), Cody Yohn (165), and Logan Storley (174) underachieved a bit for the Gophers and Morgan McIntosh (197) and Cameron Wade (HWT) were unable to do much for Penn State -- but those disappointments were more than washed away by their overachievers. Given the razor thin margin Iowa was walking at the outset of this tournament, they couldn't afford any underachievers and needed to find a few overachievers of their own. Mission... not accomplished.

Of course, the harsh reality is that even if guys hadn't underachieved for Iowa, they still would have had a hell of a time catching Penn State this year. The truth is that, once again, they put on an incredibly impressive tournament performance and deservedly ran away from the competition. They scored 143 points this year. That's more than Iowa scored in 2010, the third (and most dominant) title of their recent three-peat performance (134.5). It's more than any team has scored since Oklahoma State blitzed the field in 2005, when they scored 153 points and beat the runner-up (Michigan) by 70 points. Minnesota finished with 113.5 points this year -- a very impressive total and a number that's 15 points better than their last national title-winning haul (98 in 2007)... and yet they still finished 30 points back of Penn State. In fact, four teams this year -- Penn State (143), Minnesota (113.5), Iowa (107.5), and Cornell (98.5) -- finished with higher totals than Iowa's national title-winning tally in 2009 (96.5). This year at least parity was an illusion: power was strongly concentrated in the hands of 3-4 teams. But it's also illustrative of another truism: every year is different. What works one year won't necessarily work the next year. (Although if Penn State puts up 140+ points again next year? Just give them the trophy -- no one's touching that.)

125: #1 Matt McDonough (5-0), 1st place finish, NCAA Champion (27.0 pts)
If you were so inclined, you could quibble with McD's tournament. You could point out that he "only" got bonus points in four of his five wins and that he "only" had two pins. And that is the reason he finished with 3.5 fewer team points than David Taylor, but it's also pointing out the missed brush strokes on the Mona Lisa. Maybe McD's performance could have been a bit better, but it was still an absolute masterpiece. He throttled his first two opponents and put on takedown clinics in the quarters and semis. Only the stout defense (and, coughcough stalling coughcough) of Megaludis kept the final from getting out of hand. McD climbed back on top of the mountain in 2012 -- and did so in hugely impressive fashion. He has nothing to hang his head about with this performance.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, FALL (3:24) UN Joe Germaine (Eastern Michigan)
Second round: W, FALL (2:56) UN Trent Sprenkle (North Dakota State)
Quarterfinals: W, MAJ DEC (13-3) #8 Ryan Mango (Stanford)
Semifinals: W, MAJ DEC (15-7) #5 Nic Bedelyon (Kent State)
Finals: W, DEC (4-1) #10 Nico Megaludis (Penn State)

133: #3 Tony Ramos (5-1), 3rd place finish, NCAA All-American/3rd-Place Medalist (18.5 pts)
3rd place wasn't the finish we were hoping for from Tony, but it wasn't a bad result. If anything, 2012 has been a season of phenomenal growth for Ramos and the 2012 NCAA Tournament was that idea in microcosm. He looked hugely impressive in several matches, particularly on Saturday morning in the consolation round. Some guys let the disappointment of getting knocked out of the championship bracket linger and affect the rest of their tournament (see: Evans, Mike), but Tony looked motivated and hungry against two opponents (Carter and Dardanes) who had given him no end of trouble at earlier matches this season. He earned a comfortable decision win over Carter and was headed to a similar win over Dardanes when he was able to lock him up in a pin. Ramos also put forth his best effort yet against Stieber, even if he again came up short there. The downside is that he still struggled from the bottom position at times and he struggled to get bonus points against weaker opponents (like Owens and Kalil). But all in all this tournament was a very positive experience for Tony: he went from not being an All-American at all in 2011, to a 3rd-place finisher in 2012.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, DEC (9-2) UN Brian Owen (Boise State)
Second round: W, DEC (3-1) UN Aaron Kalil (Navy)
Quarterfinals: W, FALL (1:57) #11 Steven Keith (Harvard)
Semifinals: L, DEC (4-2) #2 Logan Stieber (Ohio State)
Consolation Round: W, DEC (8-3) #6 Devin Carter (Virginia Tech)
Third-Place Match: W, FALL (6:49) #10 Chris Dardanes (Minnesota)

141: #3 Montell Marion (4-1), 2nd place finish, NCAA All-American/NCAA Runner-Up (17.0 pts)
I'm preparing a separate post on the legacy of Montell Marion because it's a complicated and interesting issue, so I'll keep my thoughts here brief: this tournament was the quintessential Montell Marion experience. It was frustrating, it was exhilarating, it was never boring. I can't think of any other Iowa wrestler in the last five years who wrestled so many close, dramatic matches that went to SV or were decided in the last few seconds of the third period (maybe Ryan Morningstar). Marion looked focused throughout the tournament and if his lack of bonus points was (again) a little exasperating, he made up for it by wrestling perhaps the toughest slate of opponents any Iowa wrestler faced at the NCAA Tournament this weekend. Novachkov is a multi-time All-American and was runner-up in 2011, Maple is a stud and this year's Midlands champ, and Russell is Russell -- a four-time B1G champion and two-time NCAA champion and probably one of the finest college wrestlers of the last decade. Marion held his own against all of them... he just couldn't quite get that decisive takedown on Russell in SV in the finals. It sucked, but this was still a performance to remember for Marion.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, DEC (8-4) UN Mike Morales (West Virginia)
Second round: W, DEC (6-1) UN Mitchell Port (Edinboro)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (7-6) #6 Boris Novachkov (Cal Poly)
Semifinals: W, DEC (3-1 SV) #2 Kendric Maple (Oklahoma)
Finals: L, DEC (6-4 SV) #1 Kellen Russell (Michigan)

157: #2 Derek St. John (4-1), 2nd place finish, NCAA All-American/NCAA Runner-Up (18.0 pts)
Speaking of guys who should have no shame in finishing as runner-up... Derek St. John, NCAA runner-up? As recently as a month ago, I would have thought you were on crack if you'd suggested that to me. The Derek St. John who had labored through matches and was defeated soundly by Oregon State's Roger Pena? No way. But St. John got better with every match over the past month, riding his momentum all the way to the finals (and Cornell's superhuman Kyle Dake). The bracket didn't hand him any favors here, either: he faced the Big 12 champion (Houdashelt) and Pac 12 champion (Pena) in the first two rounds and the highest-seed wrestler he could face in each following round (and his quarterfinal opponent, #7 Alton, wound up finishing 3rd). The lack of bonus points for St. John is the only real demerit on his achievement, but considering that his knee was certainly not 100%, I think we can excuse his lack of bonus points here a bit.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, MAJ DEC (9-1) UN Drake Houdashelt (Missouri)
Second round: W, DEC (8-4) UN Roger Pena (Oregon State)
Quarterfinals: W, DEC (3-1 SV) #7 Dylan Alton (Penn State)
Semifinals: W, DEC (5-1) #3 Jason Welch (just Northwestern)
Finals: L, DEC (4-1) #1 Kyle Dake (Cornell)

165: #5 Mike Evans (1-2), DNP (2.0 pts)
We don't have to look far for the biggest disappointment of the tournament for Iowa -- step on down, Mike Evans. Maybe the majestic 'stache has lost its potency or (more realistically) maybe Evans' crippling lack of offense on his feet finally cost him. It was easy enough to write off an unimpressive opening round win over Blevins as a case of jitters, but slumping to losses to Gillespie and (most gallingly) Jordan (a guy Evans had dominated in previous matches) can't be written off as anything other than a huge disappointment. Evans struggled on his feet against Gillespie and Jordan and struggled to get out from underneath as well, which turned him into a horribly one-dimensional wrestler. If the loss to Gillespie was frustrating, the loss to Jordan was infuriating. It hurt to have a potential big point-scorer knocked out of the championship bracket in R2, but it also wasn't the end of the world: good wrestlers have been known to go on huge tears through the wrestlebacks, earning plenty of points (and bonus points) for their teams. Evans most certainly did not do that. Compare his reaction to that of his first opponent, App State's Kyle Blevins. Blevins lost in round one... and then did not lose again until the 3rd-place match on Saturday morning, finishing 4th overall. That's an incredibly positive reaction and one that you can't help but respect. Evans' performance here was so frustrating because he's clearly capable of so much more, as evidenced by several of the impressive wins he scored this season -- or, hell, just by a look at the leaderboard at 165. Four guys that Evans beat this season -- Blevins, Jordan, Peter Yates, and Conrad Polz -- all finished as All-Americans. Evans did not.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, DEC (5-2) UN Kyle Blevins (Appalachian State)
Second round: L, DEC (3-2) #12 Paul Gillespie (Hofstra)
Consolation round: L, DEC (3-2) UN Ben Jordan (Wisconsin)

174: #5 Ethen Lofthouse (5-2), 7th place finish, NCAA All-American/7th-Place Medalist (7.5 pts)
I really don't know how to grade Lofthouse's performance. The 7th place finish here is a definite step up from his DNP a year ago and, in my heart of hearts, I spent most of this season thinking that 7th would be a pretty good finish for him. So why is it so unsatisfying after all? Part of that is because Lofthouse managed to raise expectations slightly with his performances late in the season and part of it is just watching him match after match and not knowing which Lofthouse is going to turn up in a given situation. With Lofthouse, it's not a matter of firepower -- he's no Ed Ruth out there, but we've seen him have strong leg attacks and we've seen him pick up takedowns easily and we've seen him ride guys well -- it's a matter of actually using it. Far too often (this year and especially at this tournament), Lofthouse has looked content to get by with just the bare minimum use of his talent. It worked to the tune of five wins... but he also had two losses, each to a guy he'd beaten previously. And those five wins were anything but impressive. 7th place isn't an awful result by any means, but I'm not in the mood to give Lofthouse much credit for just managing to avoiding yakking all over himself the way Evans and Gambrall did. Given the opponents he faced and the talent he has, he was capable of much more than a bonus point-free 7th place finish here.
Pigtail round: W, DEC (8-4) UN Dave Foxen (Brown)
First round: W, DEC (7-2) UN Seth Creasy (Lockhaven)
Second round: W, DEC (5-2) #12 Jimmy Sheptock (Maryland)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (3-1) #4 Logan Storley (Minnesota)
Consolation round: W, DEC (5-2) #11 Justin Zeerip (Michigan)
Consolation round: L, DEC (3-2) #9 Nick Heflin (Ohio State)
7th-Place Match: W, DEC (3-1) #6 Ryan DesRoches (Cal Poly)

184: UN Grant Gambrall (2-2), DNP (2.5 pts)
Repeating his 3rd place finish from 2011 was always going to be a struggle for Gambrall, but it wasn't outrageous to expect more than a 2-2 showing from him, given his overall talent level and the fact that he he had previous wins over most of the guys in his bracket. But maybe 2-2 was a more reasonable prediction for Gambrall in 2012, considering his topsy-turvy season and the strength and depth of the 184 lb. weight class. Even so, Gambrall was at his most maddening at this tournament: looking dynamic and impressive when actually committing himself to attacking on offense (see: Avery, Victor), but looking lethargic and unimpressive when he sat back and avoided making real attempts on offense (see: Loder, Ryan or Larson, Mike). Gambrall, like Lofthouse, has firepower... but he uses it so rarely or so poorly that he ends up with unimpressive and exasperating results.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: L, DEC (2-1) #8 Ryan Loder (UNI)
Consolation round: W, DEC (12-6) UN MacKain Stoll (North Dakota State)
Consolation round: W, MAJ DEC (13-4) UN Victor Avery (Edinboro)
Consolation round: L, DEC (5-3 SV) UN Mike Larson (Missouri)

HWT: #5 Bobby Telford (5-2), 5th place finish, NCAA All-American/5th-Place Medalist (15.0 pts)
Other than St. John, no one on the Iowa team had a result that was more surprising (in a positive way) than Telford. Like DSJ, this sort of result from Telford looked pretty unthinkable a month ago when he was struggling to beat any B1G heavyweight and when he had been displaced from the starting lineup by Blake Rasing. But he picked up a few wins at the end of the season, put together a nice run to the Big Ten Tournament finals, and rode that momentum to a 5th-place finish here. Technically, all he did was perform to the level of his seed but Bobby spent a good chunk of this season not looking anything like the 5th-best heavyweight in the land, so it was still a bit of a surprise to see him do so well here. He took advantage of a nice bracket early on (beating unranked Beale and Capone), but his two most impressive wins came in the wrestlebacks, when he beat #9 Cooper and #7 Johnson pretty decisively. Sure, they were guys he was "supposed" to beat, according to seeds, but Telford had struggled against good heavyweights for much of the season, so it was encouraging to see him do so well against them here. There are still things to work on for Telford, as evidenced by his pair of 2-0 losses to Rey and Jack, but this tournament still felt like a step forward for Bobby and one that leaves him in a good place for next year.
Pigtail round: bye
First round: W, DEC (6-1) UN Blayne Beale (UNI)
Second round: W, DEC (4-1) UN Peter Capone (Ohio State)
Quarterfinals: L, DEC (2-0) #4 Zachary Rey (Lehigh)
Consolation round: W, DEC (6-0) #9 Levi Cooper (Arizona State)
Consolation round: W, FALL (3:46) #7 Jeremy Johnson (Ohio)
Consolation round: L, DEC (2-0) #3 Clayton Jack (Oregon State)
5th-Place Match: W, MED FFT #1 Ryan Flores (American)

NEXT: Year-in-review looks at each weight and look-aheads to next year.

T/F/J to Friend of the Pants jtothep for making this excellent scoring breakdown for wrestlers from Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota, Cornell, and Oklahoma State.