Two of the biggest tournaments in the college wrestling season are coming up this week -- Midlands and the Southern Scuffle -- and both should give us some early previews of action that we'll see a few months from now at the NCAA Tournament. But with almost two months in the books, we probably know enough about the various teams in contention this year to figure out which teams are true contenders this year.
It's worth breaking down the points that finishers earn at each All-America spot to understand what you need in order to bring home a team championship:
1st: 20 points (16 placement points + 4 advancement points)
2nd: 16 points (12 placement points + 4 advancement points)
3rd: 13.5 points (10 placement points + 3.5 advancement points)
4th: 12.5 points (9 placement points + 3.5 advancement points)
5th: 10 points (7 placement points + 3 advancement points)
6th: 9 points (6 placement points + 3 advancement points)
7th: 6.5 points (4 placement points + 2.5 advancement points)
8th: 5.5 points (3 placement points + 2.5 advancement points)
There's a huge difference between finishing at the bottom of the podium and finishing at the top of the podium. Getting on the podium, period, is important -- if you don't finish in the Top 8, you're probably not going to earn more than 2-3 points in the team race. But while getting 5.5 or 6.5 points is nice, the real points are at the top of the podium: making the finals on Saturday is worth 16 points, at minimum. Add on bonus points earned from pins, technical falls, or major decisions and that total will increase.
Getting wrestlers to finish 3rd or 4th is also good, but the finals are where it's at.
2015: Ohio State (3 finalists)
2014: Penn State (2 finalists)*
2013: Penn State (5 finalists)
2012: Penn State (5 finalists)
2011: Penn State (3 finalists)
2010: Iowa (5 finalists)
2009: Iowa (1 finalist)**
2008: Iowa (3 finalists)***
2007: Minnesota (1 finalist)****
2006: Oklahoma State (3 finalists)*****
*Oklahoma State had 4 finalists.
**Edinboro had 2 finalists, Nebraska had 2 finalists, and Ohio State had 3 finalists.
***Ohio State also had 3 finalists.
****Oklahoma State had 2 finalists and Iowa State had 3 finalists.
*****Minnesota also had 3 finalists.
Obviously it's not quite as simple as "put the most wrestlers in the finals and win," but there's only been three times in the last ten years when a team had more finalists than the eventual national champion. (There were also two occasions when another team had the same number of finalists as the eventual national champion.) Penn State put together a four-peat largely by dominating Saturday night at the NCAA Tournament (it helped to have David Taylor, Ed Ruth, and Quentin Wright -- they had ten NCAA finals appearances between them). Ohio State followed that same model to a championship last year -- 68.5 of their 102 total points came from their three finalists, Nathan Tomasello (125), Logan Stieber (141), and Kyle Snyder (197). Iowa rode that model to success in two of their last three titles (2008 and 2010; 2009 remains one of the strangest title-winning years in a long time and should not be viewed as a template for any sort of success).
You need more than just NCAA finalists to win a title -- but if you don't have multiple wrestlers in action on Saturday night, your odds of going home with the trophy you want at the end of the night go way, way down. So let's look at the top contending teams this year and see how they measure up.
* Shakur Rasheed is ranked #16 by Flo, #17 by W.I.N. Magazine, and #14 by The Open Mat.
Qualifiers: 9/10 -- Penn State should qualify wrestlers for the NCAA Tournament at nine of ten weights. An early season injury to Nick Nevills has left them scrambling at heavyweight and the stopgap option they're using (Jan Johnson) is unlikely to earn a spot in the field at the NCAA Tournament.
Finalists: 2-5 -- Strictly speaking, Penn State is tabbed to get two finalists (Zain Retherford at 149 and Morgan McIntosh at 197), but Jason Nolf (157) and Nico Megaludis (125) are legitimate options as well (Nico is a former two-time NCAA finalist). 174 is such a chaotic weight that it isn't too far-fetched to imagine Nickal making the finals, either.
All-Americans: 6-8 -- Penn State has five rock-solid options to get All-America honors: Megaludis, Retherford, Nolf, Nickal, and McIntosh. Two other wrestlers, Conaway at 133 and Gulibon at 141, look like good bets to challenge for spots at the bottom of the podium, which would give Penn State seven All-Americans. McCutcheon and Rasheed are dark horse possibilities at their respective weights, too; McCutcheon made the Round of 12 at 184 last year (just missing out on All-America honors) and Rasheed is at a weight that's fairly weak at the bottom of the podium. Penn State likely won't get nine All-Americans, but 6-8 seems like a real possibility.
Qualifiers: 8/10 -- At present, Iowa looks to be on schedule to qualify 7-8 weights for the NCAA Tournament, with 141, 157, and 165 being the question marks. I'm optimistic that Iowa will get nine weights qualified -- the results at 165 haven't provided enough reason to have faith in that weight, but Cooper's produced some promising results at 157 and the promise of Grothus at 141 is tantalizing enough to consider it a weight that Iowa can qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Finalists: 3-6 -- Per the rankings, Iowa has good bets to make the finals at 125 (Gilman), Clark (133), and Sorensen (149). Three other wrestlers -- Meyer (174), Brooks (184), and Burak (197) -- have outside shots to make the finals. As mentioned, 174 is a very topsy-turvy weight this year and if Meyer is one of the 5-6 best guys at that weight, he'll have a shot to make the finals. Brooks has the ability (if not yet the resume) to make the finals at 184 and if things break right for Burak at 197, a finals appearance is plausible.
All-Americans: 6-8 -- Could Iowa have six finalists and zero other All-Americans? It's pretty unlikely that things would work out that way, but it's possible if only because of the drop-off from Iowa's finalist-caliber weights to all the other weights. Sam Stoll has emerged as an intriguing possibility at 285 and as mentioned, Brody Grothus is a very intriguing option at 141.
Qualifiers: 9/10 -- Oklahoma State has pretty rock solid qualifiers at seven weights (125, 133, 141, 149, 165, 174, 285), with question marks at 157, 184, and 197. The odds look pretty good that they'll be able to qualify at least two of those three weights, though.
Finalists: 1-4 -- On paper, Oklahoma State looks like a good bet for three finalists -- Heil at 141, Dieringer at 165, and Crutchmer at 174. But only Dieringer feels like a rock solid bet for the finals. Heil and Crutchmer are at two of the most unpredictable weights in the country this year and while both guys are clearly in the top 4-5 guys at each weight, they're anything but no-brainer finalists. Klimara at 125 and Marsden at 285 are in consideration to be finalists based on their top 5 rankings, but both also seem to be clearly behind the top guys at their respective weights.
All-Americans: 5-7 -- Heil, Dieringer, Crutchmer, Klimara, and Marsden are all pretty safe bets to end up on the podium as All-Americans, but after that things get murky. Kaid Brock appears to have the talent to make the podium (he made a spectacular debut this year by pinning last year's 133-lb champion, Cody Brewer), but he doesn't have much in the way of experience yet. Alex Collica rates out as a guy who should be vying for a spot near the bottom of the podium as well.
Qualifiers: 8/10 -- Ohio State is a tricky team to figure out, given their uncertainty at so many weights. Right now there are six weights that look like rock-solid qualifiers: 125, 133, 141, 157, 165, and 184. Tavanello isn't quite a rock-solid qualifier at 285, but he's a good bet to make it. If Hunter Stieber returns (and is truly healthy) he should be able to qualify at 149. Mark Martin hasn't blown any doors off yet at 197, but he still might quality at 197. And while the current options at 174 are distinctly underwhelming, if Ohio State decides to go all-in on a national title attempt this year they could pull the redshirt on Myles Martin, who's been having an impressive redshirt season and could qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Finalists: 2-3 -- Tomasello (125) and Jordan (165) are Ohio State's best bets by far to make the finals, but I listed three as a possibility because Ohio State wrestlers have a tendency to wrestle their best in March and it wouldn't be a huge shock to see one of their guys get hot and go on a run in the NCAA Tournament (Jordan at 141 seems like the best option). And there's also the Hunter Stieber situation -- if he's back and fully healthy, he's capable of making the NCAA finals at 149.
All-Americans: 2-7 -- The uncertainty in the Ohio State lineup also makes it difficult to project All-Americans. Tomasello (125) and Jordan (165) will be on the podium. Beyond that? Who knows. DiJulius (133) and Jordan (141) are fringe All-America contenders, and Ryan and Courts seem like guys who could get hot and contend for spots on the podium. And, of course, a healthy Hunter Stieber could definitely make the podium. But Ohio State's fortunes could go in a lot of different directions at the NCAA Tournament.
Qualifiers: 9/10 -- Missouri has a weak spot at heavyweight, but should qualify all other nine weights for the NCAA Tournament.
Finalists: 1-3 -- J'Den Cox (197) is a strong bet to make the NCAA finals as he's one of the top contenders at his weight. Mayes (149) and Miklus (184) also have the talent to make the finals at their respective weights, although both will face some stiff competition at those weights as well. 174 is a muddled weight, so Butler could have a shot at the finals if he can put together a good run in March.
All-Americans: 5-8 -- Mayes, Butler, Miklus, and Cox seem like good bets to earn All-America honors and McGhee has a definite chance to get onto the bottom of the podium at 125. Manley (141), Lavallee (157), and Lewis (165) all have outside shots to make the podium as well, if they get hot in March. Missouri is a team without any glaring holes (beyond heavyweight), but they don't seem to have quite enough studs to earn the big points needed to contend for an NCAA title.
Qualifiers: 9/10 -- Virginia Tech has wrestlers ranked at 8/10 weights (125, 141, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197, 285), so they're a good bet to get NCAA qualifiers there. I suspect they'll get at least one more qualifier as well -- 149 looks likely, as Mastriani is pretty solid.
Finalists: 1-4 -- Walz has a great shot to make the NCAA finals at 285, but beyond him are a handful of intriguing options as well. Dance is right in the thick of things with the top guys at 125. Brascetta is very good and with the right draw might be capable of making the NCAA finals at 157. And Epperly is in the mix of top guys at 174, which is a very volatile weight -- whoever can string together five good matches at that weight at the NCAA Tournament is likely to come away with a title.
All-Americans: 5-7 -- The four potential NCAA finalists mentioned above are obviously good bets to make All-America status. But Virginia Tech has a few other guys who have a good shot to end up on the podium as well, such as Zavatsky at 184 and Chishko at 141. One of the most fascinating things about Virginia Tech and their rankings is the wide range at a few weights. Chishko ranks as high as #8 and as low as #17 at 141. Zavatsky is as high as #7 and as low as #14 at 184. And McFadden is as high as #12 and as low as unranked at 165. In a way, that wide range perfectly sums up Virginia Tech's team title aspirations -- if everything hits for them, they have a lot of upside and could contend for a team title (four finalists plus 2-3 other All-Americans would definitely put them in the mix), but there's also a good chance that they could get tripped up at a few weights and fall well short of title contention. There are a very wide range of plausible outcomes for Virginia Tech.
Qualifiers: 7/10 -- NC State has ranked wrestlers at six of ten weights (141, 157, 165, 184, 197, 285) and they should have no trouble qualifying at those weights. I'll assume that they're able to qualify at least one of the remaining four weights, too.
Finalists: 2-3 -- Gwiazdowski is the two-time defending NCAA champion at 285, so I feel pretty good about penciling him into an NCAA finalist spot. Jack came slightly out of nowhere at last year's NCAA Tournament (Iowa fans may remember him as the guy who upset Josh Dziewa in the first round), but he's built upon that superb run with a very fine season so far in 2015-16 and is a viable threat to make the finals at 141. Gantt (157) and Rohskopf (165) have the possibility to get on a run and threaten for a spot in the finals, although they also seem a cut below the top guys at their respective weights.
All-Americans: 4 -- Gwiazdowski, Gantt, Rohskopf, and Jack all seem like solid bets to make the podium. Beyond that, though, it's hard to find viable options. Renda is decent at 184, but that's a bear trap of a weight, too -- there will be some very good wrestlers at that weight who fail to make All-America status. NC State is an interesting team -- they have some clear studs and some decent depth thanks to good wrestlers at several weights, but they probably profile as a slightly better dual meet team than a tournament team (although Jack and Gwiaz could get them a lot of points between the two of them).
Qualifiers: 4-??? -- Honestly, beyond Garrett (133), Realbuto (174), and Dean (184), I have no idea how many other Cornell guys are likely to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Macri (125) and Pickett (165) seem like decent bets and odds are another 2-3 guys will qualify as well; around 8 NCAA qualifiers sounds about right for the Big Red.
Finalists: 3 -- Garrett, Realbuto, and Dean are good bets to make the NCAA finals at their respective weights. If any other Cornell wrestler made the finals, it would be a pretty tremendous upset.
All-Americans: 3 -- Garrett, Realbuto, and Dean are all solid bets to make the podium in March. If Pickett gets hot, he could give Cornell a fourth All-American. Can you win an NCAA title with three individual champions and virtually nothing else? That's the question Cornell is attempting to answer this year, but the answer is pretty clearly "no." Best case scenario, those three finalists score 75 points for Cornell -- that won't win a title.
Qualifiers: 8/10 -- Michigan appears to be in good shape to qualify for the NCAA Tournament at every weight except 141 and 165. It wouldn't be a huge surprise for Sutton to qualify at 165, either.
Finalists: 1-2 -- Adam Coon is a real threat to make the NCAA finals at 285. Beyond that, the only semi-realistic possibility appears to be Murphy at 157, but he also seems to be clearly a step or two below the best guys at that weight.
All-Americans: 3-5 -- Michigan was actually ranked as high as #3 in the rankings at one point, which seemed bizarrely high. Michigan has a very solid overall team and they're especially good in a dual meet setting because they don't have any glaring weak points -- even their two unranked wrestlers, Fisher and Sutton, aren't exactly bad -- but they lack the top-end quality to be a serious title contender. There just aren't enough guys here who can qualify for the NCAA finals or vie for spots high on the podium.
Qualifiers: 10/10 -- Nebraska is the only team in the country with wrestlers ranked at every weight, so they appear to be in pretty good shape to qualify all ten weights for the NCAA Tournament, too. There isn't a clear weak link anywhere in this lineup.
Finalists: 0-1 -- On the down side, there also aren't any clear studs anywhere in this lineup, either. Maybe Dudley (184) or Sueflohn (149) could go on a tear and make the NCAA finals, but beyond that? Nah.
All-Americans: 2-6 -- Like Michigan, Nebraska has tremendous balance across their entire lineup and is good in a dual meet format. But they don't have the horses to contend for a national title. Dudley and Sueflohn look like solid contenders to make the podium at the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that? Well, Lambert (125), Montoya (133), Wilson (165), and Barnes (174) are all guys in that fringe All-America contender status who might be able to sneak into the top-8 with a good run in March.
* * *
The top tier of title contenders appear to be Penn State, Iowa, and Oklahoma State. Penn State appears to have the best combination of potential finalists (as many as 4-5) and total All-Americans (as many as 8-9). That said, they don't have any rock-solid sure things like they had with David Taylor or Ed Ruth in the past (or like Iowa had with Brent Metcalf or Ohio State had with Logan Stieber). Megaludis is one of a handful of top guys at 125 and while Retherford has looked good at 149, he's untested against the top guys at the weight and may not be leagues ahead of them the way Taylor or Ruth were. Beyond that, they're also reliant on redshirt freshmen in Nolf and Nickal at 157 and 174 -- they could easily have a hiccup or two under the lights in March. Penn State's potential is unmatched -- if they wrestle as well as they can, I don't think they can be caught by another team. But it's also not a sure thing that they're going to reach all -- or most -- of that potential. They have a high ceiling, but it's not clear that their floor is as high as it was during the four-peat years.
Iowa has the potential to put together a team performance with multiple finalists, supplemented by a handful of additional All-Americans. The good news is that Iowa's title bid is anchored by a core group of wrestlers with experience finishing on the podium -- Gilman, Clark, Sorensen, and Burak. Six finalists would set Iowa up very well to contend for a championship -- at minimum, that would give them 96 points before any bonus points or points from other weights are factored in. But six finalists is also a best case scenario -- I don't think it's hugely realistic that Iowa will have that many finalists. Iowa is almost certainly going to need some points from guys outside of the big six -- if Brody Grothus can do some damage at 141 or Sam Stoll can put together a run at 285, that would be a big boost for Iowa. But for the most part Iowa's title push is going to come down to Gilman, Clark, Sorensen, Meyer, Brooks, and Burak -- Iowa needs to get as many points as possible out of those guys.
Oklahoma State is the other major contender and their title push is reliant on their three main stars (Heil, Dieringer, and Crutchmer) making the finals and guys like Klimara and Marsden living up to their rankings. If that happened, that would put them in the 90-point range, which would certainly put them in contention. If Collica and Brock are able to make the podium as well, that could push Oklahoma State into the 100-point range, which would make them a major title threat. I don't think Oklahoma State's ceiling is quite as high as Penn State's or Iowa's, but their floor is relatively high. That said, a lot rides on Heil and Crutchmer making the finals, which is certainly no sure thing. Likewise, Klimara and Marsden have struggled at the NCAA Tournament in the past.
The next tier of contenders features teams like Virginia Tech, Ohio State, and Missouri. They have talent and solid depth, but they'll need everything to hit just right for them to contend for a title. Finally, teams like NC State, Michigan, and Nebraska are good in a dual meet format, but don't appear to have the high-end talent to truly contend for a championship.