The three day slog which is the NCAA wrestling tournament is here and Iowa is looking for some redemption as they didn’t get what they wanted at the conference championship in Lincoln two weeks ago, finishing third. Michigan was the moderately surprising victor with PSU finishing behind them in second despite being “a lot better” than Michigan. Iowa was the defending conference champion and is still the defending national champion, for at least the next three days. To stretch that title to next March will require Iowa’s best wrestling of the year which will mean overcoming injuries, a lot of injuries.
We begin with the old news of Spencer Lee calling 2021-2022 off for double ACL repair. Reports from his father are that he’s doing great and is pain free for the first time in a long time. Good news but the three time national champion won’t be a factor for the here and now. Sadly, the here and now is that Lee’s replacement, true freshman Drake Ayala, has also been hampered by injury. A shoulder/chest injury has nagged him for several weeks, causing him to medical forfeit to an 8th place finish at the conference tourney. DeSanto has some sort of wrist/thumb issue but that hasn’t slowed him too much. Eierman was wearing a bulky knee brace and limping in his last match prior to forfeiting the conference final also. Kemerer has had a bad shoulder all season and forfeited his last two matches of the Big10s. Lastly, (correct me in the comments if I’ve missed anything, it’s not easy keeping up with this level of misfortune) Cassioppi forfeited the conference final at 285, allegedly as a precaution to protect his knee though it wasn’t obvious when or if he had indeed suffered any injury. If 100% healthy, these five guys alone possess enough star power to contend for a top three finish at NCAA’s, never mind being joined by the currently healthy half of Iowa’s squad which would make repeating as champions a cakewalk. Unfortunately, without more time to rehab, we’re gonna get what we’re gonna get.
Overall, NCAA seeding was pretty favorable for Iowa unlike some past years where landmines have been placed in their way by the committee. All ten guys for Iowa auto qualified based on their performances at Big10s. This is hugely impressive. NCState and Northwestern are the only other teams who had all ten wrestlers selected. Michigan and PSU are both bringing nine. Let’s take it one weight at a time with a focus on the three teams most likely to vie for the title this year, Michigan, PSU, and Iowa. Keep NCState in mind as a dark horse also. The complete brackets can be found here.
Drake Ayala got a #13 seed which fits his resume. Not to beat a dead horse but his health is the biggest question mark here, especially because he’s probably going to have to do A LOT of work in the wrestle backs after what I foresee as a first round win followed by a loss to #4 seed Brandon Courtney. As an aside, the NCAA’s is a double elimination tournament meaning after losing once, all wrestlers drop to a separate “wrestle back” bracket where, if they keep winning, can bring them to the 3rd, 5th, and 7th place matches. These matches are important because wrestlers in the wrestle backs still score points for their team and can earn themselves a top 8 finish and All-American status. The earlier in the tournament a wrestler loses, the more matches they have to wrestle to get into these placement matches. A second round loss for Ayala would put several matches between him and an All-American finish. With his health in doubt, wrestling to his seed is about the most we should expect from the true freshman.
The top contender at 125 is definitely Nick Suriano. He’s fresh off winning a Big10 title, lost the 2018 final at 125 to Spencer Lee (no shame there), is the 2019 national champ at 133, lost 2020 to Covid, took an olympic redshirt last year, and is a perfect 11-0 this year. His most likely challenger is the appropriately seeded and delightfully named #2 Vito Arujau of Cornell. Until two weeks ago, most assumed #3 seeded Pat Glory of Princeton would also push for the title but then Vito dispatched him via 19-6 MD so...yeah, probably not. Lex Luther of the wrestling world aka Penn State’s Cael Sanderson, expressed frustration with the national tournament seeding process. Drew Hildebrandt’s #16 seed which sets up a second round (knockout?) match with Suriano has a lot to do with that. My suggestion is to not go 0-2 at your conference tournament and slip into NCAA’s as the last automatic qualifier at your weight but what do I know.
Austin DeSanto is wrestling his final tournament as a Hawkeye which is sad because he’s become my favorite wrestler on the team and is yours too if you’re honest enough with yourself to look past the public shaming you’ll receive for saying so due to DeSanto’s bad boy persona. ADS is the #5 seed which puts him on the same side of the bracket as #1 RBY about which I could not be more excited. Why? Because DeSanto is a better wrestler than Roman Bravo-Young and deserves another chance to prove it. There, I said it. No he hasn’t beaten him in recent meetings but if you watched any of those bouts in a room full of kindergartners and asked those munchkins who they thought won, every one of them would pick DeSanto. He’s been the more active and offensive wrestler every time. A quality referee would have disqualified RBY via stalling from the past couple of matches in particular.
The favorite at 133 really ought to be Oklahoma State’s #2 Daton Fix. With ADS and RBY having a likely showdown in the semi-finals, Fix’s side of the bracket is easier and Fix has only gotten better since last year’s finals appearance where he lost in sudden victory to RBY.
Jaydin Eierman was given the benefit of the doubt and given the #2 seed, despite injury defaulting before the Big10 final. His personal story is incredible and his path to a fifth! and final NCAA appearance sets up like a story book. He’s previously finished 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 2nd, in that order at the national tournament. Now, the final chapter is being written. We have the long backstory. We have the drama of an injury to be overcome. We have the villain, ok PSU’s Nick Lee actually seems like a nice guy but let’s go with it. Lee beat Eierman in last year’s final in sudden victory after Eierman beat him to win a conference title in 2021. Now all that’s left is for our guy to win it all. A healthy Eierman really shouldn’t be challenged by anyone but Lee. He’s too skilled, experienced, and mentally tough. We’ll know very soon if he’s physically capable of making another run to the final.
If Eierman is slowed by his tweaked knee, just hand the trophy to Lee. #3 Sebastian Rivera of Rutgers is 24-0 and a very entertaining guy to watch but he also injury defaulted from Big10s. It just doesn’t seem to be in the cards for anyone but Lee or Eierman. Nebraska’s Chad Red tends to show up big at the national tournament but went 0-2 at Big10s so while not a title contender, he’ll be an interesting guy to keep an eye on at 141 also.
Max Murin just may be the best surprise of the season for Iowa. He took third at the conference tournament, has pulled some upsets, taken Sammy Sasso to the wire, and is seeded #8. Expect him to win his opening matches before hitting the #1 seed and undefeated Yianni Diakomihalis. That no doubt will drop him to the wrestle backs. With Max’s grind it out style, an All-American finish is easily in reach from there.
Yianni is the deserved #1 but he’ll have to earn it. Wilson of NCST is also undefeated this year. Sasso was a finalist last year. Wisconsin’s Gomez, formerly of ISU, upset Sasso in the conference finals this year. Don’t be surprised to see any of these guys on top or for this bracket to go to chalk up to the semis.
Young drew a #9 seed here, with a 17-7 record. How he keeps being given the benefit of the doubt is puzzling. Iowa desperately needs Young to take advantage of his position, win his opening match, then knock off Michigan’s Will Lewan. The team race implications are significant if he can do that and manage to slip into All-American status. We’ve seen enough of Young over the years to not get our hopes up however and it’s realistic to think he finishes in the round of 12. PSU’s Brady Berge was given the #16 seed and a second round matchup with champion, son of a champion, David Carr of Iowa State. This makes Sanderson mad. My suggestion is to not come out of retirement mid season, wrestle half your matches at one weight, then drop to another weight and only wrestler 5 different guys for the seeding committee to form an opinion of you, but what do I know.
The top names at 157 are David Carr and Ryan Deakin. A lifetime ago, Young was a match for Deakin, not anymore. Carr and Deakin have separated themselves from the field. And, similar to most weights, NCState has a wrestler lurking just below the surface at 157 who will rack up solid team points. Still, a showdown of undefeated Carr vs Deakin is what the people want. I think they give it to us with Carr taking it by a TD.
Marinelli is the #3 seed at 165 which...puts him in a better place than he’s been in past years, even when he was seeded #1 last year in my opinion. There really don’t seem to be any place for an unforeseen challenge to materialize for him this year. After his first two rounds that he ought to cruise through, he gets a probable rematch with Cam Amine who stalled his butt off in the conference finals to make his 2-1 loss to Marinelli look competitive. It wasn’t. Then in the semi-finals, Marinelli will see either Missouri’s O’Toole, a real challenge but not a surprise, or Kharchla of Ohio State who did catch Marinelli in their only match earlier this year. Again, a challenge but not a surprise or a match The Bull can’t win. A win there pairs him with Evan Wick or perhaps Dean Hamiti. Marinelli is 2-0 vs Hamiti and 4-1 vs Wick with his only loss going all the way back to their first meeting in 2018.
Wick and Marinelli are the contenders here in my opinion. Considering the uncertainties brought on by injury at 141 and 174, this is Iowa’s best weight for a shot at an individual champion and it’s Marinelli’s final chance to add “National Champion” behind his name to go with the already attained “Four Time Big Ten Champion”.
In Iowa’s current lineup, it’s hard to argue that a healthy Michael Kemerer isn’t the best of the bunch. What’s maddening is he’s had to change his entire style of wrestling due to a shoulder injury. The patented ankle pick within the first six seconds of matches is gone. The double leg attacks are gone. He has won this year with top notch scrambling and riding/turning ability, and incredibly heavy hips on defense. As a #5 seed, his road to a title still goes through PSU’s #1 Starocci, he’ll just get him in the semifinals instead of the finals like last year. All of their bouts have been great to watch, it’s just going to be up to Kemerer’s health as to whether they meet one more time as college wrestlers or not.
Starocci was the favorite at this weight and the start of PSU’s murderer’s row, with or without Kemerer. He’ll have to earn his way however. Nebraska’s Labriola always presents himself as a physical, explosive opponent. Starocci will likely meet him in the quarters, then Kemerer if he’s feeling good, and finally perhaps Mekhi Lewis, former 165 champion. Michigan’s Logan Massa is the #3 seed but I have a hard time believing he’s up to the challenge. He just hasn’t passed the eye test for me this year, much like Michigan 141lbr Stephan Micic. Michigan will need both of those guys to measure up to their past glory for a shot at the team title.
Abe Assad is the #18 seed here but expectations were so much higher coming into the year. All-American was already penciled in next to his name. Now, just winning more than one match at NCAA’s is no sure thing. Assuming he does win his opening match, he’ll meet PSU’s Aaron Brooks. From a glass half full perspective, a shocking win by Assad over Brooks could wreck the whole tournament for PSU and more than likely tip the balance in favor of an Iowa, Michigan, or NCState title. That just isn’t realistic, unfortunately and an early trip to the loser’s bracket for Assad is unlikely to yield Iowa many points. We’ll have to be happy with any points we can get at 184.
Nevertheless, there is a high probability for this weight to produce incredible entertainment. Another Amine vs Brooks match promises to deliver Olympic quality, literally. Amine was last year’s Olympic bronze medalist and is 1-1 vs Brooks this year. And Parker Keckeisen of UNI and Trent Hidlay of NCST are of local interest and team race relevance respectively.
Warner was a single period away from becoming the #1 ranked wrestler in the country at 197 before giving up a bow-and-arrow move to PSU’s Max Dean in the dual this season. He’s slid further since then down to the #6 spot. Warner is a bit of an enigma, or a headcase if you prefer. He can look like the best in the country one match, then appear listless against even mediocre opponents the next. A questionable call in last year’s NCAA’s kept him alive in that tournament longer than he had a right to be and this year may be another hold on to your seat experience through the opening rounds. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to say. If he does wrestle to his seed, he’ll get a rematch with Nebraska’s Schultz in the quarters who is a high quality wrestler but far from unbeatable.
Penn State once again occupies the top line here with transfer Max Dean. Like 174 and 184, the PSU grappler will have to earn his title. To me, Dean’s #1 draw here looks like Marinelli’s last year, that is to say, not as favorable as one would expect. The only wrestler to beat Dean this year is on his side of the bracket as a potential quarterfinal opponent, Cam Caffey. His possible semi-final opponent, Brucki of Michigan, took him to sudden victory in the dual this year. It’s likely Dean will have faced his stiffest challengers before a possible final’s spot is even secured and at the risk of losing to a Michigan wrestler which adds the further potential of a lethal blow for PSU’s title hopes.
Big Tony is the #3 seed and has no one on his side of the bracket that has ever beaten him, save Michigan’s Mason Parris. In Cassioppi’s favor is the fact that Parris hasn’t looked nearly as dominant lately and will have to go through #2 Cohlton Schultz before a possible Iowa vs Michigan semifinal matchup could even take place. Bonus points will be absolutely vital to Iowa’s title hopes and Tony has scored them consistently vs the type of overmatched competition he’ll see in his first two bouts. In fact, he’s two for two in delivering pins vs his possible second round opponent, Luke Luffman.
Runner up is the only prize available at heavyweight this year. When the reigning Olympic gold medalist who hasn’t lost a match in three years is at the top of your bracket, that’s just how it is. PSU’s Kerkvliet is the #4 seed and will get his shot at Steveson in the semi final, provided he gets past the undefeated Wyatt Hendrickson, but we’re mostly talking about formalities here. Cassioppi’s seed is as favorable as it can be with Steveson in the bracket.
Given Iowa’ injury situation, the Hawks really need to go 10-0 through the first round and 7-3 at the absolute minimum, or 8-2 preferably, in the second to control their own destiny after Day One action. Injury defaults are nearly inevitable when competition heats up and must be accounted for now. While it’s possible Iowa could slip up early and still back into a team title on the strength of their depth, that would require a few timely upsets of PSU and perhaps Michigan wrestlers. Counting on upsets of PSU wrestlers in the national tournament is a fool’s hope, though. It just doesn’t happen. Perhaps Sanderson’s NCAA magic is void this year though since a few of his guys are transfers? We don’t have long to wait.
For an up to the minute point tracker, go here.
For ease of reference, here are Iowa’s first round matchups:
125 – #13 Drake Ayala (Iowa) vs. #20 Fabian Gutierrez (Chattanooga)
133 – #5 Austin DeSanto (Iowa) vs. #28 Sidney Flores (Air Force)
141 – #2 Jaydin Eierman (Iowa) vs. #31 Wilfredo Gil (Franklin and Marshall)
149 – #8 Max Murin (Iowa) vs. #25 Corbyn Monson (Central Michigan)
157 – #9 Kaleb Young (Iowa) vs. #24 Doug Zapf (Penn)
165 – #3 Alex Marinelli (Iowa) vs.#30 Evan Barczak (Drexel)
174 – #5 Michael Kemerer (Iowa) vs. #28 Benjamin Pasiuk (Army)
184 – #18 Abe Assad (Iowa) vs. #15 Hunter Bolen (Virginia Tech)
197 – #6 Jacob Warner (Iowa) vs. #27 Alan Clothier (Northern Colorado)
285 – #3 Tony Cassioppi (Iowa) vs. #30 Josh Heindselman (Oklahoma)
Session I - 11AM God’s Time (Central) // Thursday March 17th, 2022
Session II- 6PM God’s Time (Central) // Thursday March 17th, 2022
TV: Session I is available on ESPNU, Session II will be on ESPN
Streaming: Individual mats for all sessions are available on ESPN3
Location: Little Caesars Arena // Detroit, Michigan