While we try to forget
figure out this miserable mystifying football team and celebrate 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
Nathan Burak is a true freshman.
Under Tom Brands, true freshmen don't start at the University of Iowa.
Ergo, Nathan Burak will not start for the University of Iowa this year.
Except Nathan Burak probably is going to start for the University of Iowa this year.
The source of this particular logical pretzel is the simple truth that Nathan Burak isn't a normal true freshman. The typical true freshman at Iowa under Brands has been an 18-year old fresh out of high school. Kids like that typically need a year away from the bright lights of big-time competition, a year spent getting bigger and stronger in the weight room, a year spent absorbing hard lessons from the bigger, stronger, older athletes already in the practice room, and a year spent competing in out-of-the-way events, against unrenowned competition. This isn't true of every true freshman at Iowa since Brands has been here; there have been several who probably could have done quite well as true freshmen -- Brent Metcalf (had he actually been at Iowa then, and eligible), Matt McDonough, Derek St. John, Jay Borschel, etc.
But Nathan Burak isn't getting a chance to start as a true freshman because he's a prodigy-like talent like those guys (at least, it doesn't seem like that's the case); he's getting a chance to start because, frankly, he already has a "redshirt" year under his belt. He's a year older than a normal true freshman and he spent the year in-between graduating high school and coming to Iowa at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado -- getting bigger, getting stronger, getting more experienced, honing his skills against skilled competitors. You know, basically the exact same things he would have been doing at Iowa. So Burak is a true freshman... sort of.
In any event, the starting job at 197 appears to be his to lose at the moment. He bested the other challenger for the spot, Tomas Lira, at the wrestle-offs and given Lira's unimpressive track record at the weight prior to this season, there's little reason not to give Burak a shot now. 197 was a black hole last year, mainly filled by a pair of jumped-up 184ers (first Grant Gambrall, then Vinnie Wagner), but unfortunately that's been the norm more often than not for Iowa at this weight. Luke Lofthouse had a tremendous showing two years ago (All-American, Big Ten runner-up finish) and Chad Beatty managed to scrape one solid showing (6th in the Big Ten, Round of 12 at the NCAA Tournament on one good leg in 2010) together after some injury-ravaged campaigns, but this weight has been a thorn in Iowa's side for a long time.
Not only does Burak appear to have a golden opportunity to be a four-year starter at Iowa (no small thing), but the bar for him to be considered a success is not exactly high (at least not this year). Finish in the top half of the Big Ten? Qualify for the NCAA Tournament? Well, that would be a step up from last year. Can Burak do that? Maybe. We have even less to base a prediction off than we do with a redshirt freshman entering the lineup, though; at least they usually have a year of unattached competition (and the ol' practice room scuttlebutt that inevitably leaks out) to help us form an opinion. Until wrestle-offs last weekend, no one had really seen Burak compete since high school, given that the Olympic Training Center isn't really open to the public. Nor was Burak a blue-chip recruit coming out of high school two years ago; he was solid, but not a headliner. No doubt he's improved after his stint at the OTC, but just how improved he is -- and how that compares to the rest of the field -- remains to be seen.
THE POSSIBLE OPTIONS
Tomas Lira appears to be a really good guy -- a hard worker, an asset in the practice room, and a guy who doesn't cause any problems for a coach or a team. Unfortunately, the results just aren't there. He got a few looks last year... and went 11-10, with nine of those wins coming against lesser competition at the Lindenwood Open and the Grand View Open. The fact that the Iowa staff decided they would be better off with an undersized 184er like Gambrall or Wagner manning this spot for most of the season -- rather than Lira -- kind of speaks volumes, too. Like I said, Lira seems like a really good guy -- he just doesn't seem like starter material at Iowa.
Behind Lira is a whole lot of nothing. If an injury bug hit this weight this year, Iowa would probably look at bumping up another 184er, like Jeremy Fahler.
THE POTHOLES IN THE ROAD
This weight returns only three All-Americans from last year's NCAA Tournament, but that doesn't mean there isn't a pretty solid amount of talent at this weight this year. Kent State's Dustin Kilgore, a former NCAA champion returning from an Olympic redshirt year, is the biggest name in the mix, although Penn State's Quentin Wright, a three-time All-American at 184, is a pretty big addition, too. There's also Oklahoma State's Jake Rosholt, who would have been in the mix for All-America honors at this weight last year if injury hadn't ended his season early; Illinois' Mario Gonzalez, the 2012 Big Ten champion; and Ohio State's Andrew Campolattano, a top recruit a year ago. Those aforementioned returning All-Americans include Wyoming's Alfonso Hernandez, Pitt's Matt Wilps... and Penn's Micah Burak. Yes, Burak -- as in Nathan Burak's older brother. There is a definite chance we could see a Burak-versus-Burak match this season. Holy sibling rivalry, Batman.
THE KEY MATCHES
12/1/12: #15 Kyven Gadson, Iowa State (non-conference dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/4/13: #10 Andrew Campolattano, Ohio State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/6/13: #18 Braden Atwood, Purdue (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
1/13/13: #6 Blake Rosholt, Oklahoma State (non-conference dual; Stillwater, OK)
1/18/13: #20 Max Huntley, Michigan (B1G dual; Ann Arbor, MI)
1/26/13: #12 Scott Schiller, Minnesota (B1G dual; Minneapolis, MN)
2/1/13: #3 Quentin Wright, Penn State (B1G dual; Iowa City, IA)
2/8/13: #7 Mario Gonzalez, Illinois (B1G dual; Champaign, IL)
Burak will see a fair number of InterMat's top-20 wrestlers at the weight (8/20), but only four of the top ten at the weight. His biggest challenge appears to be Wright, although it will be interesting to see how Wright adapts to the 197 lb. weight class -- he never seemed like a terribly big 184er. Matches like Gonzalez, Schiller, and Campolattano will also give us a much better idea of where Burak fits in among the Big Ten pecking order at this weight.
THE REASONABLE EXPECTATION
So what to expect from Burak? Well, as I mentioned up above, projecting his results feels extraordinarily difficult this year. We simply know so little about him or how he compares to the other wrestlers at 197. Any prediction would be nothing more than a shot in the dark. My hope is that he can finish in the top half of the Big Ten and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, where he could perhaps win a match or two. Is that reasonable? Let's hope so -- Iowa needs something out of this weight this year.