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Getting Back on Top: Iowa vs. the Challengers

Taking a (very) early look-ahead at the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

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The 2012-13 wrestling season is underway now, beginning its inexorable march towards its grand finale in Des Moines, IA next March, when the NCAA Tournament comes to town. Penn State enters the season as the two-time defending national champion -- can anyone catch them? More importantly, can Iowa catch them? How does Iowa stack up with Penn State -- as well as some other national title contenders, like Minnesota and Oklahoma State, or slight dark horse challengers like Ohio State and Illinois? Let's take a look, friends.



The numbers under each school are the current InterMat rankings for each school's designated wrestler at that weight -- i.e., Matt McDonough (Iowa) is #1 at 125, Tony Ramos (Iowa) is #3 at 133, Ed Ruth (Penn State) is #1 at 184, etc. I used those numbers to calculate the anticipated number of All-Americans and national champions for each team (All-Americans are the top-8 finishers at the NCAA Tournament in March, so I used the top-8 ranked wrestlers in the current rankings; national champions were the #1-ranked wrestlers in the current rankings). The projected points figure is the sum of the placement points and advancement points that each wrestler would likely get for placing at that spot at next March's NCAA Tournament. Just as a refresher...

1st place:
16 points
2nd place: 12 points
3rd place: 10 points
4th place: 9 points
5th place: 7 points
6th place: 6 points
7th place: 4 points
8th place: 3 points

1st-2nd place: 5 points
3rd-4th place: 4.5 points
5th-6th place: 4 points
7th-8th place: 3.5 points
Round of 12: 3 points

For wrestlers ranked 9-12 in the current InterMat rankings I gave them the advancement points they would receive for ending in the Round of 12 (the consolation round right before wrestlers begin competing for 3rd-8th place in the bottom half of the bracket). For wrestlers ranked 13-16, I gave them 2 advancement points. For wrestlers ranked 17-20, I gave them 1 advancement points. For wrestlers not ranked at all, I gave them 0 advancement points.

Needless to say, this approach has a very obvious flaw: InterMat rankings are not the gospel truth -- not now, and certainly not in March. There will undoubtedly be upsets in the NCAA Tournament and things will not according to this lovely, well-organized plan. But it was necessary to start somewhere and this at least provides a foundation for the discussion. I'm not going to speculate on which weights might underachieve -- such as Mike Evans (Iowa) at 165 or Jamal Parks (Oklahoma State) at 149 last year -- because that's exceedingly hard to project (and also a bit mean-spirited), but I will mention a few weights where it might be reasonable to expect a bit more than InterMat's current rankings are projecting.


As you can see, the two-time defending national champions remain heavy favorites to make a it a three-peat and spoil the NCAA Tournament's triumphant return to the Hawkeye State. This is what happens when you return the core of those teams that won two consecutive national championships. Penn State does have a few holes -- 133 and 141 again look weak and 285 has taken a step back without Cameron Wade -- but they make up for it by having elite wrestlers at virtually every other weight. Literally half their team is projected to finish in the top-3 at their respective weights, which is not a pants-on-head crazy prediction when four of those five games are past NCAA champions (Taylor, Ruth, Wright) or NCAA finalists (Megaludis). Only Matt Brown at 174 is untested in terms of NCAA Tournament experience, but he's performed well in spot duty and in unattached competition so far. They also have the Alton twins at 149 and 157, both of whom could definitely rack up some significant points at the NCAA Tournament. If Penn State performs up to expectations -- and, again, remember that that projection of 106 points does not include any bonus points and guys like Taylor, Ruth, and Wright are bonus point fiends -- they're going to be very, very, very difficult to catch. Unfortunately, the rest of the field may need them to stumble a bit to really make this a race.


The Gophers finished second in 2012 and they appear well-suited to claim that bridesmaid role again in 2013. Minnesota has fewer holes than Penn State -- right now, only 157 doesn't feature a ranked wrestler and of their ranked wrestlers, the lowest ranked is Nick Dardanes at #11 at 141. What's keeping Minnesota behind Penn State is their lack of absolute studs. They have two projected finalists -- defending champion Tony Nelson at 285 and Dylan Ness at 149 -- and two other high-placing All-Americans (Logan Storley at 174 and Kevin Steinhaus at 184) but the rest of their wrestlers are hovering around the bottom end or just outside All-America ranks. To make a push for the title, they'll need their studs to perform up to expectations, but they'll also needs wrestlers like the Dardanes brothers (133 and 141), David Thorn (125), and Cody Yohn (165) to outperform their expectations. It's possible, but at the moment Minnesota looks like a stronger dual meet team than a tournament team.


Ah, yes, our beloved Hawkeys. What of them? Well, as you can plainly see, the current outlook is not too rosy. It's good enough to get them into a tie for third with fellow college wrestling kingpin Oklahoma State... but it still leaves them a whopping 20+ points behind Penn State (and 8 behind Minnesota) in the race for the title. That would be a dispiriting finish, especially on home soil. The strength -- and weakness -- of Iowa is the uncertainty of this Iowa roster, though. Of all the teams on this list, I think their projections are some of the least stable, which could be a very good thing for the Hawks come March. That's not true across the board, of course -- barring injury, it's pretty easy to project where McDonough, St. John, and Ramos should finish. But beyond those guys? There's quite a bit of volatility in the projections.

Take Mark Ballweg at 141; he's currently projected at 13th, which leaves him off the podium and sees him only grab 2 advancement points. Could he exceed that total? It seems very possible -- he did well at 141 two years ago and has had a strong start to the season so far (albeit against not-so-stiff competition, for the most part), so it doesn't seem insane to suggest that he could sniff the All-America ranks; if he can get up to 7th or 8th place, that would tack on another 5-6 points for Iowa.

165 is another good example of some possible undervaluing of Iowa's asset(s). InterMat's current rankings have Mike Evans moved up to 174 (which does seem like a permanent move; more on that tomorrow), which would open a starting spot at 165 for Nick Moore. But InterMat doesn't have Moore ranked at all, even though I have a very hard time believing that he's not one of the 20 best wrestlers in the country at that weight. He was an elite recruit coming out of high school, his natural weight is 165, and he's had very solid results at that weight in college (albeit not against top competition). I can understand wanting to wait to rank him until he logs a few wins against better competition, but I also don't think it's unreasonable in the slightest to think that he can (and will) score points for Iowa at the NCAA Tournament. The question, of course, is how many points might he score. Can he vie for All-America honors? Maybe -- 165 is brutally tough at the top of the heap (Taylor, Dake, Caldwell), but not as daunting beyond that. Again, it's perfectly reasonable to wait and see how Moore performs against better 165ers before tooting his horn too much... but his potential upside at this weight is sizable.

Meanwhile, Evans' move makes a mess of things at 174 and, possibly, 184, where Iowa currently is projected to score a pair of low All-America contenders. Given the ridiculous depth and strength at 184 this year, I think Iowa will have a tough time exceeding that projected 8th place finish by much, but at 174? Hmm. That weight isn't as scary and while it's very unclear whether Iowa will be going with Evans or Gambrall there (InterMat has Evans ranked, but Brands has steadfastly refused to name either the definitive option at the weight), there's real potential there. Gambrall has looked pretty inconsistent this year (which is nothing new, sadly) and Evans is a total wildcard at 174... but, like Moore, he was a stud recruit coming out of HS and 174 is much closer to his natural weight (it's also the weight he performed well in as an unattached competitor while redshirting as a true freshman). So again: a lot of potential upside at this weight if Evans can win the job.

Of course, that still leaves two weights (149 and 197) that remain incredibly difficult to project, and 285, perennially a bit of a mystery weight. For the record, I think Telford will do well this year be in the mix for All-America honors again; his current 5th-place projection feels about right for now. The bar is set very low for Iowa at 149 and 197, though. Can Iowa qualify a wrestler at those weights? Can that wrestler win a few matches? If so, that would be a boon for Iowa.

So let's just say that Ballweg can finish 8th, Moore and Evans can finish 6th, 149er to be named later and Nathan Burak can qualify and win a match or two, and the rest of Iowa's projections stay on point... well, that would have Iowa sitting at around 113 points, before bonus points are factored in. Granted, to be fair we'd probably need to assume that Penn State has their wrestlers at 133, 141, and 285 score few points for them and possibly project some of their guys to "overachieve" like I have Moore and Evans (arguably) doing here (although one of the problems for Penn State in that regard is that they already have so many guys projected to finish high that it's hard to find room for them to overachieve)... but still: if Iowa can live up to the projections I made -- projections which are not too crazy, I don't think -- then they can be right in the thick of the title race. There's still a long, long, long way to go 'til the NCAA Tournament and there are lots of things that can -- and will -- change between now and then... but I think Iowa can compete for the title this year. And it doesn't even require drinking too much black-and-gold flavored Kool-Aid to think that.


Oklahoma State's situation is similar to Minnesota's: studs at a handful of weights and a low All-America candidates. What differentiates them is the fact that the Pokes have three relative holes (125, 141, and 184) in their lineup. I think they have a roster with real upside, though: Oliver (even wrestling up two weights) is a solid national title contender, as is Chris Perry at 174; Alan Gelogaev absolutely has the talent to win a national title at 285; and Tyler Caldwell is very, very good at 165 (unfortunately, he's also behind two best-in-a-generation talents in Kyle Dake and David Taylor); and Blake Rosholt is very intriguing at 197, he's had some good results, but injuries (and the presence of transfer Cayle Byers last year) have kept him from breaking out at the NCAA Tournament so far. Of course, Oklahoma State also has a nasty habit of late of underperforming at the NCAA Tournament -- like last year, for instance, when another strong squad of Cowboys finished a very distant 6th. So until we see them perform to expectations, it might not be wise to expect too much from them.


Ohio State is an up-and-coming program under former Hawkeye Tom Ryan, but they probably don't yet have enough firepower across all weights to seriously contend for a title. They have three very, very good wrestlers who should be able to contend for national titles -- Logan Stieber at 133, Hunter Stieber at 141, and Nick Heflin at 174 -- but they lack the depth of All-America talent that the other top contenders have. They've recruited well recently and going forward I expect to see them creeping up the standings at the NCAA Tournament, but unless several guys wrestle out of their minds in March, they're going to be very hard-pressed to crack the top-4 in Des Moines.


Like Ohio State, Illinois is another up-and-coming program under a former Hawkeye -- Mark Perry in this case. (Mind you, "up-and-coming program coached by a former Hawkeye" also applies to a frightening number of teams in the world of college wrestling, so it's not exactly the most distinctive description.) Illinois lacks the projected national title threats that Ohio State has, although Jesse Delgado (125) and BJ Futrell (141) aren't too far behind the leaders at those weights. (Delgado, famously, owns a win over Matt McDonough.) The advantage they have over Ohio State is in having a bit more balance -- five of their wrestlers currently project to be top-6 finishers, which is quite solid. Of course, beyond that they have very little of note -- they have four weights with no ranked wrestlers. That's too many holes to compete for a title. But, like Ohio State, they're recruiting well and they should be an even bigger threat in years to come.


Missouri, the lone SEC school with a wrestling program, has an intriguing team. Until this week, they were the only program in the nation (to the best of my knowledge) to have an InterMat-ranked wrestler at every weight. (Alas, their representative at 157 fell out of the rankings this week.) So Missouri doesn't have any real holes in their lineup and it's very likely that they'll qualify 9-10 wrestlers for the NCAA Tournament in March. What they don't have is studs. Right now, only one wrestler (Dom Bradley at 285) projects as an NCAA finalist and just four wrestlers (Bradley, Alan Waters at 125, Nathan McCormick and Brent Haynes at 197) project as All-Americans (ignore the 3 in my lovely table). The problem is that half of the wrestlers on their team are ranked in the low teens and those guys just aren't going to score enough points at the NCAA Tournament to make Mizzou competitive (barring a series of surprise results, of course).


Them again? The Big Red Machine probably missed their best shot to claim a national title two years ago when Penn State surged past them at the proverbial finish line; they finished 4th last year and, based on these projections, look to finish 8th in 2013. The problem, of course, is that this year's squad is near the beginning of a rebuilding cycle; they've graduated several good wrestlers in recent years, which has left them with just two studs, three-time defending national champion Kyle Dake (going for a historic fourth national title at a fourth different weight, this time 165) and defending national champion Steve Bosak (184). They have a trio of fringe All-America candidates at 125, 133, and 141, but otherwise they just have too many holes in the roster (four weights with nary a wrestler ranked) to contend. But check back in a year or two and Cornell may be fighting back the flood of Big Ten contenders and competing for a title again; losing Dake after this year will hurt, but Rob Koll has built a strong program there and they'll doubtless be back in the title mix before too long.

So that's the NCAA Tournament, which is, of course, the big kahuna. But what about the dual meets? That's how we're going to amuse ourselves until March -- how does Iowa stack up against the top teams that they're going to see in the dual meet season this year?


(Lineups are based on my best guess for each team and may not be 100% accurate.)


Iowa's first dual meet of 2013 could also be one of their most challenging. It's also one of four potential stops on their Revenge Tour; Ohio State ended 30+ years of dual meet frustration against Iowa a year ago by blasting Iowa, 21-9. Believe it or not, that loss was Iowa's most lopsided defeat of the dual meet season (Oklahoma State beat them via criteria, Minnesota beat them by one point at the National Duals, and Penn State beat them by 10 points). Tom Brands hasn't forgotten that and you can rest assured that no one on the Iowa team has forgotten that, either. I predict that Iowa is going to be out to make a statement in this dual. Of course, that's easier said than done; in terms of matchups, this looks like a very, very tough dual for Iowa. Ohio State will likely be favored at five weights and strong favorites at two of them (141, 149). Iowa may have a touch more bonus point potential with McD, Moore, and St. John (who enjoys a lopsided advantage in the rankings re: Demas, but who also lost to Demas last year, albeit when DSJ was injured), but this meet may come down to upsets and bonus points.


Nine days later, Iowa heads to Stillwater, OK to take on the team that snapped their NCAA-record-tying dual meet unbeaten streak a year ago. Much like Iowa's meet with the other OSU, it looks like Iowa will be favored in matches and underdogs in five matches. Bonus points (both obtaining them and avoiding them) should be even more important in this meet, though, given that so many of the matchups look a bit lopsided on paper. Oliver and Caldwell, for instance, are slated to wrestle opponents who are currently unranked (although, as noted in some detail above, I am high on Moore at 165 for Iowa), which could lead to some crooked scorelines. Telford will get another tussle with Gelogaev, who majored him a year ago. If Iowa guys can't avoid bonus points in the matches where they're decided underdogs, then it will be vital for Iowa gets to get bonus points in the matches where they're decided favorites (i.e., 125, 157). There's no marquee match in this dual, like Ramos v. Stieber in the other OSU dual or Ramos v. Oliver in last year's Iowa-Oklahoma State dual, so this one could be a series of lopsided wins for each side. In terms of rankings, the best-looking match is Telford-Gelogaev, and Gelogaev beat him 10-2 last year.


Two weeks later, Iowa heads up to Minneapolis to face the defending National Duals champions and the team that, on paper, might be the best dual meet team in the country, Minnesota. (Strange factoid: Iowa wrestles four straight road dual meets in January: at Oklahoma State, at Michigan, at Michigan State, and at Minnesota.) On paper, Minnesota should be favored at seven weights, which gives them an obvious advantage. Iowa counters with strong bonus point potential at 125 and 157 (and Ramos picked up a bonus point win over Dardanes at last year's NCAA Tournament, so bonus points might be on the table in that match, too). But Minnesota has bonus point potential of their own at 149 (Ness majored Kelly twice a year ago) and even if Iowa could get three pins in the three matches they're favored in, they'd still lose if they're unable to upset Minnesota in any of the other seven matches. Upsets are a must if Iowa is to win this dual; fortunately, there are several close-seeming matches here -- 141, 174, 184, potentially 165 -- so Iowa definitely could pull it off. It won't be easy, though.


The hits keep coming; six days after tangling with the Gophers, Iowa hosts Penn State, a pretty good dual meet team themselves. Cael finally got the "can't beat Iowa in a dual meet" monkey off his back a year ago and they'll be in a good position to make it two in a row this year. The key for Iowa will be limiting bonus points in the matches where they aren't favored (which will be half of them), picking up bonus points themselves whenever possible (Iowa could really use big showings from Ramos, Ballweg, and Telford) and maybe -- just maybe -- using a little Carver Magic to spring an upset or two. Of PSU's favored wrestlers, Brown is probably the most vulnerable, although Alton at 149 is still a bit untested at that weight and Wright has sometimes been inconsistent in the regular season (that said, him losing to a freshman like Burak would still be a pretty massive upset).


Illinois gave Iowa a scare in Carver a year ago, thanks in part to a shocking upset of McDonough; it wasn't until Tony Ramos picked up a big win late in the meet that Iowa was able to secure a victory. Could Illinois pull off the upset this year, with the meet sandwiched in-between the cornfields, meth labs, and frat houses that make up Champaign? Well, maybe. On paper, they should be favored in three duals and could certainly win the two matches I have listed as pushes. And it certainly wouldn't be too crazy for Delgado to upset McD again. The downside for Illinois is that they have three matchups where Iowa should have a good shot at getting bonus points of their own (133, 157, 285) and they could easily win the "PUSH" matches and/or grab an upset or two of their own (174 looks the most likely for that) and turn this into a rout. This is one of those meets where a lot of things would have to go right for Illinois to win, but the potential is there and they do have enough quality wrestlers to make things interesting.

It's possible -- not likely, but possible -- that Iowa loses all five of these signature dual meets (I would be surprised if they lost any other dual meets this year, but they could -- I didn't think they'd lose to Ohio State last year, either) this year. It's also possible -- not likely, but possible -- that Iowa wins all five of these signature dual meets. My guess is the final outcome is somewhere in-between. They'll win a few of these duals... but I also would not be remotely surprised to see them lose 1-2 as well. That wouldn't be the end of the world, so long as it gets them well-prepared for the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

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Meanwhile, Friend of the Pants and wrestling writer extraordinaire Andy Hamilton has a nice preview of the wrestling landscape here, as well as a preview of the top 25 events of the 2012-13 season. Give 'em a read, won't you?

I'll be back tomorrow with the first WE MUST BREAK YOU of the season, previewing the Iowa-Iowa State dual, discussing the weight shake-ups at 165 and 174 for Iowa, and talking about the newest odd couple in wrestling.