THE DEFENDING CHAMPION
Matt McDonough's season hasn't gone the way any of us expected it would go back in November. The uber-aggressive, word dominating McDonough that's been king of the hill at 125 lbs. for the last three years has been AWOL this season. His four pins this year came in his first seven matches. He's had just two bonus point wins since the calendar ticked over into 2013. He lost 9-4 to Jesse Delgado in a match in which he looked slow on offense and defense: he got caught flat-footed by Delgado's shots and couldn't get close to Delgado's legs on his own shots. He lost 4-0 to Missouri's Alan Waters (the likely top seed at the NCAA Tournament) in a match where McD was ridden like a donkey. He hasn't been as aggressive as he was in years past and his stamina hasn't looked quite as bottomless as it has in days gone by.
Why exactly the 2013 McDonough is such a diminished version of his former self is unclear. Is it an undisclosed injury? Has the weight cut to 125 finally become too onerous? Is he dealing with some energy-sapping illness? Something else entirely? Who knows. Neither McD nor Brands is talking and we'll likely have to wait until after the season to find out anything more substantive about his condition. But there's another part of the story, too: the rest of the field has caught up to McD. McDonough's success was never really the result of supreme talent or unstoppable technique; he used his physical advantages (his above-average length for a 125er, his incredible stamina) to outwork and outhustle opponents, mentally and physically grinding them down. Some of his physical advantages have diminished (the stamina more than the length, obviously), but the other thing that's changed is that the book is out on McD: there are ways to beat him (or at least stymie him).
Brandon Precin popularized the primary means of slowing him down: tie up the arms with collar-and-elbow tie-ups and stall away in the hopes that you can steal a takedown somewhere along the way and ride that to victory. (If you can ride heavily, too -- so much the better.) Of the current challengers, Nico Megaludis is probably the foremost practitioner of the Precin approach. The other approach, popularized by Jesse Delgado, is to use lightning-fast attacks to dive into McD's legs and get quick takedowns. Delgado has ridden that approach to two wins over McD and Cornell's Nahshon Garrett used it to jump out to an early lead against McD in their match a few weeks ago (although McD did come back and win the match, 8-3). The latter approach is a bit riskier, since it often puts you in scramble situations with McDonough and he's very good at scoring points (or at least getting stalemates) out of those scenarios. The former approach is one that's haunted McDonough since his sophomore year and one that's likely to be used by several guys over the next few weeks. How well he can grind out wins anyway is likely to determine if he can add a few more trophies to his legacy.
There's also a question of whether or not McDonough has the stamina to emerge victorious from a multi-day tournament. It's a fair question, although I'm not convinced it will be a huge issue for him. The weigh-in rules for tournaments are a little less taxing than they are for dual meets, giving him a bit more time to re-hydrate, and there's a good chance he'll only be wrestling two matches on Saturday (the quarterfinals and semifinals) and (hopefully) one match on Sunday (the finals), with a decent amount of rest in-between all of those matches. Of course, that assumes he doesn't get drawn into an opening round "pigtail" match, which would have him wrestling three matches on Saturday, with two in close succession (the "pigtail" match and quarterfinal match).
PATH TO THE FINALS
QF: 8-seed Dom Malone (no prior matches)
SF: 4-seed Sean Boyle (5-0 career record vs. Boyle; most recently an 8-2 win) or 5-seed Nikko Triggas (2-0 career record vs. Triggas; most recently a 10-5 win)
Malone has had a weird season; he's kept things close against quality opponents like Delgado and Thorn, but he doesn't have any good wins, has been pinned a few times, and was on the wrong end of a 10-0 major decision from Purdue's Eppert. Triggas would be a more worrying opponent for McD than Boyle; aside from McD's sterling track record against Boyle, Triggas is just more dangerous -- he likes to roll around and catch guys in pins (as evidenced by the nine pins he's notched this year). There was a lot of scrambling in his match with McD in January, and while McD managed to come out on top in most of those situations it was still a little anxiety-inducing.
Jesse Delgado joined exclusive company last year when he became the fourth man to beat Matt McDonough in his college career. He joined even more exclusive company this year when he became the first man to beat Matt McDonough twice. To be fair, McD also has two wins over Delgado (at the National Duals last year and in the Big Ten semifinals last year), so it's not as though he can't beat Delgado. But both wins were pretty close (6-3 and 4-3) and there's no doubt that matches between Delgado and McD are, at best, pretty nerve-jangling affairs. As noted above, Delgado has a style that gives McDonough fits. He implemented his gameplan to absolute perfection in their match this year (dive at the ankles and rack up quick, early takedowns, then just block off and play keep away) and he'll be looking to do the same if they meet in the Big Ten finals this year.
Of course, he has to get there first. Delgado has had some close matches with unranked guys this year (including Malone, Okie State's Eddie Klimara, and redshirting Iowa freshman Thomas Gilman), as well as straight-up losses to Virginia Tech's Jarrod Garnett and another redshirting Iowa freshman*, Cory Clark. There was also a loss to Megaludis that he'll probably have to reverse to have a crack at McDonough for a Big Ten title. In that match, Delgado was leading in the third period before getting a touch sloppy and getting caught and pinned by Megaludis. Their rematch should be quite a tussle.
* To be fair, it's entirely possible -- if not very probable, in Clark's case -- that either Clark or Gilman would be ranked in the top-20 if they weren't redshirting this year.
It might not be entirely fair to label Nico Megaludis, the 2-seed here and returning NCAA runner-up, as "the spoiler" here, but so it goes. This year Megaludis has managed to prove that his shocking run to the NCAA Tournament finals last year wasn't a fluke -- he really is one of the best 125ers in the country. He's 21-2, with his only losses coming against a redshirting Anthony Zanetta (Pitt) and McDonough. His six wins over guys in the current InterMat top-20 are more than any other 125er (except McDonough)... and he owns a win over Delgado this season, which is not something that McD can say. 12 of his 21 wins have included bonus points, but few of those have come against top opponents (the pin over Delgado being a notable exception, although that was also a little bit fluky).
Mega's path to his first Big Ten title will likely entail going through both Delgado (in the semis) and McDonough (in the finals), which won't be easy. He also has an intriguing first-round match with David Thorn. Thorn has unimpressive overall records (10-7) and against T20 opponents (1-7), but he's managed to keep it close in virtually all of those losses. One of these days, he's going to get that upset against a T20 opponent -- perhaps it will be against Nico in the quarters.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
Triggas and Thorn are the most interesting names outside of the big three -- Triggas for his ability to potentially catch someone in a scramble and pin them and Thorn for his ability to wrestle close matches against top guys. Still, there's a big difference between wrestling someone close and actually beating them -- and Thorn hasn't been able to do that yet. The reality is that the McD-Delgado-Megaludis trio is far ahead of the rest of the field at this weight.
THE PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) Matt McDonough, Iowa
2) Nico Megaludis, Penn State
3) Jesse Delgado, Illinois
The draw helps: if McD had to beat both Delgado and Megaludis to win a title here, I would be more skeptical of his chances. But he only has to beat one of them. That still isn't going to be easy, but I do think he'll manage to grind out the wins he needs. I also have Nico beating Delgado in the semifinals; I don't think he'll pin him this time, but he'll edge him in a narrow decision.
THE DOMINANT CHAMPION
Logan Stieber is an absolute beast. He's 19-0, and only two of those wins have come via regular decision. The other 17 wins have all come with bonus points: 10 pins, 5 technical falls, and 2 major decisions. Stieber burst on the scene in a big way at this weight last year and he's showed no signs of slowing down this year. On the other hand, Stieber hasn't faced the most difficult schedule, either. He's wrestled only two other top-10 wrestlers (Illinois' Thomas and Missouri's McCormick, though he wrestled the latter twice) this year and had just six matches against wrestlers currently ranked in the top-20. Part of that is due to the whims of the scheduling gods (and the fact that the Big Ten isn't particularly deep at this weight this year) and part of it is due to an untimely January injury which cost Stieber matches against Ramos and Graff.
That lengthy injury is also the source of some controversy, since it caused him to miss a month of action, but didn't stop him from landing the 1-seed here, in spite of Tony Ramos' record, which was just as dominant and featured more total wins, thanks to the lack of a month off. But fair or not, decisions like this have been a staple of the Big Ten Tournament -- and they've benefited Iowa at times, too. A few years ago, Chad Beatty parlayed a Midlands win over Wisconsin's highly-ranked Trevor Brandvold at 197 into a top seed, despite missing most (or all) of the Big Ten season with an injury. And, hell, at 125 this year Iowa was the beneficiary of the Big Ten's use of historical accomplishments to influence seeds -- certainly McD's status as a two-time defending Big T en champion weighed in his favor when it came to breaking the deadlock between himself, Delgado, and Megaludis. In this case, the decision-making worked against Ramos, but that's how it goes sometimes.
THE DOMINANT CHALLENGER
Stieber has been a dominant champion all year... but his main challenger, Tony Ramos, hasn't been too far behind in the dominance department, especially as the season has heated up. Ramos is 23-0, with only two of those wins coming via regular decisions. He had 20 wins featuring bonus points, including 11 pins, 2 technical falls, and 7 major decisions. (He also won one match via forfeit.) The ability to get pins is the biggest change between last year's Ramos and this year's version. The Tony of years past could get takedowns with ease, but he struggled to put guys on their backs and rack up nearfalls or pins; now Tony has managed to develop some devastating pinning combinations, including a wicked cradle that's led to several pins. Ramos is on quite a pinning tear at the moment, too, with pins in five of his last seven matches. (And in the two matches where he didn't get a pin, he received a forfeit and a major decision.)
The million-dollar question is whether or not Tony has improved enough to topple Stieber from the top of the podium. He went 0-3 against him last year, though he was able to narrow the gap each time they met (7-0, 5-2, 4-2). Ramos has obviously made huge strides this year... but it's not as if Stieber has been standing pat, either. He's also improved. Whether or not Tony can win will be determined by three things: can he get a takedown, can he get an escape if he's underneath Stieber, and how well can he avoid being on the bottom against Stieber. Stieber abused him from the top position last year, getting nearfall points off tilts in their first match and riding him hard in subsequent matches. The best thing for Tony to do would be to avoid being in that position altogether. It's not clear how much Ramos has improved in that position -- he's been so dominant this season that he hasn't been ridden hard too often. (One source of confidence: Ramos was able to get an escape fairly easily against Edinboro's A.J. Schopp, who's considered to be a pretty strong rider.) But Stieber is so good in that position that avoiding it as much as possible seems like the most prudent course of action. Tony needs to keep this match on his feet as much as possible and work at getting takedowns -- that's where he's at his strongest. But if he does get taken down, it's important that Ramos find a way to get an escape -- he can't allow Stieber to just ride him hard for several minutes.
The real negative for Ramos not getting the 1-seed at this weight is the fact that it's really hurt his potential for getting bonus points. He has pins against Dardanes in two of their last three matches, but in both matches he didn't secure the pin until the final 5-10 seconds of the match. Given his pinning proficiency of late, I won't put anything beyond him, but Dardanes isn't going to be easy to stick. And getting Graff in the semis is much different than getting Conaway or Thomas, both guys he pinned earlier this year. Graff actually beat him (3-1 in OT) in the Big Ten semis two years ago; they haven't wrestled since. Tony has improved a ton since that match and I certainly like his odds of winning the rematch between them -- but bonus points is another matter entirely. Ramos has been Iowa's best bonus point scorer this season, but this draw is not conducive to him getting many bonus points, which will further damage Iowa's already-tenuous chances of winning the title here.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
Given how far ahead of the rest of the pack Stieber and Ramos appear to be this year, it's tempting to just characterize everyone else here as cannon fodder. And for the most part that's probably very true. The lone exception is Graff. He was B1G runner-up two years ago (he redshirted last season) and does own a win over Ramos. That said, he doesn't seem to have improved by the same leaps and bounds that Ramos has over the last two years and his cardio is still a gigantic question mark: it unquestionably cost him a match against Jordan Conaway earlier this season and if it's still shaky at all, Ramos will ruthlessly exploit that advantage. No weight is upset-proof, but the top two at this weight just look so good that it's hard to see someone getting in the way of their showdown.
THE PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) Logan Stieber, Ohio State
2) Tony Ramos, Iowa
3) Tyler Graff, Wisconsin
I want to pick Tony to win. Badly. Really, I do. But for as better as he's looked this year (and, lord, has he looked phenomenal), there's also no denying the fact that a) he hasn't wrestled anyone as good as Stieber (SPOILER: there's no one as good as Stieber at this weight, except maybe Tony) and b) Stieber has looked damn good himself this year. Can Tony beat Stieber? I think so, yes. But until I actually see him do it, I don't feel comfortable picking it to happen.