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Tom Brands and Iowa's Lineup Headaches

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Taking a closer look at Iowa's lineup after Midlands.

Tessa Hursh, Daily Iowan

With the 2013 Midlands Championship in our rear view mirror, it's time to look ahead to the rest of the season -- Iowa's 10 remaining dual meets (8 duals against Big Ten opponents that count in the standings -- unlike the dual with Penn State a few weeks ago -- and a pair of non-conference duals against Oklahoma State and Lehigh).  Iowa was humbled in their first few showings against quality opposition this year (Edinboro's good wrestlers beat Iowa's good wrestlers and Penn State's middle and upper weights swept Iowa aside), but they rebounded with a pretty strong showing at Midlands, taking home three titles and a tournament record for most team points scored.

Midlands was also supposed to help answer a few questions about the Iowa roster, though.  In reality, it might have done that -- or it might have asked even more questions.  Sure, we have locked-in starters at a few weights -- the likes of Tony Ramos, Derek St. John, and Mike Evans don't have to look over the shoulders -- but there are also a handful of weights where it's a little unclear as to who should be starting.  Let's break those down today.  (Needless to say, a few of these are much more genuinely difficult decisions than others...)



RECORD: 12-3
WINS: 12 (8 pins, 1 major decision, 3 decisions)
LOSSES: 3 (1 decision, 2 losses via medical forfeit)


He's better at scoring bonus points, especially pins.  Clark leads the team with 8 pins, with the caveat that most of them came against overmatched opponents.  (That said, his teammates were also often facing overmatched opponents in those dual meets or early-season tournaments and they weren't racking up quite so many pins.)  Iowa needs bonus points to compete with the likes of Penn State and Minnesota this year and by that metric Clark is superior to Gilman.

Clark also has a head-to-head win over Gilman in his favor this season, a 4-0 decision win from the finals of the Luther Open.  The usefulness of head-to-head wins as a metric in comparisons like this is highly debatable, given that teammates see each other every day and are more likely to be able to suss out weaknesses and tendencies in each other, but hey: a win is a win.


Clark didn't make the trip to Edinboro and didn't get the nod to face Nico Megaludis at the Penn State dual.  The latter absence was attributed in part to weight cut issues; Tom Brands didn't think Clark would be sufficiently recovered from the one-hour weigh-in before the dual meet to be at peak capacity in his match against Nico. Weight cut issues were also seemingly at play in some of his performances at Midlands and in the decision to have him forfeit out his final two matches.  There was always some concern about Clark and weight -- he's grown since high school, wrestled at 133 last year while redshirting, and is expected to move up to 133 to replace Tony Ramos next year -- and if he's not able to make that cut and maintains his edge, that's a big problem.

Clark has been great this season when he gets a pin (most of which have come in the first period), but he's struggled in longer matches.  Against Iowa State's Earl Hall, he labored a bit to an 8-7 win and was hanging on at the end; he also appeared to run out of gas in the third period against Jarrod Garnett in the Midlands semis.  I think it's fair to assume that he's likely to be facing more longer matches as Iowa hits the meat of its schedule, too.  If Clark doesn't have the energy to go full-bore for seven minutes -- let alone in multiple matches per day -- then he might be hurting Iowa.


RECORD: 11-2
WINS: 11 (2 pins, 1 tech fall, 2 major decisions, 6 decisions)
LOSSES: 2 (2 decisions)


Uh, you saw Midlands, right?  He beat Jesse Delgado (#1 ranked, nationally, and the defending NCAA champion) and followed that up by beating Jarrod Garnett (former All-American) in the finals.  Those are the best wins Iowa's posted at 125 this year, easily.  And he looked good doing it, too.  He was a hammer on top of Delgado in their match and he controlled the entire match against Garnett, again putting on a good ride while also supplementing his riding time advantage with some slick takedowns.  He looked like a superstar at Midlands.

Also, weight cutting doesn't appear to be an issue for Gilman.  He was a bit smaller than Clark to begin with and while he's a solidly filled-out 125er now, there's been no indication that making weight is a problem for him.  He seems to have more than enough energy for a seven-minute match, too; he didn't look particularly worn down at the end of his match with Garnett in the finals.


The biggest knock on Gilman is the lack of bonus points, especially of the pinfall variety.  He only has two pins so far, over wrestlers from NICC and Wartburg.  He does have a tech fall and a pair of major decisions to his credit, so he's not a total slouch in the bonus point department, but thus far he doesn't seem as likely to put up extra points as Clark.


It seems crazy to say it after what Gilman did at Midlands -- again, he was absolutely excellent in the semifinals and finals -- but there's still a not-entirely-crazy argument to make that Clark is just better than Gilman and that his upside is higher than Gilman's this year.  The pins he's accrued hint at that, as does the redshirt success he enjoyed (Clark beat Delgado at Midlands last year).  Still... the (seeming) weight cut issues and gas tanks problems can't be brushed aside, either.  In a perfect world, I think Clark would be Iowa's 125er this year.  But it's not a perfect world and if he's having trouble making it down to 125 and/or having trouble finishing 7-minute matches, then he shouldn't start.  And Gilman is by no means a bad option as a second choice here -- in fact he's a very, very, very good option and one that I suspect 95% of other teams in the nation would love to have.  After Midlands, I think Gilman should be the starter unless injuries (knock on wood!) or poor performances dictate otherwise.



RECORD: 11-4
WINS: 11 (4 pins, 3 major decisions, 4 decisions)
LOSSES: 4 (3 decisions, 1 pin)


Uh... continuity?  Honestly, I don't think Kelly has done a great deal -- or much of anything, really -- to emphatically state his claim to the starting spot here.  He's held it by default the last few seasons and entered this year as the starter primarily on the grounds of "well, no one else has looked better, so..."  For the most part, Kelly has done about what we'd expect out of him this year: he's beaten the guys he should beat and lost to everyone else.  He's maybe picked up a few more bonus points than before in those wins, but that's about it.


We're still waiting for Kelly to get even a moderately-impressive win at 149.  His best win this year is likely his 6-5 win over Upper Iowa's Edwin Cooper (who was briefly the expected starter at Iowa this year; ah, summer dreamin'...).  He has several losses to unranked opponents this year and he doesn't look significantly different than last year, when he stumbled to a 10-8 record and was benched before the Big Ten Tournament.  There hasn't really been any indication so far that Kelly is likely to do anything different this year.


RECORD: 16-5
WINS: 16 (4 pins, 2 major decisions, 10 decisions)
LOSSES: 5 (4 decisions, 1 major decision)


You saw Midlands, right?  After a disappointing early exit (in a close decision loss) to Virginia  Tech's Zach Neibert, Grothus went on a tear through the consolation bracket, winning five straight matches before falling to teammate Brandon Sorensen in the 3rd place match.  Along the way, he beat Edinboro's Dave Habat (then ranked #10 nationally) and Northwestern's Jason Tsirtsis (then ranked #2 nationally).  Those are probably the two biggest wins Iowa's had at 149 since a guy named Brent Metcalf was prowling the mat for Iowa at this weight.  There was a whiff of a fluke to the Habat win -- Grothus finally got one of his oft-tried-for big moves to land and scored a quick, early pin -- but he beat Tsirtsis without the aid of any big throws and looked solid in other matches at Midlands, too.  The knock on Grothus has always been that he's too one-dimensional on offense (throws, throws, and more throws) and that he puts himself in bad position too often on defense.  Neither was all that true at Midlands this year, and if he's turning the corner there...

Did you realize he's still just a sophomore and this is second competition year?  It seems like he's been around longer -- probably because 149 has been so dire for Iowa for so long that we even entertained brief fantasies of yanking his redshirt when he was a true freshman -- but he really hasn't been.  He still has over half of his Iowa career to go and he's far from being a finished product.  It feels like a lot of fans (myself included, to be sure) have kind of written Grothus off already as a lost cause at 149 and moved on in search of the hot new cure for our woes there, but that was probably premature.  It's not pants-on-head crazy to think that things might finally be clicking for him now and that he could get better.


It's wise to not overrate one instance of tournament success.  Mike Kelly managed to go on a tear himself through the consolation bracket at Midlands two years ago on his way to a 5th place finish; it did not translate into much success the rest of that season.  (He won three matches after Midlands that year and one of those came via forfeit.) We don't yet know if Grothus' bad habits on offense or defense have been fully expunged from his system.


RECORD: 17-4 (split between 157 and 149)
WINS: 17 (2 pins, 2 tech fall, 2 major decisions, 10 decisions, 1 win via medical forfeit)
LOSSES: 4 (4 decisions)


Brody Grothus had a nice run of five wins in the consolation bracket to make the 3rd place match; Sorensen did him one better by putting together six straight wins in that bracket to win the 3rd place match.  Midlands was Sorensen's first event this year at 149 (he competed in three other early-season tournaments at 157, finishing 1st at one and 2nd at another) and he looked pretty impressive.  His only loss was to Edinboro's Habat in a hard-fought 9-7 match that Habat won with a takedown in overtime.  Considering what Habat has done to Iowa wrestlers in the past (lots and lots of major decision whippings), that's a pretty strong effort.

Sorensen also beat Va Tech's Zach Neibert (who felled Grothus) and posted a few other very solid wins along the way.  Given that he also beat Grothus in the 3rd place match, there's a compelling argument to make that Sorensen is Iowa's best 149er.  He's also potentially the future of this weight (although he could be DSJ's successor at 157, too), so there's an argument to be made that getting him more big-time experience now could be beneficial in the years to come.


He's a true freshman.  Brands has only failed to redshirt one true freshman since he arrived at Iowa -- Nathan Burak last year (and he was an odd case, thanks to his year at the Olympic Training Center).  The continued success of true freshmen on a national level and the increased level of readiness that true freshmen have when they arrive on campus now may force Brands' hand on that issue more often in the future, but it's not yet clear that Sorensen is the kind of talent make him do it this year.  And as I noted with Grothus, we should be careful not to overrate the results of one good tournament run.


After Midlands, I think the starter has to be either Grothus or Sorensen.  Without wanting to overrate their performance in one tournament, it's simply too hard to deny that they showed more at 149 in those matches than Kelly has showed in several years.  Iowa needs a spark at 149 and after Midlands Grothus or Sorensen deserve a chance to provide it.

But which one?  In order to favor Sorensen, I think you need to assume that he's so much better than Grothus that he's quite a bit more likely to earn Iowa more points at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and that his presence might be the difference between Iowa winning a team title at one (or both) of those events and not doing so.  That's a bigger assumption than I'm prepared to make right now.  I think they're closer to a coin-flip at this point -- and for this year -- and in that case I'd rather let Sorensen continue to redshirt and give Grothus the keys at 149 and see what he can do.



RECORD: 13-7 (split between 184 and 197)
WINS: 13 (4 pins, 1 tech fall, 3 major decisions, 5 decisions)
LOSSES: 7 (5 decisions, 1 major decision, 1 loss via medical forfeit)


The main argument in favor of keeping Brooks at 197 is to allow Burak to take a redshirt this season and because it gives Brooks more experience before he becomes a full-time starter next season (likely at 184).  Brooks has also enjoyed a decent amount of success at 197, going 2-2 with both wins being via major decision.


Well, the fact that Brooks isn't a 197er this year is a pretty big problem.  He's a 184er wrestling up a weight and while he does have some good results (see: those major decision wins) he also got hammered by Penn State's Morgan McIntosh.  The same could easily happen in other matches against the top guys at 197.  Presumably he would try to bulk up a bit if he was named the permanent 197 starter this season, but it's hard to add "good weight" in the middle of the season.  He'd likely be at a disadvantage in terms of size and strength all year.


WINS: 5 (1 major decisions, 4 decisions)
LOSSES: 1 (1 decisions)


He's a natural 197er -- and a pretty good one, at that.  Burak made it to the Round of 12 at the NCAA Tournament last year before narrowly missing out on becoming an All-American and he finished 3rd at Midlands this year in his return to competition.  If he's healthy and close to peak ability, he's easily the best option Iowa has at this weight and a legitimate option to earn All-America honors this year (which would help Iowa mount a more serious challenge to a Big Ten or NCAA title).


Health.  Burak hadn't wrestled all year prior to Midlands because he was dealing with an undisclosed medical condition (it sounded like some sort of skin infection) and if he wasn't ever going to be healthy -- or if he was going to be near full-ability, health-wise -- then it didn't make sense to use up one of his competition years in a year where he'd likely gain only middling results, especially with a redshirt right there to be used.

Long-term, there's also the possibility that by sacrificing Burak's 2013-14 competition season (one in which he could still train and compete unattached) you would be able to have him around for the 2016-17 season as a redshirt senior and would presumably be at his very best.  That's the usual logic behind redshirts, of course -- you skip a guy's first competition year (when he's likely to undergo some struggles) because you want to have him for that fifth year (fourth competition year) when he knows what he's doing and should be at or near his peak.  Of course, Burak is a funny case in that he already used a psuedo-redshirt anyway by spending a year training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.


This is likely a non-starter after Midlands.  Burak looked fit and pretty strong in finishing 3rd at that tournament, so it doesn't seem like his previous medical issues are going to plague his entire season.  If that's the case, he should get the nod at 197 this year and give Iowa its best shot at getting another All-American.  (And, indeed, Burak is the only wrestler listed at 197 for this week's dual meets against Purdue and Michigan State.)



RECORD: 14-2
WINS: 14 (5 pins, 2 major decisions, 7 decisions)
LOSSES: 2 (1 decision, 1 major decision)


He's a two-time All-American (once at 174, once at 184) who finished 5th at the NCAA Tournament a year ago and has more experience than everyone on the Iowa roster not named Tony Ramos or Derek St. John.  He can be maddening to watch, but Lofthouse also has a habit of getting pretty good results more often than not.


Traditionally, one of the main knocks on Lofty was that he doesn't get a lot of bonus points, but he does have bonus points in 7 of his 14 wins this year, including 5 pins.  Granted, those pins have dried up as the competition has improved, so we might not want to read too much into his bonus point rate so far this year.

Aesthetically, Lofthouse is boring (and aggravating) to watch, but aesthetics aren't a good reason to bench someone.  He has a tendency to wrestle a LOT of close matches and there's always the specter of one of those matches going against him and costing Iowa points (which is exactly what happened in the Midlands final against Sheptock).


RECORD: 13-7 (split between 184 and 197)
WINS: 13 (4 pins, 1 tech fall, 3 major decisions, 5 decisions)
LOSSES: 7 (5 decisions, 1 major decision, 1 loss via medical forfeit)


Brooks has been racking up bonus points more frequently than Lofthouse this year (in 8 of 13 wins) and he's not afraid or unwilling to push for major decisions and technical falls, which is gratifying to see.  As always, those stats require a caveat owing to the middling level of competition he faced in several of those matches.

The other argument in favor of Brooks is that he's the future of this weight for Iowa and that making him the starter could allow him to gain valuable experience and get a head-start on greater success in future seasons.  Let him compete now against the big boys and potentially take a few lumps and hope that it pays off in the form of more wins (or bigger wins) the next few seasons.


In comparison to Lofthouse's vast reservoir of experience and lengthy track record of solid (or very good) wins, Brooks has nothing like that to fall back on.  The only ranked opponents he's seen at 184 are Lofty (a loss), Sheptock (another loss), and Brown's Ophir Bernstein (a loss, and to a guy who lost to Lofthouse 8-2 earlier at Midlands).  He also has a pair of losses to highly-ranked opponents at 197, for whatever that's worth to this discussion.


If Lofthouse were to get hurt, Iowa has a solid back-up that they could turn to in the form of Brooks.  That's good.  But so long as Lofthouse remains healthy, there's no compelling reason to bench him in favor of Brooks.  Yes, he's maddening as all get out to watch and good god almighty it sure would be nice if he would just take a freaking shot once in a while, but he's still the more likely wrestler to place highly at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments and that's what matters the most here.

Brooks has shown great potential and could be very good for Iowa at 184 in the next few years, but right now he doesn't appear to be there yet.  For him to make the decision at 184 truly difficult, he needed to have a great Midlands -- beat Sheptock, beat Bernstein, and look great doing so.  Unfortunately, he didn't have a great Midlands.  He had a good Midlands -- a perfectly solid, totally acceptable Midlands -- but it wasn't the great performance he needed if the goal was to supplant EL in the lineup.