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The coach of the top-ranked Hawkeyes is taking 17 wrestlers to the Dec. 29-30 tournament in Evanston, Ill.

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Dust off the cobwebs, and strap in.

Finally, for the top-ranked Iowa wrestling team, it's go time.

The Midlands Championships might not be what it used to be, but the 52nd edition runs Monday and Tuesday in Evanston, Ill. Then it's a quick turnaround for two Big Ten Conference duals — Friday at Rutgers and Sunday, Jan. 4 at national-title threat Ohio State.

Even Iowa coach Tom Brands, who never looks past his team's next workout, peeked ahead.

"The fourth is a big date on our calendar," he said, before recalibrating his interview focus to Day 1 of Midlands.

"But we're not looking ahead to that. That's just reality, what's ahead of you. Midlands is important for a lot of reasons, but the most important reason is it's the next competition, and it's a big test. And we've done a good job as a team there. We want to keep doing a good job as a team there."

MIDLANDS: Andy Hamilton's weight-by-weight analysis

Iowa dominated last year's Midlands, and it should run away with the title again this year as many of the nation's top teams opt instead to compete in the Jan. 1-2 Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Nonetheless, this event marks the first buildup in competition for the Hawkeyes, who have barely broken a sweat (figuratively speaking, of course) this season and haven't wrestled since a 37-0 dismantling of Michigan State on Dec. 6.

It's time to see what these Hawkeyes are made of.

"It's an opportunity to solidify what we say and what we do," 125-pounder Thomas Gilman said. "So it's a measuring stick maybe for the other guys, the guys like Illinois, Virginia Tech, whoever's there. We're the measuring stick."

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The 125-pounder for Iowa won a title at last year's Midlands.

Gilman is at a spotlight weight in the tournament. A year ago, he rocked the field by upsetting two-time NCAA champion Jesse Delgado of Illinois on his way to a Midlands crown at 125 while teammate Cory Clark finished sixth.

Delgado has been banged up and hasn't competed since Nov. 9. Gilman is ranked No. 3. Virginia Tech's Joey Dance is No. 5.

That's emblematic of the ramped-up competition across the board Iowa finally gets to face.

Clark, ranked No. 4 at a new weight at 133, could get his first crack at Edinboro's top-ranked A.J. Schopp.

At 174, Iowa's Mike Evans is ranked No. 2 and is the defending champion.

At heavyweight, No. 3 Bobby Telford of Iowa will probably get a chance to extend his series against No. 1 Mike McMullan of Northwestern. McMullan's won three, Telford two.

"All weights, this is big," Brands said.

Big on big levels and big on smaller levels, such as Iowa's lineup decisions as it marches toward the ultimate test — the March 19-21 NCAA Championships in St. Louis.

Brands said whichever guy emerges at 149 pounds — Brandon Sorensen or Brody Grothus — will get the call at Rutgers and Ohio State.

There's also some drama at 157, where unranked incumbent Michael Kelly and potential-packed junior transfer Edwin Cooper could clash at some point.

And Brands, searching for an answer at 197, wants to see what defending Midlands third-place finisher Nathan Burak can show wrestling unattached before making a redshirt decision.

MORE: Brands weighs in on Burak decision

After this week is up, the Hawkeyes hope to have more answers than questions — and to have backed up their No. 1 ranking.

"We've got to go in there and not only win the tournament, not only put points on the board, but put a lot of points on the board and widen that margin," Gilman said, "and show them guys that when it comes to March, they're not going to sniff us."

52ND MIDLANDS CHAMPIONSHIPS

When, where: Monday and Tuesday in Evanston, Ill.

Top teams competing: Iowa (No. 1), Virginia Tech (No. 6), Edinboro (No. 10), Illinois (No. 13).

Follow our coverage: Reporter Andy Hamilton (@Andy_Hamilton) will be tweeting live updates. Look for his coverage at DesMoinesRegister.com and HawkCentral.com.

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