Leistikow: Is Iowa wrestling ready to take down Penn State? Austin DeSanto's transfer changes the math

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

With a transfer commitment secured to shore up perhaps its weakest weight class, the Iowa wrestling program no doubt took a big step forward over the weekend.

But the question die-hard Hawkeye fans want to know: Just how big?

Quantifying the answer boils down to a math problem.

Austin DeSanto, one of the nation's top freshmen wrestlers this past season, announced he will transfer to Iowa.

We’ll get to the numbers in a minute. But first, the background.

In adding Austin DeSanto, a high-motor NCAA qualifier from Drexel who is immediately eligible, Hawkeye coaches Tom and Terry Brands are about to have a new and exciting project on their hands at 133 pounds.

And let’s also be clear: DeSanto, who will be a true sophomore, probably isn’t coming to Iowa if not for the "Spencer Lee effect."

Pulling Lee’s redshirt in January signaled not only a sea change inside the Iowa wrestling room, but outside of it. The program instantly had a new face — an affable yet tenacious 19-year-old with once-in-a-generation wrestling skills and outward respect for his foes.

And with a stirring national-title run, Pokemon theme music and a charming smile, he helped steam-roll program stereotypes about the Brandses being no-fun robots.

In conjunction, the program also delivered a bold message: We’re ready to win — now.

After winning his title in Cleveland in March, Lee made it clear: We still need more guys.

The determined three-time world champion echoed Brands’ sentiments, that third place at the NCAAs isn’t good enough.

That message surely resonated with DeSanto.

His final transfer choices were Iowa, Rutgers and Penn State.

If the Lee era hadn’t already begun at Iowa, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano might be your reigning 125-pound champ. And maybe DeSanto's choice then becomes forming a 1-2 punch with Suriano, closer to home in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Instead, the only wrestler to beat Lee in high school (granted, Lee had a torn ACL at the time) is headed to Iowa City. And he will soon be rolling on the mats again with his former Pennsylvania counterpart.

New Hawkeye Austin DeSanto, right, was the only person to beat Iowa's Spencer Lee, left, in high school. Lee, to be fair, was wrestling on a freshly torn ACL in that March 2017 match shown here.

So, back to the original question: What is the impact of DeSanto's transfer?

It's time to tackle the math.

Iowa had a very good NCAA tournament in March, finishing third, with 97 points. Penn State won it with a whopping 141.5.

Let’s look at Iowa’s nine weight classes in 2019 before factoring in DeSanto ... then finish by taking a closer examination at his potential.

125 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 27.

2019 prospects: Repeating as a national champion isn’t easy. Just ask Nathan Tomasello, who won a 125-pound title as a freshman then couldn’t get back on top again — despite being an elite wrestler. But Spencer Lee will be the favorite. He’s the man to beat, the man to repeat.

Predicted net gain/loss: Push.

141 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 3.5.

2019 prospects: Among Max Murin, Vince Turk and Carter Happel, Iowa should put an improved wrestler on the mat next season — one that has a fair shot to make the all-American stand.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 3-4 points.

149 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 13.

2019 prospects: This is the only NCAA qualifier Iowa loses from 2018, but it’s a biggie in four-time all-American Brandon Sorensen. But Sorensen had his worst NCAA showing as a senior (fifth), and Brands has Edinboro transfer Pat Lugo ready to plug into the lineup. Expecting the No. 8 seed at the 2017 NCAA Championships to be improved after two years in the Iowa room shouldn’t be a stretch.

Predicted net gain/loss: Push.

157 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 16.5.

2019 prospects: Third as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore, Michael Kemerer returns for Round Three. Unfortunately, he’s got to contend with two-time Penn State national champ Jason Nolf for another year. But if he stays healthy, he should have as good a shot as anyone else to reach his first NCAA final.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 1-2 points.

165 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 13.

2019 prospects: Alex Marinelli made the NCAA semifinals as a freshman with an injured knee, then slumped to sixth place. We haven’t seen what a fully healthy Marinelli can do. Illinois’ Isaiah Martinez and others have departed this weight class.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 4-5 points.

174 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 0.

2019 prospects: There’s only one way to go (up) after Joey Gunther’s two-and-out trip to the NCAAs. Once Kaleb Young is bulked up to be a full-time 174-pounder, he could be the guy at this weight and maybe win a match or two.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 2-3 points.

184 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 4.

2019 prospects: Mitch Bowman did well to not only qualify for the NCAAs, but add a nice 2.5 bonus points at the NCAAs. The sensible option for Iowa at this weight is to have Cash Wilcke cut down after back-to-back round-of-12 NCAA appearances at 197.

Predicted net gain/loss: Push.

197 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 4.

2019 prospects: Once out of his redshirt, Jacob Warner should be an instant national-title contender who can rack up bonus points along the way. A punishing hand-fighter, Warner won a senior freestyle match in Russia in January (a major accomplishment) and is well-positioned to represent Team USA on its world juniors team. Hawkeye fans will love this kid.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 15-16 points.


Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 16 (17, minus 1 for unsportsmanlike conduct)

2019 prospects: Sam Stoll might open the season ranked No. 1 nationally. He finished fifth at the NCAAs, behind four graduating seniors. Still, Stoll’s fantastic bonus-point march in Cleveland (three pins and a major decision) will be tough to top.

Predicted net gain/loss: Push.

So … before factoring in what Iowa might get from DeSanto … the Hawkeyes are well-positioned for a pickup of 25 to 30 points from their 97-point output of 2018.

Let's split the difference and give Iowa 125 points before adding DeSanto.

Finally … 133 pounds

Iowa’s 2018 NCAA points: 0 (Paul Glynn did not qualify)

2019 prospects: Iowa coaches have a fierce challenge on their hands, but a fun one. As a raw true freshman, DeSanto reached the 2018 NCAA quarterfinals as a No. 7 seed. That right there underscores his talent. He needs a lot of work on the bottom position. But give him six to nine months of being ridden by Lee (the two are friends; there’s no bad blood), Thomas Gilman and Cory Clark ... and he'll rapidly improve.

Once at Iowa, DeSanto will have to trust his coaches. He’ll need to train hard, as he notoriously has. Lee won’t hesitate to take him under his wing; he and DeSanto will push each other in the room as teammates. It should be a win-win ... and maybe win.

For the sake of this sophomore projection, I’m going to play it down the middle. Getting to the NCAA finals (worth roughly 20 points) is certainly possible; so is getting skunked at what’s expected to be a loaded weight class. A seventh-place NCAA finish typically nets eight to 10 points.

Predicted net gain/loss: Gain 9 points.

Add it all up, and Iowa has the firepower to realistically score in the 130s at the 2019 NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.

Penn State has averaged 137 points in winning its last three titles. The Nittany Lions probably expect to improve that total next year, too.

The climb continues. But, yes, the math shows: Iowa is poised to contend again. Soon.

The Hawkeyes haven't won an NCAA team title since 2010. A more promising shot comes in 2020, when only Stoll departs (and incoming heavyweight Tony Cassioppi should be ready to step in) and Lugo and Kemerer are seniors.

In short: DeSanto’s move is big. Very big.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.