Leistikow: Tom Brands' passionate answer underscores Austin DeSanto's importance to Iowa lineup
IOWA CITY, Ia. — There were a lot of positive indicators oozing out of No. 1-ranked Iowa’s 35-6 dual hammering of Minnesota on Saturday night.
But a few hours earlier in State College, Pennsylvania, there were a lot of promising signs for second-ranked Penn State, too. The powerhouse Nittany Lions, winners of eight of the last nine NCAA championships, showed in their 20-16 win against No. 3 Ohio State that they, too, have the firepower to make another title run.
Penn State’s Nick Lee launched himself into the No. 1 ranking at 141 pounds in an impressive 8-4 win against the previous No. 1, Luke Pletcher. Mark Hall looked like Mark Hall, with one of his electric pins — getting it done against No. 7 Kaleb Romero in the first minute at 174 pounds. At 184, true freshman Aaron Brooks is ascending quickly, and the talented freestyler looks quite impressive at folkstyle now, too, with his 14-4 major decision of No. 12 Rocky Jordan the latest evidence.
Throw in No. 2-ranked Roman Bravo-Young at 133 and two-time NCAA champion Vincenzo Joseph at 165, and the Nittany Lions are once again showing they have five lineup hammers that could very well make their way to the Saturday-night finals in Minneapolis next month. We're not yet talking Zain Retherford-Nolf-Joseph-Hall-Bo Nickal hammers … but they're still very good.
That was why the Hawkeyes’ positive developments at crucial weights against the Gophers was so important. And there was no more relieving sight for Iowa fans than to see Austin DeSanto back on the mat again after the injury scare that occurred 15 nights earlier at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I just tweaked my knee. It’s all fine," DeSanto said Tuesday, in his first interview since writhing in pain and issuing a medical forfeit in his Jan. 31 match against Penn State's Bravo-Young. "Just a little disappointed. But we moved past it."
DeSanto wasn't yielding much fodder about his right-knee injury, offering only brief, repetitive answers and assuring everyone that he's 100%. It was clear Tuesday that DeSanto prefers to let his wrestling do the talking on this matter, just as he did on one level Saturday night by throttling Minnesota's Boo Dryden via technical fall, 24-8, despite wearing a cumbersome brace around the knee in question.
Iowa coach Tom Brands went on about a four-minute diversion during his Tuesday news conference to say, in his own passionate way, that DeSanto really needs to let his wrestling do the talking. Brands wasn't happy with how DeSanto handled some post-match needling from Dryden.
After Dryden used his hand to push DeSanto's face away, the Iowa wrestler quickly shuffled into Dryden's space as if he was ready to retaliate. Referee Jim Rivello did a nice job breaking up the wrestlers, and cooler heads ultimately prevailed.
There was no penalty this time, but Brands warned that if DeSanto had taken it any further, he might've been suspended for the next competition, just as he was last year for post-match taunting at Nebraska.
Losing DeSanto for a few weeks was bad enough. Losing him for the Big Ten Championships and/or the NCAA Championships in March would be a major blow to the Hawkeyes' title hopes — especially with Penn State keeping the heat on.
“The rules dictate that this is dangerous behavior. And it is on my mind," Brands said, his voice raising with each word. "Because WE NEED AUSTIN DESANTO. We do need him. And he’s not a circus act.
“(Former Hawkeye) Sam Brooks laid it out the best. ‘If you didn’t react, that would blow people’s mind.’ … Just laugh it off. Because that would really bother some people.”
Brands is right. And he's had these conversations with DeSanto. Now, he's taking them public to emphasize the message and its importance.
DeSanto hears his coach and understands the high stakes.
"I don’t need to add those antics at the end of a match," DeSanto said. "That’s what I need to improve on.”
DeSanto’s return entrenched him as the nation’s No. 3 133-pounder, according to this week’s TrackWrestling rankings — only behind Wisconsin’s Seth Gross (who DeSanto has beaten) and Bravo-Young (who DeSanto has beaten in previous years). Iowa now proceeds to March with the idea that 20 NCAA points are possible at 133 with DeSanto, rather than perhaps zero without him.
That’s why he's so important.
Equally big: TrackWrestling’s rankings this week put nine Hawkeyes in their top four. That illustrates that even if Penn State puts more guys in the finals, Iowa’s advantage in March is with that depth.
But the difference between fourth and eighth (or worse) is maybe one takedown in a quarterfinal match at the NCAA Championships. That underscores that the four guys ranked No. 4 — Max Murin at 141, Pat Lugo at 149, Kaleb Young at 157 and Jacob Warner at 197 — need to be on their “A” games over the next month.
Murin missed the all-American stand (top eight) by one spot last year, but that was as a No. 22 seed. Lugo finished eighth as a No. 10 seed. Young did well to finish fifth as a No. 6 seed. Warner settled for seventh as a No. 5 seed. All four won matches against Minnesota, with Murin and Warner looking especially good.
"We won a couple matches where the rankings were high. We won at 57 where we had to bail ourselves out," Brands said. "Look at (Alex) Marinelli (at 165), instead of slowing things down to try to get a fall to get bonus points, he sped things up and scored a lot of points.
“You’re seeing guys get better in their approaches, and Warner was one of those guys.”
In Sunday's 7 p.m. regular-season finale against No. 9 Oklahoma State, Brands lists only his 10 best guys as starters. No "or" designations. That Sunday lineup includes true freshman Abe Assad at 184 pounds.
As far as Brands is concerned, this is no time to rest. After all, Penn State's presence and March reputation is enough of a reminder that the Hawkeyes' best has to come next.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.