Leistikow: Dual dominance is great and all, but Iowa wrestling must leave its postseason mark

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Open the Iowa wrestling team’s media guide, and you’ll see at the bottom of every odd-numbered page: “23 NCAA titles, 35 Big Ten titles.”

It’s a reflection of the rich tradition of Hawkeye wrestling as much as a reminder that seasons are remembered for what happens in March, not how many dual meets were won in the months leading up to it.

So, for all the enjoyable moments that Tom Brands and the top-ranked Hawkeyes have delivered since November, they mean nothing, zilch, if they don’t lay down the hammer this month, starting with this weekend’s Big Ten Championships in Piscataway, New Jersey.

It’s time to freshen up those title numbers.

“It’s about being ready, staying ready,” Brands said Monday, “and doing what you’ve done all year.”

The Hawkeyes’ postseason record has been gathering dust over the last nine seasons, as we all know by now. Even the only Big Ten title to its credit in that span came with disappointment. That was in 2015, when the Hawkeyes had three top-seeded wrestlers but finished with no champions and shared the team title with eventual national champ Ohio State. The 120 points scored by both teams that year are by far the fewest it’s taken to win the Big Tens in the past nine years.

A lot of Iowa-Penn State rematches could be on tap at the Big Ten Championships, including Vincenzo Joseph, left, against Iowa's Alex Marinelli at 165 pounds.

Over the past three seasons, the Hawkeyes have finished a distant third, fourth and third at the Big Tens. But they are well-positioned to reclaim the top spot heading to the Saturday-Sunday tournament inside the Rutgers Athletic Center.

All 10 Iowa wrestlers earned a top-three pre-seed Monday. Penn State (with five) is the only other program with more than three.

All 10 Hawkeyes have questions to answer this weekend, not only about themselves but about the team’s readiness to come out on top at the March 19-21 NCAA Championships in Minneapolis.

Spencer Lee, seeded No. 1 at 125 pounds: Can the two-time NCAA champ roll through the bracket to become a first-time Big Ten champ? The junior phenom has scored bonus points in 13 of 14 contested matches and could make it 16 of 17 this week.

Austin DeSanto, No. 3 at 133: Is he better prepared for the attacks of second-seeded Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State? DeSanto was under siege from Bravo-Young at Carver-Hawkeye before defaulting with a knee injury Jan. 31.

Max Murin, No. 3 at 141: Will he take the next step? Murin's looked good since missing some time with a shoulder injury but must do better than last year's seventh-place Big Ten finish in a weight class that sports five of the nation's top six wrestlers.

Pat Lugo, No. 2 at 149: Can he settle old business against Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso? Lugo’s lone loss of the season came against the top-ranked Buckeye in a tiebreaker when he couldn’t finish shots.

Kaleb Young, No. 2 at 157: How will he respond to what happened against Oklahoma State? A 9-4 loss in his most recent bout against the nation’s No. 19 157-pounder leaves doubts about Young's ceiling.

Alex Marinelli, No. 2 at 165: Can Marinelli win an expected Round 4 against Vincenzo Joseph? After beating the two-time NCAA champion from Penn State in his first two meetings (including in last year’s Big Ten final), Joseph bested Marinelli in Carver-Hawkeye with a six-point throw for a 7-5 win.

Iowa's Michael Kemerer, left, wrestles Penn State's Mark Hall at 174 during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Michael Kemerer, No. 1 at 174: Can he withstand the dynamic Mark Hall again? Kemerer’s 11-6 decision over Hall was the most euphoric moment of this Hawkeye season, but he’ll need to repeat that result (assuming both make the final) to prove he’s a national-title favorite.

Abe Assad, No. 3 at 184: Can the true freshman deliver on the big stage? His redshirt was pulled because coaches see a higher ceiling than Cash Wilcke, but Assad hasn’t competed since back-to-back losses more than a month ago. He’s got the most of anyone in the Hawkeye lineup to prove.

Jacob Warner, No. 3 at 197: Can the sophomore reach his first Big Ten final? That would be a success, considering Warner will likely need to avenge his last loss, to Nebraska’s Eric Schultz, to get there.

Tony Cassioppi, No. 3 at heavyweight: Does the freshman have an answer for the clear top two? It would be a big story if 16-2 Cassioppi can get the best of either Minnesota’s Gable Steveson (who beat him, 7-5) or Michigan’s Mason Parris (who pinned him).

Bottom line: Up and down the lineup, Iowa still has more work to be done.

“Our best wrestling is in front of us. That’s always how you operate," Brands said. "There’s a lot of reasons to perform now. I think you’re going to see your opponents’ best foot forward." 

Especially from Penn State.

The winners of eight of the last nine NCAA titles? Not going away.

The second-ranked Nittany Lions will bring three top-seeded wrestlers to the RAC and two more (in Bravo-Young and Hall) that are title contenders. When the postseason arrives, Cael Sanderson’s wrestlers rise to the occasion … year after year.

The Nittany Lions have 28 individual Big Ten champions over the last nine years. Iowa has 10.

The Hawkeyes haven’t beaten Penn State in a tournament setting since 2015, a season Sanderson was largely punting by choosing to redshirt several stars. Take that season away, and it hasn’t happened since Iowa’s last NCAA team title in 2010.

To be the best, you’ve first got to beat the best.

It’s time for Iowa wrestling to write some new history.

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.