The Iowa 184-pounder is in a loaded bracket, though.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tom Brands' comments were consistently phrased regarding this weekend’s Big Ten Wrestling Championships.
Discussing his Iowa team’s chances in Bloomington, Ind., he generally repeated a different version of this quote over and over.
“If our best wrestling shows up," he said, "everything else will take care of itself.”
Although that statement makes sports sense, it doesn’t tell the whole story for Sammy Brooks.
Because the Iowa senior is wrestling as good as he ever has. And yet, the defending Big Ten champion at that weight heads into the Saturday-Sunday event as a clear underdog. Making the finals will be difficult, let alone repeating as the winner.
The 184-pound bracket in Bloomington is loaded, with three returning NCAA semifinalists a year ago at 174 moving up a weight and wrestling at a high level.
The result: Four of Trackwrestling.com’s top five 184-pounders plus a defending NCAA champion will be vying for the Big Ten's top podium spot.
A bad break for Brooks? He looks at it as an opportunity, as you would expect from a competitor in a Brands-led wrestling room.
“Yeah, but that’s what you want, right?” said Brooks, who earned the bracket’s No. 2 pre-seed (with final seeds being nailed down after the league’s coaches convene and argue Friday). “Because then if you come out on top, you get to be the guy who beat all those guys. That’s what you look for. You don’t want to shy away from good wrestling. If you do, then what are you wrestling for?”
The No. 1 pre-seed is Penn State's Bo Nickal, who was the NCAA runner-up at 174 last year and might be one of the top five pound-for-pound wrestlers in the country (another one, Cornell's Gabe Dean, is also at this stacked weight). Nickal pinned Brooks in their first meeting Jan. 20 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a stunning 38 seconds.
“He got me in a precarious situation where he’s good,” Brooks said, “and I just need to have more awareness.”
Here’s the good news for Brooks, though: In his five bouts since the Nickal loss, he’s been steamrolling the competition.
He knocked off Ohio State’s Myles Martin, last year’s NCAA champ at 174 and the No. 4 pre-seed, 5-3, and then won twice by fall and twice by major decision to enter the Big Tens at 21-2.
If the pre-seeds hold, he’ll have a potential revenge tour at Assembly Hall.
No. 3 Nate Jackson of Indiana beat Brooks at the Midlands Championships, then Brooks returned the favor in the third-place match. They would be in line to meet in the semifinals, with Nickal likely facing Martin or No. 5 pre-seed T.J. Dudley of Nebraska in the semis. Dudley is only Trackwrestling’s No. 4 national wrestler and the guy Brooks had to beat in last year’s Big Ten title match.
“I know I can wrestle in these tournaments and come out on top,” Brooks said. “I’m just going in there to do the same thing.”
Brands and the third-ranked Iowa wrestlers will bus to Bloomington on Thursday as underdogs to No. 1-ranked Penn State, and they'll need a lot of things to go right to come away with the Big Ten title.
As the 184-pound bracket shows, it won’t be easy. Neither will second place, frankly. Third-ranked Ohio State and No. 6 Nebraska will be battling, too.
“Let the broken record continue,” said Brands, aware he was repeating himself. “We’ve got to be at our best.”
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PRE-SEEDS FOR IOWA
125: Thomas Gilman (1); 133: Cory Clark (3); 141: Topher Carton (6); 149: Brandon Sorensen (2); 157: Michael Kemerer (2); 165: Joey Gunther (5); 174: Alex Meyer (5); 184: Sammy Brooks (2); 197: Cash Wilcke (7); Hwt.: Steven Holloway (NS).
The Iowa wrestling coach previews the March 4-5 championships in Bloomington, Ind.