Iowa wrestling takeaways: A closer look at the Hawkeyes’ underwhelming Big Ten performance

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Brands met with the media three separate times during the two days of the Big Ten Championships, and with each meeting, the frustration appeared to grow.

Here is Brands after Saturday’s morning session: “There’s a lot of wrestling left. If you’re going to grade us right now, then it wasn’t ideal.”

Here is Brands after Saturday’s evening session: “Of course it’s a disappointment when you don’t perform and you have competitors on your team that don’t perform. I know we can do better … it’s about winning the tournament, and we’re a long ways from that.”

And here is Brands after the final session on Sunday: “You’re going to get the generic answer from me. We have to go forward. We have another tournament. It’s a three-day tournament, and it’s in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s the national tournament.”

Iowa's Brandon Sorensen, right, shoots against Penn State's Zain Retherford in their 149-pound Big Ten championship match, Sunday, March 4, 2018, in East Lansing, Mich.

The 12th-year head coach had every reason to be frustrated. As a team, the Hawkeyes finished fourth, its worst effort under Brands. Of their nine place-winners, only three finished fourth or better. For the second time in four years, Iowa did not have an individual tournament champion.

That, on its face, is enough to describe a less-than-stellar showing for a team that’s expected to compete for a trophy at the NCAA Championships in two weeks. Here, we offer a deeper look into Iowa’s struggles at the Breslin Center.

It wasn’t a pretty weekend.

Lack of bonus points

For the weekend, Iowa wrestlers went a combined 23-20 in contested matches and scored just six bonus-point victories. Spencer Lee accounted for half of those, recording a pin, a technical fall and a major at 125 pounds. Michael Kemerer recorded a pin and a major decision at 157. Sam Stoll locked up a pin in the wrestlebacks at heavyweight.

Iowa's Spencer Lee poses with his freshman of the year award following the Big Ten championship matchs, Sunday, March 4, 2018, in East Lansing, Mich.

Compare that with the three teams ahead of the Hawkeyes. Penn State, which finished second, had six pins alone (plus another 10 victories by major for 16 bonus-point wins). Ohio State, the tournament's team champ, recorded three technical falls, four pins and six majors for 13 bonus-point wins. Third-place Michigan went three, three and four for 10.

For the tournament, Iowa accumulated 203 total match points, according to statistics kept by Trackwrestling. That total was good for fifth in the tournament behind Michigan (213), Nebraska (230), Penn State (268) and Ohio State (290).

For the Hawkeyes, that’s an average of 4.7 points per match. That’s not good. Of Iowa’s 43 contested matches, 17 featured an Iowa wrestler scoring five points or more. They went 14-3 in those matches (that record doesn’t count Stoll’s pin, which he secured after his first takedown in the first period).

Not many takedowns

In 43 contested matches, Iowa recorded a grand total of 55 takedowns. Of that total, Lee had seven, Kemerer nine, Vince Turk had eight, and Alex Marinelli also had nine. That’s four guys accounting for 33 takedowns, or 60 percent of the total, while the other six combined for 22. Not ideal.

There were 17 contested matches where an Iowa wrestler failed to score a takedown. In those matches, the Hawkeyes went 3-14. Two of those wins belong to Joey Gunther, who accumulated just a pair of takedowns in six matches this weekend, yet still went 3-3. Cash Wilcke had the other.

Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Joey Gunther vs Indiana Hoosiers wrestler  Devin Skatzka during the Big Ten wrestling championships at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center on Saturday.

On the flip side, Iowa wrestlers allowed 36 takedowns in 43 contested matches. Gunther and Mitch Bowman both allowed more takedowns than they scored. Even though Marinelli scored nine, he allowed seven — including a combined five in two matches against Logan Massa. By my count, Marinelli had only allowed three takedowns during the entire regular season.

Moving forward

A repeat performance in Cleveland likely means no NCAA trophy, unless things get weird and Iowa catches a lot of breaks. But hoping for good luck isn't a good strategy.

Iowa is better than what it showed this weekend. Marinelli can beat anybody at 165. It’s fair to expect Kemerer to wrestle the entire NCAA tournament. Lee and Sorensen are potential finalists and title contenders. Stoll is a threat to place high on the podium. Wilcke made the round of 12 last year. Turk, Gunther and Bowman could all add some points here and there.

But this weekend revealed that the Hawkeyes have little room for error. The tournament is less than two weeks out. Iowa qualified nine wrestlers, but so did Penn State, Lehigh, Oklahoma State and North Carolina State. Arizona State and Virginia Tech have eight. Cornell, Missouri and Michigan have seven. Ohio State pushed everybody through.

The full list of qualifiers will be out Tuesday, and the brackets will follow on Wednesday. A week after, everybody will commute to Quicken Loans Arena for college wrestling’s crown jewel.

“We need to make some adjustments in individual minds,” Brands said, “and we have to have our guys fresh in their mind. If something goes bad, we have to be able to handle that a little better over a two-day, three-day period.

“The postseason is not over.”

If the Hawkeyes wrestle well, they may bring a trophy home for the 10th time in 11 years.

If they wrestle like they did this weekend, they will not.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.