Iowa wrestling takeaways: A closer look at the Hawkeyes’ third-place NCAA performance
CLEVELAND, Ohio — By now, you’ve probably seen the quote — the one from Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands that came on Saturday of the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships, about how he was never going to get used to third place.
But hopefully, that means you also saw him praising his team’s performance here at Quicken Loans Arena, which was almost a night-and-day turnaround from their showing at the Big Ten Conference Tournament.
“It doesn’t feel good,” Brands said. “But you do have to give some credit to some tough performances to get us in that position. We scored a lot of bonus points in that tournament.
“That’s something we preach. That’s something we maybe haven’t seen a lot of.”
Iowa took third in the team race at the national tournament, totaling 97 points, 17 clear of the two fourth-place finishers, Michigan and North Carolina State. The Hawkeyes finished behind one of the highest-scoring team races in NCAA tournament history, as Penn State edged out Ohio State, 141.5-133.5. (The Buckeyes’ point total is the highest ever by a runner-up.)
For the 10th time in 12 years under Brands, the Hawkeyes brought home NCAA hardware, an effort punctuated by Spencer Lee’s individual national title at 125 pounds. He led Iowa’s team-scoring charge with 27 team points, the most of any individual wrestler in the tournament.
Lee will steal the headlines, and rightfully so, but the rest of the team deserves some kudos as well. That’s what we’ll attempt to do here. Similar to how we broke down the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten performance, here is a rundown of their showing at the NCAA tournament.
It was a much prettier weekend.
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Many, many bonus points
Over three days, Iowa scored 19 bonus-point victories, the most in the tournament — 10 pins (also a tournament high), 3 technical falls and 6 major decisions. To compare with the rest of the top five: Ohio State had 17 (5, 4, 8), Penn State had 15 (4, 5, 6), Michigan had 9 (2, 1 6) and N.C. State had 14 (2, 2, 10).
For Iowa, it was a total team effort. Every Iowa wrestler but Joey Gunther contributed at least one bonus-point win, and six had at least two. Lee and heavyweight Sam Stoll both recorded four. Brandon Sorensen had three, and Michael Kemerer, Alex Marinelli and Mitch Bowman all had two.
This was much different from how Iowa performed in recent NCAA tournaments. In 2017, the Hawkeyes totaled just 13 bonus-point wins: 4 pins, one technical fall and 8 major decisions, four of which came from Kemerer. In 2016, Iowa had just 8 bonus-point wins — and half of them came from Thomas Gilman.
Here’s this, too: Iowa scored 19 bonus-point victories in 33 total wins over the weekend — or in roughly 58 percent of their victories. That’s pretty good.
Consider this: Penn State and Ohio State had more total wins — 49 and 40, respectively — but scored bonus points at a lower clip, at 31 and 43 percent. North Carolina State nearly matched Iowa's percentage, scoring bonus points in 14 of 25 wins, while Michigan scored bonus points in just 9 of 25 wins.
So if it seemed like the Hawkeyes scored a lot of bonus points, well, it’s because they did.
Tons of takedowns
In 50 matches, Iowa wrestlers notched 74 takedowns. Four individuals finished with 10 or more — Sorensen had 16, Marinelli had 12, Stoll had 11 and Kemerer had 10 — while another three recorded at least five. Everybody had at least one.
Breaking that down by periods, Iowa showed a propensity to both start and finish matches strong. The Hawkeyes totaled 37 takedowns in the first period and 20 in the third. In the two matches where Iowa wrestlers went to overtime, they both won via takedowns.
Breaking that down even further, the Hawkeyes scored 1.48 takedowns per match, which was up from the 1.28 per match they averaged at Big Tens. The result, naturally, led to more total match points.
For the tournament, Iowa recorded 303 total match points, according to Trackwrestling, which was good for third in the tournament. Only Ohio State (419) and Penn State (403) had more.
To go further with that stat, Iowa wrestlers averaged 6.06 match points per bout, which was way up from the 4.72 they averaged at Big Tens.
So if it seemed like Iowa was attacking and scoring more, it’s because, in some ways, they were.
More on Spencer Lee’s title run
Lee became the first true freshman to win an NCAA title for Iowa since Lincoln McIlravy won back in 1993, and he did so in style, piling up two technical falls and two pins en route to Saturday night’s final. There, he beat Nick Suriano, 5-1, to cap a dominant week.
A closer look at the numbers mirrors that short synopsis: In his five matches, Lee outscored his opponents 60-4 — both of his technical falls were 18-0 thrashings; he led Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni 11-1 at the time of his pin in the quarters, and was up 8-2 on Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello before winning by fall in the semis.
In total, Lee scored nine takedowns — five in the first period, two in the second and two in the third — and allowed just one. He rolled up a combined 38 total match points in back points alone, which is probably why Suriano chose neutral in the finals rather than going underneath.
Lee’s offensive production was among the tournament’s best. His 60 total match points tied for ninth among individual wrestlers (with South Dakota State’s Seth Gross). Only Ohio State’s Myles Martin had more in the same amount of matches (61 in five bouts). Everybody else ahead of Lee had more matches during the tournament.
Here’s this, too: Lee’s 18-0 technical fall over Chattanooga’s Alonzo Allen lasted just 101 seconds, which was the fastest in the tournament. In the next round, he beat Purdue’s Luke Welch by the same score in 3:59, which was the tournament's fourth fastest. Simple math says Lee recorded both technical falls in a combined 5:40 — or less than one single match.
It is getting harder to fully describe just how good Spencer Lee was at the NCAA Championships. The guy had an incredible week.
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This past week allowed for optimism to fester in Iowa City, and rightfully so. Of Iowa’s 97 team points, 84 return next season. To compare: Penn State is bringing back 116 while Ohio State is returning just 76.5.
The Hawkeyes only lose Brandon Sorensen, a four-time All-American who will be sorely missed. In his place is, likely, Pat Lugo, who transferred from Edinboro last summer and sat in redshirt this season. Iowa will also likely add Max Murin and Jacob Warner in some capacity as well.
The future looks bright, is the thing here. It remains to be seen if Iowa can run down the Nittany Lion juggernaut. Not since the Dan Gable-coached Hawkeyes has a team won seven team titles in eight seasons, a feat achieved by Penn State with its title this year. The Buckeyes figure to reload as well, and Oklahoma State and Missouri will be among a handful of teams to watch.
But overall, there was a feeling of accomplishment after the Hawkeyes’ showing at The Q. Brands, despite saying he’ll never get used to third, even acknowledged as much.
“We need to have 10 weight classes,” Brands said, “and we have to have consistency in 10 weight classes. We have five All-Americans; Penn State and Ohio State have eight — that’s the difference. We have to put those guys on the stand and put them as high up as you can.
“But a lot of credit to the wide-open-type wrestling that our fans like — and, really, it’s good for the sport, with Marinelli, with Kemerer, with Lee. Let’s have everybody jump on that bandwagon and go that way.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.