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Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands previews the upcoming NCAA Wrestling Championships. Cody Goodwin, cgoodwin2@dmreg.com

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My earliest memory of the NCAA Wrestling Championships was in 1999. Dad and I watched the finals together. Stephen Neal won the heavyweight title over Brock Lesnar on a takedown in the first period. The announcers kept pronouncing it “less-NAR.”

I was only 6 years old then, still new to the sport. Had no idea that Minnesota would’ve won the team crown if Lesnar had won, that Neal would win a world gold medal later on. No clue that Cael Sanderson won his first title that season. No thought to the fact that Kirk White was just Boise State’s second NCAA champion. I just enjoyed the action.

I don’t know why it’s that one I remember, but you almost always remember your first time watching the national tournament. It’s a question I sometimes ask wrestlers. What’s your earliest memory from watching the NCAA Championships? The answers can sometimes be revealing.

Growing up in Missouri, the youth state tournament was usually scheduled during the NCAA Championships, so we only got to watch the finals at night, but not always. Three years after Neal beat Lesnar, they actually stopped competition so we could watch Sanderson win his fourth to cap his undefeated career on the big screen inside the Hearnes Center.

I was a little older then, so I understood the weight of the moment. The entire arena stood and watched history. We applauded even though we were more than 1,000 miles away. Then we continued wrestling. I saw a lot of kids attempt ankle-picks that day.

I looked up that Neal-Lesnar match recently, and it’s amazing how things have changed. The quality of the broadcast, for one, but also how much the tournament has grown. It’s sometimes referred to as wrestling’s crown jewel. During those three days, the entire wrestling world is fixated on that tournament.

In many ways, wrestling has grown drastically. The on-the-mat product is better, with wrestlers nowadays learning so much at younger ages. The tournament itself gets more love than it did back then. There’s more support, more fans — more everything, really.

In other ways, the passing of time is real. Cal-State Bakersfield hasn’t had an NCAA champ since Neal in 1999. Boise State doesn’t have a program anymore. Stephen Abas won at 125 that year for Fresno State. They only recently brought the program back.

This weekend will perhaps be the best tournament to date, if only because it’s the next one, a three-day celebration of the sport. It will be aided by the fact that it’s in the heart of wrestling country. Tickets have been hard to come by, for a variety of reasons, but that's another sign that the sport is still growing.

I’ll think back to that Neal-Lesnar match a lot this weekend, about how I still love watching the action, about the craziness that these next three days will bring — busted brackets, favorites losing, darkhorses emerging, and the roller-coaster of emotions that comes with every session.

That’s the beauty of wrestling, and what’ll make these next three days so fun. Many people call the national men’s basketball tournament the best event in sports. I invite them all to sit through the NCAA Wrestling Championships to see if they reconsider.

I bet they would.

Now, then. Onto the Wrestling Mailbag. An easy way to remember this week's TV schedule: ESPNU in the morning, ESPN in the evening. Also, if anybody has any Pittsburgh food recommendations, I’m all ears.

Please give me a follow on Twitter, and I’ll keep you guys up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Thanks so much for your help here, and for reading.

In case you missed it, I put my national champ picks out on Twitter on Monday morning for all to see, and I picked Iowa’s Spencer Lee to win at 125 pounds.

To be honest, I made the pick because I can’t get last year out of my head.

Maybe that’s dumb. Wrestling seasons are so different. Just because someone does something spectacular one year does not guarantee they’ll do it again. That’s the beauty of sports. Any given day.

But … man. I just can’t forget that performance.

Bear with me here.

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When Iowa coach Tom Brands pulled Lee’s redshirt last season, the general consensus was that, yes, he could win a national title. It was just a matter of doing it. He’s an otherworldly talent at 100 percent. We all saw that in Cleveland a year ago this month.

Still, there were questions entering the national tournament then. He had taken losses to Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser, Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello and occasionally struggled in the third period. He dropped a match at the Big Ten Championships because he couldn’t finish his shots against Tomasello.

Then … well, he answered every single one of those questions during his run to a national title.

There are questions again this season, of course. He’s taken losses to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera (twice) and Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni. He seems to still struggle with stamina at times. He took a loss at the Midlands Championships, again, and at the Big Ten tournament, again.

Look, this might be the dumbest reason for picking a national champion in the history of reasons for picking a national champion. But we all saw what Lee did last year. Until he goes down at the national tournament — and that might happen this weekend — he’s going to be a threat to win it.

We’ve seen him bounce back from adversity before. There was last year, of course, but there are other examples. Before he won his first Junior world title, he got beat out from making the Cadet team earlier that year. Before he won his first Cadet world title, he went to the world championships and went 2-2.

My gut says we might see a different Spencer Lee than what we’ve seen this year. My gut has been wrong before. It may very well be wrong this weekend. It is incredibly hard to repeat, and we’ve seen that 125 this season is as mean and talented as ever.

The big dance begins Thursday morning. The rest is up to him.

► MORE WRESTLING COVERAGE FROM THE DES MOINES REGISTER

Here’s the potential path:

– Oklahoma State’s Joe Smith, a two-time All-American
– Brown’s Jonathan Viruet, who took Marinelli to sudden victory at the Midlands
– Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, a Junior world champ who has a win over Marinelli
– Wisconsin’s Evan Wick or Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller, both All-Americans

And that’s not even counting the possible rematch with Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph in the finals, should they both get there. That’s a brutal path if it all comes to pass. But, hey, if Marinelli really is the best this season, he’ll more than prove it this week.

To answer your question, yes, I believe that might be the toughest (potential) finals path for any 1-seed in recent memory. Nahshon Garrett’s 2016 run should be considered, though. Here’s who he went through to win that year:

– Lehigh’s Mason Beckman, a two-time All-American
– Campbell’s Nathan Kraisser, a 2017 All-American
– Iowa State’s Earl Hall, a two-time All-American 
– Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer, a four-time All-American and NCAA champ
– Iowa’s Cory Clark, a four-time All-American, three-time finalist and NCAA champ

There are probably others. I’d like to hear them if you guys know of any.

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Iowa's Alex Marinelli discusses the Hawkeyes' mindset heading into the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships. Cody Goodwin, cgoodwin2@dmreg.com

Well, it would help if Sam Stoll beat Lehigh’s Jordan Wood to start, but Wood is pretty good. He’s 21-3 and the 4-seed, and his only losses are to Oklahoma State’s Derek White, Penn State’s Anthony Cassar and Minnesota’s Gable Steveson, who are seeded one, two and three, respectively.

So if he loses there and the bracket goes chalk, Stoll would have to beat … *deep breath* … Missouri’s Zach Elam, Fresno State’s A.J. Nevills, Lock Haven’s Thomas Haines and Pittsburgh’s Demetrius Thomas in the wrestlebacks to reach the podium. On paper, that seems doable.

If Stoll beats Wood, he’d get the winner of Elam and George Mason’s Matt Voss. Win there, and it could be either Michigan’s Mason Parris or Northwestern’s Conan Jennings, both beatable opponents, in the quarterfinals.

Weird things happen in March. If he loses to Wood, he could also, in theory, see Gable Steveson in the wrestleback cross or perhaps even Oregon State’s Amar Dhesi. He could also see Central Michigan’s Matt Stencel, who currently leads the nation with 18 pins, including one over Tony Cassioppi at the Midlands.

Furthermore, Stoll could also beat Wood then lose in the second round, which would drop him to the wrestlebacks where he could see Jennings or Parris and then possibly either Maryland’s Youssif Hemida or Wisconsin’s Trent Hilger. Should Stoll lose in the quarters, Hemida or Hilger could be waiting for him in the bloodround.

There’s a lot of unknown here, which is part of the fun, and it may all hinge on whether or not Stoll can beat Wood. I’m not saying he can’t win four matches in the wrestlebacks, but the road to the podium is a lot easier with a first-round win.

All of them.

Can I say that?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

OK, fine. Here’s three: 125, 149, and 165.

The potential quarterfinals at 125 are reason enough to buy a ticket for Friday morning. If the bracket goes chalk, check this out:

– Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera vs. Cornell’s Vitali Arujau
– Virginia’s Jack Mueller vs. Oregon State’s Ronnie Bresser
– Iowa’s Spencer Lee vs. Minnesota’s Sean Russell
– Princeton’s Pat Glory vs. Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni

Yes please. Sign me up for allllllll of that.

Let’s assume that the bracket goes chalk to that point. That means guys like Michigan State’s RayVon Foley, North Dakota State’s Brent Fleetwood, Illinois’ Travis Piotrowski and Old Dominion’s Michael McGee will be lurking in the bloodround for whoever doesn’t win those quarterfinal matches. 🔥

I like 149 because the weight is weird and relatively open and the bracket could fall apart as early as Thursday night. I think Ohio State's Micah Jordan will win it, but the list of guys who could reach the finals is long.

Consider these potential quarterfinal matchups:

– Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault vs. Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen/NC State’s Justin Oliver
– Princeton’s Matthew Kolodzik vs. Missouri’s Brock Mauller/Penn’s Anthony Artalona
– Duke’s Mitch Finesilver vs. North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor
– Oklahoma State’s Kaden Gfeller/Iowa’s Pat Lugo vs. Ohio State’s Micah Jordan

I will happily take any combination of those.

I like 165 because it’s deep and talented and there is no easy path, whether you’re on the front side or in the wrestlebacks. Consider: the loser of Marinelli-Smith could potentially hit Missouri’s Connor Flynn, Wyoming’s Branson Ashworth, and then the loser of Marsteller-Wick in the bloodround.

Also, Northern Iowa’s Bryce Steiert and Michigan’s Logan Massa could wrestle in round two. The loser could have to navigate the likes of Ohio State’s Te’Shan Campbell, North Dakota State’s Andrew Fogarty and the loser of Marinelli-Lewis to reach the podium.

Again. There is no easy path. Even Joseph might have to beat guys like Flynn, Nebraska’s Isaiah White and Arizona State’s Joshua Shields to reach the finals. On paper, it’s maybe easier than Marinelli’s path, but it still isn’t easy.

Honestly, I’m super excited for this whole tournament. I made my 10 picks on Monday and could easily present convincing arguments for 10 other guys. If I’m even halfway correct on those picks, I’ll call it a win. This weekend is going to be bananas.

Best first round matches? –@Bigmacwrap

Oh man. So many I’m excited to watch. These are the few that caught my eye:

– 133: N.C. State’s Tariq Wilson vs. Campbell’s Noah Gonser — returning All-American vs. up-and-comer

– 141: Iowa State’s Ian Parker vs. Nebraska’s Chad Red — 🔥🔥🔥

– 149: Campbell’s Joshua Heil vs. SDSU’s Henry Pohlmeyer — Pohlmeyer’s had a solid year and could pull the upset

– 157: Old Dominion’s Larry Early vs. Princeton’s Quincy Monday — two great athletes

– 184: Iowa State’s Sam Colbray vs. Fresno State’s Jackson Hemauer — rematch from when Colbray won on a controversial challenge call in Ames

– 125: Michigan State’s RayVon Foley vs. Northern Colorado’s Rico Montoya — this one arrived when they adjusted the 125-pound bracket and looks like fun

– 125: N.C. State’s Sean Fausz vs. Iowa State’s Alex Mackall — another one that came after the adjustment and I think Mackall could steal this one in the morning

Man, can Thursday get here fast enough?

I’m glad we’re all working under the assumption that Penn State is going to win. A friend asked me last week what it would take for Penn State to lose this weekend. I told them they’d have to miss their exit on the drive in and end up in Cincinnati. Even then, I wouldn’t rule them out.

After February, I was pretty convinced Oklahoma State would take second, but their roster changes prior to the Big 12 Championships confused me a little bit. Then again, John Smith is a lot smarter than I, so I’ll defer to him and wait for it to play out.

Still, I think the Cowboys have the edge in the race for second, ahead of Ohio State and Iowa. The Hawkeyes will need to put in a lot of work to catch both, but it’s possible. The Buckeyes will also need some guys to step up if they want to usurp Oklahoma State.

Behind them, Minnesota looked mighty impressive at the Big Ten Championships, and I don’t expect Michigan to flop the same way they did in Minneapolis. Cornell has some really nice pieces this year, as does Nebraska, and Missouri is a threat, too.

If you separate the team race into tiers like that, it might be easier to follow, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Minnesota or Cornell or Missouri keep pace with Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Iowa throughout at least part of Friday. 

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Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands discusses sophomore 125-pounder Spencer Lee ahead of the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships. Cody Goodwin, cgoodwin2@dmreg.com

I don’t have any knowledge into the coaching search, but I imagine many of the country’s top assistants will be among those considered.

This is purely off the top of my head — Nebraska’s Brian Snyder, any of Penn State’s assistants, Oklahoma State’s Zack Esposito, Minnesota’s Luke Becker, Ohio State’s J Jaggers. I wouldn't be surprised if Iowa’s Ryan Morningstar gets a call, too.

Again, those are all guesses.

The hard part about the job is that whoever takes over will literally be starting from the bottom. Maryland is in a tough, tough spot. The location isn’t awful, but it will be hard to build the program up. At the Big Ten tournament, the team went a combined 5-19. Everybody but heavyweight Youssif Hemida was eliminated on Day One.

I imagine more names will surface over the next few weeks. Maryland may even conduct interviews while everybody is in Pittsburgh. For the sake of recruiting, my gut says a new coach will be hired sometime in early April, at the latest.

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

2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships

WHEN: March 21-23
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
WATCH: Every morning on ESPNU, every night on ESPN, everything on ESPN3

SCHEDULE (all times CT)

Thursday

  • Session I — 11 a.m., pigtails, first round
  • Session II — 6 p.m., pigtail wrestlebacks, second round, first-round wrestlebacks

Friday

  • Session III — 10 a.m., quarterfinals, second- and third-round wrestlebacks
  • Session IV — 7 p.m., semifinals, bloodround, wrestleback quarterfinals

Saturday

  • Session V — 10 a.m., wrestleback semifinals, 3rd, 5th, 7th place matches
  • Session VI — 6 p.m., finals
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