Wrestling analysis: Consider the Big Ten Championships as Iowa-Penn State, Round 2

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Tom Brands strolled into the media room inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday with a determined look and a matching matter-of-fact tone.

He was all focus and business, mind and eyes ready to move forward.

It is that time of the year, after all.

A week earlier, his top-ranked Iowa wrestlers put the final touch on a perfect 13-0 regular season by crushing longtime rival Oklahoma State. The Hawkeyes have dominated the past four months: a Big Ten regular-season title, another Midlands crown, 108 victories out of 130 dual bouts and record attendance.

In short: Iowa spent the entire 2019-20 campaign proving it is the nation’s No. 1-ranked wrestling team. But as Brands settled into a chair to talk with reporters, the message was clear.

None of that matters if his team doesn’t produce similar results this month.

“It’s about being ready, staying ready and do what you’ve done all year,” Brands said. “Except now, it’s at another level.”

The Big Ten Championships are next, set for this weekend here at the Rutgers Athletic Center, a quirky little arena that will rock and sway over the next two days. The Big Ten has long been the home of college wrestling’s elite — nine schools are among the top 20 in Trackwrestling’s latest Division I poll — and this year’s league tournament carries added team-race intrigue.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands calls out a lineup during the first day of preseason Hawkeye wrestling matches, Thursday, Nov., 7, 2019, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Iowa vs. Penn State, Round 2

Enter No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Penn State, the two schools expected to battle for the top spot not only this weekend, but at the NCAA Championships two weeks from now in Minneapolis. The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions met on the last day of January in a fantastic dual. Iowa won a 19-17 fistfight that night before a sold-out Carver crowd.

“We had some guys really step up and compete well,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson told Trackwrestling that night. “Moving forward, we can definitely build on this and figure out how to climb another notch or two.”

This weekend, then, is Round 2 in an expected three-part tussle for the national team title, a crown held by Penn State eight of the past nine years and an accolade Iowa has failed to take home in a decade.

Could this be the year the Hawkeyes finally bring the big trophy back?

This weekend will reveal a lot in the way of expectations.

What the pre-seeds say

Iowa led the league when it came to pre-seeds for this weekend, with all 10 starters pre-seeded third or better. Both Spencer Lee (125) and Michael Kemerer (174) earned No. 1 seeds. Pat Lugo (149), Kaleb Young (157) and Alex Marinelli (165) all earned No. 2 seeds. Everybody else was seeded third.

Penn State led all schools with three wrestlers — Nick Lee (141), Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Aaron Brooks (184) — earning No. 1 pre-seeds. Two more earned No. 2 seeds, in Roman Bravo-Young (133) and Mark Hall (174). Three others were seeded sixth, seventh and eighth.

Based solely on the Big Ten pre-seeds, Iowa is projected to score 118 team points. That’s before additional points for bonus and advancement. Penn State is projected to score 85. Ohio State (69), Nebraska (67) and Minnesota (60) round out the top five. 

The Hawkeyes' depth and overall talent have guided them to a dominant regular season, and will be crucial for them to win their first NCAA team title since 2010. It’s a bonus, in other words, but not a promise.

“They still have to earn it,” Brands said.

Where Iowa-Penn State could hit head-to-head

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Penn State could finish this weekend — and the national tournament, for that matter — with five champions. That amounts to 80 points before bonus and advancement. It would be 100 points in Minneapolis.

It’s also possible that Iowa pushes eight into the finals this weekend, and each would have a fair shot at winning, too. That’d be 128 points this weekend and 160 at the national tournament.

But those are the extremes. What’ll actually happen will probably be a mix somewhere closer to the middle.

Plenty of potential matchups, based on the pre-seeds, throughout this weekend will help decide the team race — including some head-to-head bouts.

At 133 pounds, DeSanto could see Bravo-Young in the semifinals. DeSanto is 2-1 against Bravo-Young, but DeSanto injury-defaulted out of their meeting in January. He’d have to beat Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett to get there, too, a matchup he won 7-4 earlier this year.

At 165, Marinelli could see Joseph in the finals, but he’d first have to beat Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, a two-time All-American. He’s 4-1 all-time against Wick, but those four wins are by a combined six points.

At 174, Kemerer could see Hall in the finals, but he could also see Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola, a returning All-American, in the semifinals. Kemerer won that match in the regular season 3-1, thanks to a late third-period takedown.

At 184, Abe Assad could meet Brooks in the finals, but he’ll first have to get through Michigan State’s Cam Caffey, who beat Assad 3-2 earlier this season. And at 197, Jacob Warner could potentially see Penn State’s Shakur Rasheed in the quarters. Warner won in the dual, 4-2.

“For us, every match is super important,” Kemerer said. “If you go out and do what you’re supposed to do — the same stuff still wins. You have to go out and score points and wrestle hard in every position.”

Other potential matchups to watch

Other factors outside of the Iowa-Penn State head-to-head dynamic will help decide this weekend's team race.

The Nittany Lions can conceivably pick up points at 125 and 157 pounds, where they're projected to score none. Even more, they could gain ground at both 149 and 285, where they aren't projected to score as much (seven combined at those two weights).

In Iowa's case, various other matchups are worth watching, too.

At 141, Iowa’s Max Murin could hit Minnesota’s Mitch McKee in the quarterfinals. Murin needed sudden victory to defeat McKee, who is a returning All-American.

At 149, Lugo’s path to the finals could be Nebraska’s Collin Purinton and then Minnesota’s Brayton Lee. Lugo beat both by a combined four points. If he reaches the finals, he could see Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso — the only wrestler to beat Lugo this year.

At 157, Young could see Purdue’s Kendall Coleman in the semifinals. That’s a matchup Young has won twice this year, but both bouts were close — 4-3 in the dual and an overtime pin at the Midlands.

“Game time,” Marinelli said. “This is what we live for. This is what we thrive off of and what the fans love. Anything can happen. People show up for big matches, and you have to be ready for that.”

This weekend is not the be-all, of course. Penn State has won the past four NCAA team titles, but has only won two Big Ten tournament titles in that same span.

But the Hawkeyes aren’t looking to tap the brakes on what’s been a memorable season. They’d rather go full gas, finish wire-to-wire, and win everything.

“Our best wrestling is in front of us,” Brands said. “I think that’s always how you operate. There’s a lot of reasons to perform now. I think you’re going to see your opponents’ best foot forward. I think our guys do a real good job of putting importance on each event.

“We have fans that follow us, fanatically, and it’s important to put on a show for those fans.”

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

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2020 Big Ten Wrestling Championships

  • WHEN: Saturday and Sunday
  • WHERE: Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.
  • WATCH: BTN Plus/Flowrestling and Big Ten Network
  • SCHEDULE (All Times CST)
    • Saturday: Session I, 9 a.m.; Session II, 5:30 p.m.
    • Sunday: Session III, 11 a.m.; Session IV, 2:30 p.m.