Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands recaps the Hawkeyes' strong first day at the Big Ten Championships. Hawk Central
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — A strong team performance on Saturday led the Iowa wrestling team to the top of the team standings after the first day of the Big Ten Championships.
Entering Sunday's final day, Iowa has 121.5 total team points, 19 points clear of second-place Nebraska and 27.5 ahead of third-place Ohio State. Penn State (93.5) and Purdue (77.5) round out the top five.
Here inside the Rutgers Athletic Center — this small-but-rowdy venue also known as the RAC — the Hawkeyes flashed the same depth and talent that captivated fans during a 13-0 dual season. They won 20 of 27 matches and recorded 15 bonus-point wins: six pins, eight major decisions and a technical fall.
Iowa ultimately pushed four through to Sunday afternoon's finals, and another five can still finish as high as third. It was a good first step for a Hawkeye team seeking a wire-to-wire season as Division I wrestling's best team.
On Sunday, they just need to finish — then immediately turn their attention to the national tournament.
Here are 12 more thoughts from Day One of the Big Ten Championships:
1. The primary intrigue with the team race entering this weekend was Iowa against Penn State. In reality, it should probably be the Hawkeyes against Nebraska. At least this weekend.
The Hawkeyes can close in on their first Big Ten tournament title since 2015 come Sunday morning thanks to five guys alive in the wrestlebacks: Austin DeSanto (133), Max Murin (141), Abe Assad (184), Jacob Warner (197) and Tony Cassioppi (285).
Penn State leads all teams with five in the finals, but has just one wrestler alive for third. Nebraska, meanwhile, has one finalist but nine in the wrestlebacks still — and eight are alive for third.
This shouldn't be a huge surprise, considering Nebraska won the always-tough Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational earlier this season. The Huskers came out firing with a flurry of bonus points, too, and kept themselves near the top thanks to some strong performances in the wrestlebacks — a formula very similar to Iowa's, to be honest.
Iowa and Nebraska hit twice in the wrestlebacks first thing on Sunday — at 141, between Murin and Chad Red, and 285, between Cassioppi and David Jensen — and could hit in a medal match at 184, between Assad and Taylor Venz.
Those will definitely be matches to keep an eye one.
"Day Two coming up," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "Big day, for a lot of reasons."
2. Iowa's finalists are: Spencer Lee (125), Pat Lugo (149), Alex Marinelli (165) and Michael Kemerer (174). Those four went a combined 8-0 with three pins, three majors and a technical fall. Those big-time bonus points are huge.
3. Two of Iowa's finalists cross with two of Penn State's finalists: Marinelli gets Vincenzo Joseph and Kemerer gets Mark Hall. Those will be classics, hopefully.
4. Penn State's other three finalists: Roman Bravo-Young, who beat DeSanto, 3-2, in the semifinals at 133; Nick Lee, at 141; and Aaron Brooks at 184. Bravo-Young will wrestle Northwestern's Sebastian Rivera in the finals, Lee will wrestle Ohio State's Luke Pletcher and Brooks will see Michigan State's Cam Caffey.
5. DeSanto, Assad and Cassioppi all lost in the semifinals, but Murin and Warner both battled back after losing in the quarterfinals. Murin fell to Minnesota's Mitch McKee, 3-1, then responded with a major decision and another tough win. Warner fell to Penn State's Shakur Rasheed, 3-1, then rebounded with a pin and a major.
6. The only head-scratcher was that Kaleb Young was eliminated from the tournament. He entered as the 2-seed at 157 pounds, then went 0-2 — to Nebraska's Peyton Robb in the quarterfinals, then Illinois' Eric Barone in the wrestlebacks — and lost both by a combined three points.
That's a tough pill to swallow, considering Young is a returning All-American. He will have to rely on an at-large bid to get back to the NCAA Championships in two weeks. His odds look good, but nothing's ever guaranteed.
7. Everybody else has earned automatic bids, by the way. So that's nine confirmed Hawkeyes headed to Minneapolis.
8. Speaking of earning automatic national-tournament bids: A couple of former Iowa high-schoolers did just that on Saturday.
Nebraska's Alex Thomsen, a four-timer from Underwood, won twice in the wrestlebacks to reach the top-six at 125 pounds. Purdue's Max Lyon, a Western Dubuque graduate, was the other, winning three times in the wrestlebacks to reach the top-six at 184.
Both are still alive for third, too.
9. Spencer Lee is now one victory away from winning his first Big Ten tournament title. As accomplished as he is, that's an incredible thing to think about. He's also 17-0 this season with 16 bonus-point wins after Saturday. It's getting harder to describe how good he's been this season.
Kemerer and Lugo are also seeking their first Big Ten tournament titles, for that matter. Marinelli will try to win his second Big Ten title on Sunday.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands recaps the Hawkeyes’ strong start at the Big Ten Championships. Hawk Central
10. All six of Iowa's losses were close matches, which is telling. All six losses were by a combined 13 points. Five were decided by two points or fewer.
11. This team race may ultimately come down to Sunday's afternoon session, which would be thrilling. Unless the Hawkeyes come out blazing and Nebraska swings and misses in every direction, there's a very real chance at some late-tournament team-race intrigue.
12. More importantly, though, we've gotten a small taste of what Iowa can do in a tournament setting with some of the country's best teams. Those bonus points and the overall depth are a tremendous advantage, but only when it's tagged with execution, too.
A lot of wrestling still left, both in this tournament and this season, but Iowa's in a good spot after the first day. The key now is to just keep it rolling, and the rest will take care of itself.
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 Championships
Team Scores after Day One
1. Iowa, 121.5
2. Nebraska 102.5
3. Ohio State, 94
4. Penn State, 93.5
5. Purdue, 77.5