Wrestling Takeaways: Six thoughts from Iowa's first-place finish at the 2020 Big Ten Championships

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Spencer Lee walked off after meeting with reporters and looked at his Big Ten tournament medal. For the first time in his career, it was gold. He had previously taken third and second here. That probably means something, right?

Well … 

"It's just a conference tournament," Lee said. "You have to do what you have to do."

Inside a sold-out Rutgers Athletic Center — which was an announced 6,599 — the top-ranked Hawkeyes won the Big Ten tournament team title. It is their first conference tournament crown since 2015, when they shared with Ohio State; their first outright team title since 2010; and the 36th in school history.

Lee spearheaded the effort with a first-place finish at 125 pounds, his first Big Ten tournament title. He is unique, of course. Iowa's star lightweight has bigger goals than winning a conference tournament. His sights are set on the 2020 Olympics and all that lead up to it — including the NCAA Championships two weeks from now in Minneapolis.

But his attitude toward his own individual gold matched the overall vibe surrounding the Iowa wrestling program here on Sunday afternoon.

"I haven't won a national title yet," Alex Marinelli said.

"It's good, but we want the next one," Pat Lugo continued. "The one in Minnesota, at the Vikings' stadium. That's what we want."

"We're not downplaying this," Iowa coach Tom Brands, the 2020 Big Ten Wrestling Coach of the Year, added, "but the reason that it gets downplayed is because there is another important event. It's cliche, but we have to get ready and there is work to do."

The Hawkeyes ultimately scored 157.5 team points, 25.5 points clear of second-place Nebraska (132). Iowa mathematically clinched midway through Sunday afternoon, on Lugo's 2-1 victory over Ohio State's Sammy Sasso in the finals at 149 pounds. The Buckeyes (112), Penn State (107) and Purdue (83) rounded out the top five.

This was expected, to a degree. Iowa has been the top-ranked Division I wrestling team all season long. The Hawkeyes turned in a perfect regular-season dual record, added a Midlands Championship title in December, then pieced together a strong performance here this weekend to win the toughest conference in the nation.

But even after the small celebration on the center mat here, their attention had already shifted to the tournament two weeks from now — the NCAA Championships, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The Hawkeyes are seeking their first national team title since 2010, the longest championship drought since the program won its first in 1975. If this weekend is any indication, this Iowa team is well on its way.

"The biggest thing is what's next," Lee said, "and that's the NCAA tournament."

Here are six more thoughts from Iowa's first-place finish at the 2020 Big Ten Championships:

1. The formula that helped Iowa win this weekend is exactly what the Hawkeyes need to do if they want to win again in two weeks.

Iowa flashed its depth and firepower here this weekend, two key ingredients that led to a 13-0 regular-season dual record, and will be absolutely integral in the Hawkeyes' pursuit of their first national championship at U.S. Bank Stadium in two weeks.

2. First, the depth:

Nine Hawkeye wrestlers finished on the podium, and all finished fifth or better. As the tournament progressed, all 10 reached the quarterfinals, seven made it to the semifinals, four reached the finals and three — Lee (125), Lugo and Marinelli (165).

Michael Kemerer (174) was the other finalist. Jacob Warner (197) and Tony Cassioppi (285) both finished third while Austin DeSanto (133) and Abe Assad (184) both took fourth. Max Murin (141) ended up fifth.

3. Next, the firepower:

Iowa ultimately went 29-11 on the weekend, and finished with 18 bonus-point wins — seven pins, nine major decisions, one technical fall and another win by injury default. 

That's what it takes to win team titles, as Penn State has showed eight of the last nine seasons. Iowa proved that it had some impressive scoring potential throughout the dual season, then reinforced that fact before its league foes this weekend.

4. It's more than just bonus points, though. The ability to bounce back and win in the wrestlebacks also helped Iowa secure first place this weekend.

Three wrestlers lost in the quarterfinal round on Saturday: Murin, Warner and Kaleb Young. Murin responded by going 3-1 and finishing fifth. Warner won four in a row to storm back for third. Young, the lone head-scratcher this weekend, went 0-2 and was eliminated, leaving his NCAA tournament fate up to those who decide at-large bids.

Three more Hawkeye wrestlers lost in Saturday's semifinal round — DeSanto, Assad and Cassioppi — and each one bounced back to reach the third-place matches at their respective weights. DeSanto and Assad used some late scoring to win their matches while Cassioppi flipped Nebraska's David Jensen to his back for a first-period pin.

All five of those guys contributed big-time team points. Some even scored bonus along the way. Murin opened his wrestleback run with a major decision. Warner recorded a pin and won by injury default. Cassioppi ended the weekend with two pins.

5. The starpower will get much of the love over the next two weeks, and there's a reason for that. Iowa's four finalists were mighty impressive this weekend.

Lee went 3-0 and scored bonus points in all three matches to win his first Big Ten title. He outscored his three opponents 47-5, and all five points he allowed were escapes. He's now 18-0 with 17 bonus-point wins this season. He is the likely frontrunner for the Hodge Trophy, and was named the 2020 Big Ten Wrestler of the Year.

Lugo went 3-0 and outscored his three opponents 17-5. In the finals against Sasso, who he was previously 0-2 against, the senior muscled his way to a takedown midway through the first period, an adjustment after failing to finish on as many as five attempts when he lost to Sasso at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in January.

"I just grind my teeth out and got it done," Lugo said. "I gotta go back and see how it happened, but when I get to my ties, I feel like I'm the best in the world."

Marinelli recorded a major decision and a pin to reach the finals, then defeated Penn State's top-seeded Vincenzo Joseph, 3-2, thanks to an impressive third-period takedown. That marks Marinelli's second Big Ten title.

Kemerer ultimately fell to Penn State's Mark Hall, a matchup he won in January and could see again in two weeks if they both reach the national finals. On Sunday, Hall scored a first-period takedown, then opened the match up by scoring another and two near fall in the second period, which led to an 8-5 victory.

6. This team showed that it should be the favorite to win in Minneapolis. That seems like an obvious thing to say, but the Big Ten Championships were always going to reveal how the Hawkeyes stacked up to some of the country's better teams.

There's Penn State, which finished in a distant fourth, but still has enough firepower to be a threat at the NCAA Championships. There's Nebraska, which used a blend of depth and firepower — 10 medalists, including six that finished third or better — to finish second. And Ohio State, which boasts three legit national title contenders.

Iowa bested them all this weekend. The key between now and March 19 — the first day of the national tournament — is to get ready to try and do the exact same thing, but with a slew of other talented teams and individuals in the mix.

"We need to keep our tools sharp," Marinelli said. "When you're in the battle, you can't let your tools get left in the rain. You can't let them get rusty. You have to keep them sharp."

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

Final Team Scores

  1. Iowa, 157.5
  2. Nebraska, 132
  3. Ohio State, 112
  4. Penn State, 107
  5. Purdue, 83

Finals Results

  • 125: Spencer Lee (IA) maj. dec. Devin Schroder (PUR), 16-2
  • 133: Sebastian Rivera (NW) dec. Roman Bravo-Young (PSU), 7-2
  • 141: Luke Pletcher (OSU) dec. Nick Lee (PSU), 6-5
  • 149: Pat Lugo (IA) dec. Sammy Sasso (OSU), 2-1
  • 157: Ryan Deakin (NW) dec. Kendall Coleman (PUR), 7-2
  • 165: Alex Marinelli (IA) dec. Vincenzo Joseph (PSU), 3-2
  • 174: Mark Hall (PSU) dec. Michael Kemerer (IA), 8-5
  • 184: Aaron Brooks (PSU) dec. Cam Caffey (MSU), 3-2
  • 197: Kollin Moore (OSU) dec. Eric Schultz (NEB), 4-1
  • 285: Gable Steveson (MN) dec. Mason Parris (MICH), 8-6