Spencer Lee, Real Woods win titles as Iowa wrestling takes second at Big Ten Championships

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Tom Brands stood inside the tunnel underneath the Crisler Center and watched Penn State celebrate its team title performance at the Big Ten Championships. He looked up at the scoreboard and saw just how close his the Iowa wrestling team was to perhaps being the team that partied on Sunday night.

Final Team Scores: Penn State 147 points, Iowa 134.5

Twelve and a half points away from winning the toughest conference tournament in Division I wrestling.

"We’ve gotta be tougher in tough situations," Brands, the Hawkeyes' head coach, said afterward. "We have to score points. We have to be more efficient about putting points on the board."

"If we can do that, maybe we can throw ourselves in contention in Tulsa," he continued, referencing the upcoming NCAA Championships, set for March 16-18 at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

The Hawkeyes handily finished second, 30 points better than third-place Nebraska (104.5). Iowa finished with two individual champs, in Spencer Lee (125) and Real Woods (141), and, most important, all 10 starters qualified for the national tournament. That was the top assignment, first and foremost.

Iowa's Spencer Lee wrestles Nebraska's Liam Cronin during the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Penn State surged to its seventh conference tournament team title thanks to four individual champs, two more finalists, and another third-place finisher. The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions were tied after Saturday's opening session, then Penn State pulled ahead during the semifinal round and led by 9.5 points before Sunday's finals.

Iowa came within 2.5 points during the finals, but the Nittany Lions effectively iced it when Levi Haines, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, beat Nebraska's Peyton Robb, 3-1, to win the Big Ten title at 157 pounds. Roman Bravo-Young (133), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184) all also won titles to help Penn State seal it.

Two truths were solidified during this two-day wrestling bonanza:

First, the hierarchy of Division I wrestling revealed itself this year to be Penn State at the top, Iowa behind in second, then all others battling for third. That's literally how this weekend's tournament unfolded, with the Huskers edging Ohio State (99), Michigan (84.5), Minnesota (79) and Northwestern (78.5) for third.

Second, if Iowa truly wants to take down mighty Penn State, the margin-for-error is slim-to-none — if it exists at all.

The Hawkeyes had chances all weekend to help themselves in the team race. Two wrestlers, Cobe Siebrecht (157) and Abe Assad (184), finished below their seeds. Both were seeded fifth, then took seventh. A couple others, like Nelson Brands (174) and Jacob Warner (197), had opportunities on Sunday to win key wrestleback matches that would've pushed them into the third-place bouts, which would've scored big team points.

Perhaps the most striking example came during Saturday night's semifinal round, where Iowa dropped two crucial head-to-head matchups to their Penn State peers. At 197 pounds, Warner lost to Max Dean, 3-1. At 285, Tony Cassioppi lost 5-0 to Greg Kerkvliet. Those two wins gave Penn State 14 combined team points (7 each).

Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet scores a reversal against Iowa's Tony Cassioppi at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The math at these tournaments is never as easy as plug-and-play, but it's easy to see now that, if Iowa flips one of those matches, they finish with 141.5 team points while Penn State scores just 140. Flip them both, and suddenly Iowa scores 148.5 and the Nittany Lions score 133. (That's also assuming all else remains equal, too.)

Now, again, who knows how the math ultimately breaks if those results flip. It's worth noting, too, that just last year, Michigan beat Penn State, 143-141.5, for the Big Ten tournament team title. Two weeks after, Penn State scored 131.5 points to win the NCAA team title while Michigan finished second with … 95.

We'll see how this year's Big Ten tournament results translate to the national tournament soon enough, but it's clear that Iowa needs everybody to contribute if they want to win in Tulsa, and, like Tom Brands said, they'll need to win tough situations, tough positions, and score points when necessary.

Then maybe, just maybe, the Hawkeyes can make the NCAA Championships a two-team race.

"Biggest thing is we have to be at our best," Brands continued. "This is what you talk about from beginning to end. We have to be at our best in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If we don’t do that, Tulsa is going to be very similar."

Weight-by-Weight analysis from the Big Ten wrestling tournament

125lbs: Spencer Lee, Big Ten Champion

Spencer Lee ended his stellar weekend with a decisive 8-2 win over Nebraska's Liam Cronin in Sunday's finals. He scored a pair of takedowns in the first period for a 4-1 lead, tacked on an escape in the second and another takedown in the third, plus an additional point for riding-time. Cronin did well hand-fighting throughout the match, keeping Lee from finding a solid rhythm, but he never truly threatened Lee during the match.

Lee is now 17-0 this season and has won 55 consecutive matches dating back to the 2019 NCAA Championships, and is now 95-5 overall for his Iowa career. He was also named the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year and the Big Ten Wrestler of the Championships (basically, most outstanding wrestler of the weekend). He is the presumptive 1-seed for the NCAA Championships two weeks from now — the final tournament of his storied Hawkeye career.

Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee beat Minnesota's Pat McKee, 20-2, in the semifinals at 125 pounds at the 2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.

133lbs: Brody Teske, 7th Place

Teske wrestled just once on Sunday, an 8-4 win over Rutger's Joe Heilmann. Teske built a 5-0 lead on takedowns in the first two periods, then made it 7-2 after another takedown in the third. Teske attempted another score late for bonus points, but Heilmann caught him and scored 2 to keep the result a decision. Good effort. Teske finished 3-2 overall and, technically, finished above his seed, seventh as the 8-seed, but he'll need to bring more in Tulsa.

141lbs: Real Woods, Big Ten Champion

Woods added a Big Ten title to his résumé with a 2-1 win over Nebraska's Brock Hardy, and it was every bit as close as the score suggests.

Woods scored a takedown midway through the first, then was initially awarded two backs on a tilt at the end of the period, but a successful Nebraska challenge wiped it off. Hardy then rode Woods out the entire second period, and picked up two stall calls to come within 2-1. Hardy chose neutral for the third and nearly scored what would've been the match-winning takedown late, but Woods scrambled his way to gold.

The win is Woods' third conference title — he won two Pac-12 crowns at Stanford — and pushes him to 16-0 this season. He will likely be either the 1-seed or 2-seed for the NCAA Championships, one the title favorites at 141 pounds.

Iowa wrestler Real Woods battles Nebraska's Brock Hardy during the Big Ten Championships at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

149lbs: Max Murin, 3rd Place

A second-consecutive third-place finish at the Big Ten tournament for Murin. He finished the weekend 4-1, which included two wins over Penn State's Shayne Van Ness — 4-2 in the quarterfinals, then 3-2 in the third-place match. He also won twice by injury defaults after his opponents sustained concussions, against Michigan State's Peyton Omania in the first round and Northwestern's Yahya Thomas in the consolation semifinals on Sunday.

Murin's strong senior season continues. He's now 21-4 and will likely be a top eight seed at the national tournament. For Iowa to seriously contend for a team title, Murin will need to break through the bloodround barrier, which is where his last three national tournaments have ended. He's wrestled well enough to inspire confidence that this is finally the year he gets it done. Time will reveal all in two weeks.

157lbs: Cobe Siebrecht, 7th Place

Siebrecht also wrestled once Sunday, a 2-0 win over Indiana's Derek Gilcher. A ho-hum result, on an escape in the second period and a rideout in the third for riding-time. Siebrecht finished 3-2 overall this weekend, but finished two spots below his seed, taking seventh as the 5-seed. That'll likely hurt his NCAA positioning. Again, a weight Iowa will need more out of in Tulsa two weeks from now.

165lbs: Patrick Kennedy, Big Ten runner-up

Kennedy's sensational Big Ten tournament ended with a small thud, a 9-6 loss to Wisconsin's top-seeded Dean Hamiti in Sunday's finals. Hamiti scored takedowns in the first and second periods to build a 5-1 lead, but Kennedy went escape-takedown in the final 30 seconds to come within 5-4. A rideout through the end of the period would've been big, but Hamiti escaped for a 6-4 lead and later iced the match in the third period.

Kennedy proved two things this weekend: first, that he's a legitimate All-American contender at what will likely be considered the deepest weight at the NCAA Championships. The Hawkeyes will rely on his bonus-point capability in early rounds, and his ability to win close matches will serve him well in the later rounds.

But two, there still might be a small gap between Kennedy and the highest tier at 165. Hamiti is among that medal-contending tier as a returning All-American himself, but the weight's top favorites are Iowa State's David Carr and Missouri's Keegan O'Toole, then the rest fall in line. Kennedy's ability to first make the podium, then how high he can climb, will be a huge factor in Iowa's ability to keep pace with Penn State.

Iowa wrestler Patrick Kennedy celebrates a 3-2 semifinal win over Michigan's Cam Amine at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.

174lbs: Nelson Brands, 5th Place

Brands out-placed his 7-seed by taking fifth on Sunday. He won some hard-fought matches and lost others. That'll happen when you mostly wrestle close matches. Brands finished 4-2 overall, but every match was decided by four points or fewer. He lost 5-2 to Nebraska's Mikey Labriola, an eventual Big Ten finalist, then 3-1 in overtime to Minnesota's Bailee O'Reilly in Sunday's consolation semifinals.

Still, Brands showed serious grit in his wins: 1-0 over Rutgers' Jackson Turley, 3-2 over Michigan's Max Maylor, 3-1 in overtime over Indiana's Donnell Washington, then, for fifth, 5-1 over Illinois's Edmond Ruth, who beat Brands during the regular season. He has the ability to string wins together in a tournament setting, as evidenced in his last two Big Ten tournament performances. We'll see if that translates to the national tournament.

184lbs: Abe Assad, 7th Place

Assad ultimately didn't wrestle on Sunday, accepting a forfeit over Michigan State's Layne Malczewski to finish seventh … as the 5-seed. In that sense, another below-par finish. Even with his injury, Assad is capable of winning important matches at the national tournament — and the Hawkeyes will need everything from him in Tulsa.

197lbs: Jacob Warner, 5th Place

Warner took the semifinal slide to the fifth-place match, dropping his consolation semifinal to Maryland's Jaxon Smith, 3-1 in OT. Warner was in on a few shots throughout the match, but failed to finish. In sudden victory, Smith converted a quick score to win. Warner then accepted a forfeit over Michigan State's Cam Caffey to finish fifth.

Warner finished the week 3-2, winning his first two matches on Saturday, losing twice in a row (on Saturday night then Sunday afternoon), before taking fifth. He's down to one tournament left in his college career, and has shown the ability to win tough matches when it counts. Two weeks from now will count big time.

Iowa wrestler Jacob Warner, right, battles for control against Penn State's Max Dean during their semifinal match at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich.

285lbs: Tony Cassioppi, 3rd Place

Cassioppi won twice Sunday — 4-2 in overtime over Northwestern's Lucas Davison, then 10-1 over Ohio State's Tate Orndorff to take third. He finished 4-1 overall with a trio of bonus-point wins. His four total bonus points matched Murin's for the most of any individual in the Iowa lineup (and, to be fair, Murin's four bonus points came via two injury defaults).

Despite a discouraging loss in Saturday night's semifinals, Cassioppi has the clear look of a high place-winner at the national tournament next month, and the Hawkeyes will take all the bonus points he can score to bolster their odds of catching mighty Penn State down in Tulsa.

2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships team scores

  1. Penn State, 147
  2. Iowa, 134.5
  3. Nebraska, 104.5
  4. Ohio State, 99
  5. Michigan, 84.5
  6. Minnesota, 79
  7. Northwestern, 78.5
  8. Wisconsin, 55.5
  9. Purdue, 47
  10. Illinois, 46.5
  11. Rutgers, 32
  12. Indiana, 30
  13. Michigan State, 28
  14. Maryland, 24

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