Wrestling Mailbag: Recapping the Big Ten and Big 12 tournaments, Spencer Lee, stall calls, NCAA women, more

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

A lot was made of the first-round draws before last weekend’s Big 12 Championships. Specifically, in what was expected to be a three-team race between Missouri, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State, the Tigers got a leg-up by drawing more first-round matches.

Missouri had eight first-round matches, while Oklahoma State had five and Iowa State had just four. Here, we’ll explain why that happened, what ultimately came of it, and how, if at all, it impacted the team race.

First, the why:

For the Big 12 Championships, the seeding committee figures out the top eight seeds for each weight. Because there are 13 Big 12 teams, the committee then randomly draws the other five wrestlers into each bracket after the top eight. That means there are three first-round byes that are also randomly drawn in.

This is different from, say, the Big Ten Championships, where all 14 wrestlers in each weight are seeded, so the wrestlers seeded 1 and 2 always get first-round byes while everybody else gets a first-round match.

Iowa State head coach Kevin Dresser, center, calls out instructions to a wrestler as assistants Derek St. John, left, and Brent Metcalf look on during a NCAA college Big 12 wrestling dual against Northern Iowa, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

RELATED:Iowa State's David Carr becomes 4-time Big 12 wrestling champion

“I like the fact that the seeding is completely out of the coaches’ hands,” Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said last week. “That’s not a negative against any coach in our conference, it’s just human nature to try and stack the deck in your favor. So I like that.”

Anyways, because of the randomness of the draws, teams sometimes get more opportunities to score first-round points than others. In the case of this year’s Big 12 tournament, there was a noticeable disparity in the top three contending teams, largely in favor of Mizzou.

“I don’t like the fact that whoever hit the send button on the computer today, we got like seven first-round byes,” Dresser continued. “That’s just the luck of the draw, I guess, but it seems like we haven’t had any luck in that respect.

“One thing we lead the Big 12 in is byes in the first-round of the Big 12 tournament. We’re the gold-medal champs every damn year. I don’t like that.”

Now, what ultimately came of it? Here’s the breakdown:

  • Missouri won all eight of its first-round matches, a perfect 8-0, and totaled 16.5 team points from those eight wins thanks to three pins, a technical fall, and a major decision.
  • Oklahoma State also batted 1.000, winning all five of its first round matches, which brought in 8 team points thanks to a pin and a major decision.
  • Iowa State went … 1-3, scoring only 2.5 team points thanks to Yonger Bastida’s 24-9 technical fall over Wyoming’s Tyce Raddon. Even worse, one of those losses was a head-to-head against Mizzou: Peyton Mocco won 14-4 over Julien Broderson at 174.

But did it actually make the difference over the course of a two-day, four-session, 13-team tournament?

Iowa State Cyclones Yonger Bastida takes down Oklahoma State Cowboys Luke Surber during their 197-pound wrestling in a dual meet at Hilton Coliseum Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023, in Ames, Iowa.

Here are the final team scores:

  1. Missouri, 148
  2. Oklahoma State, 134
  3. Iowa State, 131

If we subtract the first-round points from the final team point totals, the team race looks like this:

  1. Missouri, 131.5
  2. Iowa State, 128.5
  3. Oklahoma State, 126

The abundance of first-round matches was not the difference in Missouri winning the team title. But sweeping those eight first-round matches did give the Tigers a larger margin-for-error for the rest of the tournament. Kudos for taking advantage.

Opportunities were there for Iowa State throughout the tournament. The Cyclones mostly rose to the occasion. Nine of 10 wrestlers finished at or above their seeds, and they also went 4-2 head-to-head against the Tigers. What hurt was, one, Bastida (who didn’t look like his usual self) sliding to sixth as the 3-seed at 197, and two, the lack of bonus points. Iowa State scored just 10.5 bonus points all tournament.

Final thought: What can be done to change this first-round matchup issue?

A 14th team would allow the Big 12 to mimic the Big Ten and seed all 14 wrestlers so the 1- and 2-seeds get first-round byes. Another is to drop one of the affiliate teams (California Baptist should probably be in the Pac-12 anyways) and seed the remaining 12 so 1-4 get byes. Both of those scenarios at least eliminate the randomness.

Past that, not sure. But it was an intriguing subplot to follow even while I was in Ann Arbor this weekend.

MORE:Meet the All-Iowa wrestling award-winners for the 2022-23 Iowa high school season

OK, onto the Wrestling Mailbag. Welcome, officially, to March, you guys. NCAA should announce the at-large qualifiers later today, then will release the brackets for the NCAA Championships Wednesday night. Giddy up!

Please give me a follow on Twitter and I’ll keep you up to date on all things wrestling in Iowa. Don't forget to tune into the Register's wrestling podcast, In the Room, each week. You can find the latest episodes below.

Thanks for your help here, and for reading.

Why are the Big 12 Championships always in Tulsa?

The Tulsa Sports Commission routinely bids to host the event, not unlike how the Iowa City/Coralville Sports Commission folks bid to host all the big wrestling events at Xtream Arena. That's the short version.

The Tulsa Sports Commission is similar to the Iowa City/Coralville Sports Commission folks in a lot of ways. They love wrestling and have the ability to host big-time events. Tulsa Nationals, the biggest youth tournament in the country, is there every year. The Junior National Duals are there most every June.

On top of that, the state of Oklahoma has two hosts schools in the league, in the Sooners and Cowboys, and Oklahoma State coach John Smith has a lot of sway when it comes to league-wide decisions. But having two local schools, plus other contenders (Iowa State, Missouri) within driving distance, helps with ticket sales.

If you want the Big 12 Championships to move, get your local sports commission folks to bid on it and take it away. But I'm not sure the tournament is leaving Tulsa any time soon.

Related:How many NCAA championships have Iowa State wrestlers won?

The BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., hosted the Big 12 Wrestling Championships this past weekend. Come March 16-18, it'll host the 2023 NCAA Championships.

The Big Ten Wrestling Championships host school rotation mystery

I don't think they are, but I understand why it's confusing.

For the longest time, it was a rotational thing. After Penn State joined in 1990, it went in this order, from 1991 through 2019:

  • 1991: Illinois
  • 1992: Wisconsin
  • 1993: Ohio State
  • 1994: Iowa
  • 1995: Indiana
  • 1996: Michigan State
  • 1997: Minnesota
  • 1998: Penn State
  • 1999: Michigan
  • 2000: Purdue
  • 2001: Northwestern
  • 2002: Illinois
  • 2003: Wisconsin
  • 2004: Ohio State
  • 2005: Iowa
  • 2006: Indiana
  • 2007: Michigan State
  • 2008: Minnesota
  • 2009: Penn State
  • 2010: Michigan
  • 2011: Northwestern
  • 2012: Purdue
  • 2013: Illinois
  • 2014: Wisconsin
  • 2015: Ohio State
  • 2016: Iowa
  • 2017: Indiana
  • 2018: Michigan State
  • 2019: Minnesota

See the trend? Illinois-Wisconsin-Ohio State-Iowa-Indiana-Michigan State-Minnesota-Penn State-Michigan-Northwestern-Purdue and back around again.

The rotation got disrupted when Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland all joined the conference. So in 2020, it went to Rutgers. In 2021, back to Penn State. Last year, to Nebraska, then this year, back to Michigan. Next year, it's going to Maryland, so it stands to reason that in 2025, it'll go back to Northwestern, then Purdue, on and on.

This is the hard-hitting investigative journalism that you have come to expect from the Wrestling Mailbag.

(But in all seriousness, save this for future record-keeping and early March planning.)

MORE:Spencer Lee, Real Woods win titles, Iowa wrestling takes 2nd at Big Ten Championships

The Crisler Center on the campus of the University of Michigan hosted the 2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships. Michigan previously hosted the Big Ten tournament in 2010.

Why does Twitter always freak out about Spencer Lee?

The word I have always used to describe Iowa wrestling fans is passionate — for better or for worse.

It is great because a lot of the diehards are incredibly smart wrestling fans, and it's led to a lot of great wrestling conversations. Those of you who have been reading the mailbag over the years know that we get into a lot of good stuff in this space, and a large credit goes to you, dear readers. Thank you for that.

It is not great because — and this is probably equally a Twitter thing as much as an Iowa wrestling fan thing — everybody believes they're an expert. And they might be! But most aren't. Nevertheless, they're on the bird app, so they can sound off with whatever opinion they wish, which can be sometimes good but also bad.

People who freak out about Spencer Lee only winning 8-2 over Nebraska's Liam Cronin in the Big Ten finals need to just relax, man. The comments came in a flurry immediately after the match went final:

  • "… does something not feel right with Spencer …"
  • "Could be sick."
  • "…he looked a little unsure of his left knee."
  • "Great match, but he wasn't himself."

It's like people forget that Cronin is the third-ranked wrestler in the country with a 20-4 record, and that maybe, just maybe, he might also want to win the match. Or that, hey, Cronin has a great coaching staff behind him that might've helped him devise a gameplan to slow down Spencer (Cronin hand-fought pretty well!). It took a lot for Cronin to keep it a 6-point match. Even despite that tremendous effort, Spencer was never truly threatened.

Nobody should tell you guys how to fan. I certainly won't. But if I could offer some advice, it's to sit back and just enjoy Spencer Lee. He's got one tournament left in his storied Iowa career. If all goes right, that's just five more matches.

And some of you are freaking out because he only beat the No. 3 guy in the nation by six points? In a match he had control of from start to finish? Come on.

Maybe it's because Spencer has spoiled Iowa fans. He's a three-time NCAA champ, a two-time Hodge Trophy winner (and the current leader to win it again), with a 95-5 career record and an 81-percent career bonus rate. We've never really seen a wrestler like Spencer Lee, and it may be a while before we see one like him again.

It may also be because Twitter, where I connect most with readers, allows for people to be more vocal than they otherwise would be, so we get to see all sides of fandom — the good, great, bad, and annoying. We see it in other sports. It should not be a surprise that, as wrestling continues to grow, we see more of it.

More:What to know about Spencer Lee — who could be a 4-time NCAA wrestling champion

Mar 5, 2023; Ann Arbor, MI, USA;  Iowa Hawkeyes wrestler Spencer Lee wrestles Nebraska Cornhuskers wrestler Liam Cronin during the Big Ten Championship at Crisler Center. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa's Tony Cassioppi vs. Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet

From the DMs, via Jeff Budlong: Is it simply Kerkvliet is healthy because Cass looks like he could wrestle him for an hour and not score. Has Cass not developed or is Kerk simply that much better when healthy?

Greg Kerkvliet has clearly figured something out against Tony Cassioppi. Saturday night's 5-0 semifinal win was Kerkvliet's third-straight win over Cassioppi (we're counting the dub at the NWCA All-Star Classic here) after Cassioppi had beaten Kerkvliet three times in a row between the shortened 2021 and 2021-22 seasons.

There are a lot of moving parts here, and I think one of the most important is that, yes, Kerkvliet is now fully healthy. When Cassioppi first wrestled Kerkvliet, at the 2021 Big Ten Championships, Cassioppi dominated in a 9-0 major decision. Kerkvliet had just returned after basically not wrestling for two months. Cassioppi was also bigger than Kerkvliet, if memory serves.

Since then, Kerkvliet is back to full strength and conditioning, and he also just looks like a bigger, faster, stronger wrestler. He's also got some wicked length that gives Cassioppi fits. You see it when Kerkvliet goes after those low-level shots and also when he rides on top. Kerkvliet can literally put his body weight on Cassioppi's middle-to-upper back and grab both a wrist and an ankle. That's a hard thing to work out of.

It wouldn't be fair to say Cassioppi hasn't developed, but the assignment here, at least of late, has been hard for him to pass. At the NWCA All-Star Classic, Cassioppi was only down 5-4 at the start of the third and was in on a shot late that Kerkvliet found a way out of for a takedown to ice an 8-5 win. It might take a script like that, or perhaps going all-out on an early first-period takedown, for Cassioppi to give himself the best opportunity to win.

Wrote about this on Sunday, but that matchup is a crucial one to Iowa's team title hopes. Or at least it was at the Big Ten Championships. Penn State beat Iowa head-to-head in the semifinals at both 197 and 285. Flip either one of those, and who knows how the team race ultimately finishes on Sunday in Ann Arbor. Tom Brands was acutely aware of that face after the finals had finished on Sunday — which means Cassioppi is fully aware of it, too.

More:Introducing the 2023 All-Iowa high school boys wrestling team

Iowa wrestler Tony Cassioppi tries to escape from Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet at the 2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich. Kerkvliet beat Cassioppi, 5-0, to advance to the heavyweight finals.

Impressive performances from the Big Ten Wrestling Championships

There were a lot!

I kept a list of past All-Americans who didn't make the top-eight at the Big Ten Championships. I counted five: RayVon Foley, Taylor LaMont, Austin Gomez, Brayton Lee, Gavin Hoffman. Every case is different, of course (injuries, Gomez's slam, etc.), but it shows how tough that tournament is.

I was really impressed by Aaron Nagao, Minnesota's 133-pounder who won two overtime matches over Illinois's Lucas Byrd, an All-American, and Ohio State's Jesse Mendez, a talented true freshman, to make the finals. Michael Blockhus, who we've been watching for years, looked great in his finals run at 149, too.

I thought Ohio State's Dylan D'Emilio had a great tournament. Lost in the first round, then won three in a row to finish fourth at 141. He beat Cole Mattin, Joey Zargo, and Frankie Tal-Shahar by a combined 20-4 in the wrestlebacks. Similarly, Michigan's Will Lewan won four in a row to take third at 157, including two in OT.

Really enjoyed watching both Silas Allred and Jaxon Smith at 197. Allred, from Nebraska, looked great in the finals, scoring three takedowns, one in each period, to beat Max Dean, 6-3. All three takedowns were in the final minute of the period, too. Late-period scoring is big. Smith finished 5-1 and won four gritty wrestleback matches to take third. His last two were in OT, over Jacob Warner and Zac Braunagel, who beat Smith in the quarters.

Also really liked the way Boone McDermott wrestled. Dubuque Wahlert's finest ultimately defaulted from his last two matches, but outside of getting launched by Cassioppi, he wrestled really well and I hope he's healthy enough to make a serious go at the NCAA Championships in Tulsa.

More:Shea Ruffridge's title run highlights Grand View's 11th NAIA national team title

Rutgers heavyweight Boone McDermott, a Dubuque Wahlert graduate, competes at the 2023 Big Ten Championships at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The subjectivity of stalling calls at the Big Ten tournament

Here's the literal rulebook description for stalling:

"One or both wrestlers attempting to avoid wrestling action as an offensive or defensive strategy."

By its very definition, stalling is a judgement call. Different refs will view different situations in different matches differently. The first thing I noticed in rewatching all the Big Ten finals was that nearly every match had a different referee crew, so already, every match is going to have different perspectives, which will lead to different calls.

You asked about specific calls. Here's what I saw on each of them:

At 133, Roman Bravo-Young didn't do much in the first 45 seconds of the third period, partly because Aaron Nagao threw a leg in and had wrist control. But each time the official leaned in and asked for action, RBY moved enough to make the ref happy. In the final 1:15 of the match, RBY was much more active in attempting to escape. He nearly escaped but instead forced a stall call against Nagao. I'm OK with no stall calls in that period.

At 141, Real Woods quickly came to his feet in the second period, but Brock Hardy brought him back down with a leg turk. Woods kept his head on the mat while defending. When the ref asked for action, Woods kept his head on the mat, so there's the first stall call. The second came came in a similar sequence 30 seconds later. Not saying it's right or wrong, but if Woods lifts his head and shows a little urgency, he might avoid one or both calls.

At 285, Mason Parris scored a quick takedown, then rode Greg Kerkvliet for 48 seconds before Kerkvliet escaped. When he did, he came up with an underhook near the edge and drove Parris out of bounds. We sometimes see wrestlers get pushed straight out of bounds to avoid action, and the refs, more often than not, call that stalling.

That was different, from my perspective, from the call at 174. In the first period, Carter Starocci picked up Mikey Labriola's leg and tried to finish in the center of the mat before walking Labs toward the edge. There, he tried to finish again, but Labs hand-fought well, broke Starocci's grip, and kicked free. In doing so, Labs slid out of bounds. Starocci immediately stepped forward to continue wrestling, but the ref stopped it, called for a restart, and tagged Labs for stalling. I didn't agree with that one. Labs was just defending where Starocci took him.

The second stall call on Parris came after Kerkvliet out-shot Parris 3-0 in the final 90 seconds of the third period. Parris did well defending, turning one into a near-re-shot, and generally held position in the center of the mat even while Kerkvliet ripped off shots, but I can see why the ref called stalling there. Another may not have.

That's generally what I saw. I'm not sure if that helps or not, but hopefully that adds something to your own thoughts and the ongoing conversation.

MORE:'The Real Deal': Real Woods' journey from New Mexico to Stanford to Iowa

Referees Jay Cox, left, and Angel Rivera discuss a call during a NCAA college men's wrestling dual between Iowa and Oklahoma State, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Third-party reviews on challenges in college wrestling

I'm in favor of third-party reviews for challenges in college wrestling. I think it makes a lot of sense to have an outside ref review whatever call was made on the mat. Of all the things folkstyle wrestling could learn from freestyle, the way freestyle conducts video reviews — a fourth ref off the mat looks at the sequence in question and makes his own separate call, regardless of what the challenge was for — should be at the top of the list.

Here's the thing: if you do third-party reviews, you have to do it for everything.

You can't just do it for the major Division I tournaments. You have to do it for every single collegiate dual, at all levels. You have to do it at every single collegiate tournament, whether it's the NCAA Championships in Tulsa or the Last Chance Open in Ames.

It wouldn't be fair for Iowa-Penn State to have third-party reviews and for Appalachian State-Campbell to not when both duals carry an equal level of importance with regard to conference seeding and, by extension, NCAA qualifying. If you do it for Division I, you should probably do it for Division II and Division III, too. (NAIA and NJCAA are their own governing bodies, but I imagine if the NCAA goes to third-party reviews, they would, too.)

If the NCAA wants to fund third-party reviews — more refs, better camera equipment, extra training for stat- and time-keepers, the whole nine — sign me up. But if they're going to do it, they have to go all-in and do it for everything, at every level, because that's the right thing to do.

MORE:Our way-too-early look at the 2023-24 Iowa boys and girls high school wrestling seasons

A wrestling official tosses the flip disc into the air in a Class 3A match during the Iowa high school state wrestling tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.

Iowa women's wrestling and the future of NCAA women's wrestling

I would think so, yes.

North Central, from Illinois, won the NCWWC team title with 198 points. They finished with 15 total All-Americans (only 10 counted toward the team score), and 13 of those All-Americans are back, including two champs, Madison Avila (101) and Jaslynn Gallegos (116), and three other finalists. If added all together, the 13 North Central All-Americans are capable of scoring north of 200 team points, which is insane.

King University, from Tennessee, took second, with 163. They finished with 12 All-Americans, and 10 are expected to return, including three finalists. McKendree took third with 147.5 and return four of their eight All-Americans (who scored 77 of the 147.5 points), led by champ Cameron Guerin (130).

I mostly eye-balled the rosters of each school, so who knows if some of the seniors are actually done or if they have additional years of eligibility left. That would obviously change what their lineups might look like, but even then, it's safe to assume those three programs (and perhaps Colorado Mesa) are likely the top competition next year for the Iowa women's wrestling program, when the Hawkeyes officially begin competing.

It remains to be seen if the national tournament will still be under the NCWWC umbrella or if it'll be under the NCAA's purview. We are hopeful it'll be an NCAA-sponsored championship event, for the sake of continued growth, but the NCWWC might allow more than just the starting 10 to qualify and wrestle, as they did this year.

We'll see what happens, but based on what I caught last weekend, it may not be as simple as Iowa walking in and just running away with the team title, even though they've looked incredible in the few competitions they've wrestled in during this redshirt season. North Central, King, and McKendree are going to make them earn it — which will be part of the fun, right?

Girls and women's wrestling is growing at all levels, which means the talent level is trending upward, too, and fast. That's exciting as more and more opportunities become available at the sport's higher levels.

More:Introducing the 2023 All-Iowa high school girls wrestling team

This week, I'm grateful for Erica, my Uber Eats driver on Friday in Ann Arbor. I sat at my hotel while it thunder-snowed outside — six inches of snowfall with a wicked thunderstorm going on at the same time. I've never seen anything like it and hope to never see another one. But Erica drove through that mess to deliver my dinner on Friday, and I am extremely thankful. Not all heroes wear capes. Some drive through thunder blizzards. Salute.

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