NCAA Wrestling Tournament Preview
The NCAA Wrestling National Tournament starts Thursday March 21 at 12 p.m. at Pittsburgh’s PPG Arena, the second time the Steel City has played host since 1957.
The headlining story is the Penn State squad. Penn State has the potential to place five individual national champions (which was last done by Penn State in 2017) and to win their eighth team championship in the past nine years. The teams most likely to dethrone the Nittany Lions are the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University. These three schools would have to have unbelievable tournaments which is completely possible because it is time for “Mat Madness.”
Taking a look at the tournament setup, 286 wrestlers gained automatic bids into the national tournament by meeting two of the three following criteria: current strength of the given weight class during the regular season with a winning percentage in that weight class, a ratings percentage index (RPI) and the coaches’ ranking. RPI is calculated based “on results versus Division I wrestlers and rankings only include wrestlers that have a minimum of 17 results versus Division I opponents (NCAA).”
Of the 286 automatic bids earned this season, 78 of them were awarded to Big Ten wrestlers (27 percent). There are a total of 330 wrestlers in the tournament, 33 in each weight, the rest getting an “at-large” bid.
Matt Stencel from Central Michigan comes in as the nine-seed in the 285 pound weight class with 18 falls this season. Stencel is a sophomore who holds a record of 27-4 entering the national tournament. One of those pins came against fifth-seed Mason Parris of Michigan in just 30 seconds at the Midlands Championships back in December.
There is a tie for the nation’s leader in technical falls but, only one is in the tournament this year. Kyle Shoop from Lock Haven, who is the 13 seed this year at 141 pounds, has won by technical fall 15 times this season. Shoop has 31 wins this season therefore 48 percent of his matches end in a fall. Shoop looks to come back from last year’s opening round loss (pigtail round) to make a run in a weaker 141 pound bracket.
The most wins thus far into the season is also a tie as Brian Andrews of Wyoming (19 seed at 285 pounds) and DJ Fehlman of Lock Haven (24 seed at 133 pounds) have both won 34 matches this season. Both will need to use their knack for winning to navigate through their bracket due to their low seeding.
Now into the individual weight title contenders, the 125 pound class is mainly a three horse race. Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern earned the number one seed, as he won the Big Ten tournament one week ago over Iowa’s Spencer Lee. Lee, who was in position to win, could not finish against Rivera in sudden victory and Rivera capitalized. Lee then was selected as the three seed in this year’s tournament as the returning national champion.
The third horse in this race is Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni in the two seed because of a remarkable 31-0 undefeated season and a win by fall over Spencer Lee last month in dual competition. To further develop this narrative, Rivera and Piccininni have never wrestled in college. In short, we have the number one seed Rivera looking to finish off a great season, the number two seed Piccininni who only needs to beat Rivera to finish off an incredible season, and the three seed Lee who is the reigning national champion and hometown kid looking to beat adversity to repeat as champ. This weight is going to be fantastic to watch.
The most intriguing weight this year is 133 pounds. Oklahoma State’s coach John Smith said, according to FloWrestling, that this year’s class is “the deepest I've ever seen any weight...ever...in my coaching career." Last year’s national champion Seth Gross of South Dakota State was forced out of action due to a nagging back injury leaving the door open for a new champion.
The top seven seeds could all have shot at being crowned champion for various reasons. Dalton Fix from Oklahoma State earned the number one seed this year. Fix went 31-1 in his redshirt freshman year as another incredible newcomer with his sole loss coming at the hands of sophomore Micky Phillippi of Pittsburgh. Phillippi’s win may seem like a fluke, but Phillippi had a great season as well, entering as the fourth seed.
The two-seed Stevan Micic of Michigan held the number one ranking for the majority of the season, but a lingering knee injury held him out of competition. Micic was held out in hopes to protect himself from further injuring the knee, therefore allowing him to compete in the national tournament.
Nick Suriano of Rutgers, who enters as the three seed, is another popular pick to win the crown. Suriano does have three losses this season, but those losses have come against top seeded Fix, second-seed Micic and seven-seed Austin DeSanto of Iowa (Suriano avenged this loss by beating DeSanto in the Big Ten tournament).
Other athletes in the mix are 2019 Big Ten finalist Luke Pletcher of Ohio State, who drew the five-seed, the aforementioned Austin DeSanto of Iowa, who is a firecracker on the mat, and six-seed Ethan Lizak of Minnesota, who enters his final NCAA tournament.
Some considered the 141 pound championship to be decided before the season started. Reigning national champion Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell announced he won the title last season with a torn ACL. Therefore, in theory, Diakomihalis was beating opponents on one good leg during his title journey. The sophomore sensation is on pace to repeat, as he has cruised to this stage of the year with a 24-0 record while earning bonus points in 70.83 percent of his matches. His toughest matches in the bracket could come from two-seed Joey McKenna of Ohio State, who only lost by a final of 7-5 just one month ago.
Penn State’s Nick Lee drew the third seed. McKenna did get his revenge over Lee in the Big Ten tournament, with a 5-4 win to get to the finals and McKenna repeated as Big Ten champion. Two dark horses to watch at this weight are fifth-seed Jaydin Eierman of Missouri, who is the only man to beat Diakomihalis at the collegiate level, along with 16 seed Chad Red of Nebraska. Red placed second behind McKenna at the Big Ten Tournament after entering as the eight seed and gave Nick Lee a great match when the two met in January.
Unlike every weight so far thus far, the 149 pound class appears to be a two wrestler race. The top seed in this bracket is Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault, who was crowned the Big Ten champion over the second-seed Micah Jordan from Ohio State. Ashnault’s win over Jordan was only by a 8-6 score, leaving enough of a window for some to pick Jordan to win it all. Jordan has not placed higher than fourth at the national championship tournament in his career. Ashnault is also a senior, riding high into Pittsburgh where the two seem to be destined to collide one last time.
Similar to the 141 pound bracket, the 157 pound bracket has been “cancelled” by some. Penn State’s Jason Nolf has missed a step this season, the senior is 26-0 and looking to become a four-time All American and three-time national champion. If Nolf does accomplish that feat, he will be the 18th wrestler from PA to be a four-time All-American and just the eighth PA wrestler to be a three-time national champion. Nolf is from Yatesboro, PA, about 42 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, and he will have a large fanbase cheering for him with the arena being in his backyard.
The only major resistance from Nolf running the table will come from the two-seed Tyler Berger of Nebraska, three-seed Ryan Deakin of Northwestern and four-seed Alec Pantaleo of Michigan. Nolf has beaten the three of these wrestlers by a combined score of 38-12 in their last matchups. The bottom line is that 157 is Jason Nolf’s world and we are all along for the ride.
The 165 pound weight class gained another level of complexity due to the results of the Big Ten tournament. Alex Marinelli of Iowa unseated top-ranked Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State by a 9-3 win to claim the conference crown. Marinelli holds a 2-0 record over Joseph, as he is only one of two wrestlers to hold collegiate multiple wins over the two-time national champion. Marinelli is going to have a tough path to win his own national championship, facing fifth-seed Chance Marsteller of Lock Haven and fourth-seed Evan Wick of Nebraska just to potentially match up with Joseph in the finals.
Marsteller, who is an Oklahoma State transfer, has gone a combined 66-6 in his two years at Lock Haven, while Wick has given Marinelli all he can handle in their previous matchups. Vincenzo Joseph knows how to perform when the lights are brightest and went to Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School making this a homecoming for him as well. Joseph is already a two-time national champion and counting him out would be an invalid decision for other wrestlers competing this weekend.
The 174-pound bracket has the potential to be one exciting weight to watch, as a large number of the top-seeded athletes come from schools who do not gain as much media attention as deserved. Fifth-seed Jordan Kutler of Lehigh has a 21-4 record with his four losses coming at the hands of the four-seeded wrestlers ahead of him.
Eight-seed Taylor Lujan of the University of Northern Illinois enters with a 24-5 record. Lujan placed second at the Big 12 Championships and looks to become an All-American for the first time in his career.
The front-runners at this weight are top-ranked Mark Hall of Penn State, second-seed Daniel Lewis of Missouri and reigning national champion, the third-seeded Zahid Valencia of Arizona State. Hall beat Valencia to avenge his finals loss last year, while Lewis pinned Valencia in dual competition. Valencia could get his rematch with Lewis in the semifinals where he would then potentially meet Hall in the finals to win back-to-back individual titles.
The wrestling community was up in arms when Shakur Rasheed of Penn State was selected as the two-seed after medically forfeiting against Myles Martin in the conference championship match at the Big Ten tournament. Martin of Ohio State did not seem pleased either in his interview, but Rasheed will have to wrestle Martin if the two meet in this bracket. Martin is 20-0 this season while Rasheed is 19-0 in their senior seasons.
Martin did lose the national champion to Bo Nickal last year at 184 pounds, while Rasheed came in seventh in the 197 pound weight class. Martin and Rasheed need to wrestle to put an end to all of the naysaying. Claims of “ducking” or intentionally forfietting to negate the risk of a loss have been hanging around Rasheed all season. Coach Cael Sanderson has told the media that he is just protecting his wrestler from injuring himself. Now is the time to see who is the best 184 pounder in the land as the two seemed to be on a collision course for each other.
The 197 pound bracket will be interesting for one reason: Bo Nickal. Nickal is in his senior season at Penn State and has been putting on a show. Bumping up from 184 pounds to 197, Nickal has won all 25 of his matches while scoring bonus in 92 percent of those matches. Nickal and Jason Nolf shared the Big Ten Wrestler of the Year Award and Nickal appears to be just ahead of Nolf in the race for the Hodge Trophy (the “Heisman Trophy” of collegiate wrestling).
The two-seed Kollin Moore of Ohio State found out how dominate Nickal is when Moore was pinned in just 1:38 in their first matchup and then again when Nickal won 10-3 at the conference tournament. Nickal is an all-time great, the second in Penn State history in pins behind Nolf, a three-time conference champion and seventh all-time in wins at 130 (a chance to finish sixth in the category). A third national title would be the perfect closing to an incredible career for Nickal.
Finally, the heavyweight bracket features three front-runners for the title: top-seeded Derek White of Oklahoma State, second-seed Anthony Cassar of Penn State and third-seed Gable Steveson of Minnesota. Steveson was the man to beat all year and no one could do it until Cassar beat the freshman sensation at the conference championship match. Cassar is not the one-seed because White won their match back at the Southern Scuffle tournament. Therefore, White earned the number one seed as Cassar and Steveson fall right behind. These three wrestlers are all super agile and athletic, all maintaining the “traditional” heavyweight body type. The heavyweights behind these three will be in for a rough time if they do not bring their “A game” to PPG Paints Arena.
125 Champion: Spencer Lee of Iowa
133 Champion: Nick Suriano of Rutgers
141 Champion: Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell
149 Champion: Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers
157 Champion: Jason Nolf of Penn State
165 Champion: Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State
174 Champion: Mark Hall of Penn State
184 Champion: Myles Martin of Ohio State
197 Champion: Bo Nickal of Penn State
285 Champion: Gable Steveson of Minnesota
Team Champions: Penn State
Ryan Simpson is a senior majoring in statistics and minoring in sociology. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.