Not long ago, the 10 brackets for the NCAA Division I Championships were released the week of the annual three-day tournament. Now, with the current system, student-athletes, coaches and fans have the opportunity to go through each weight class with a fine-tooth comb long before any whistle is blown. On Wednesday, the NCAA announced the 70 at-large selections to round out the field of 330. And the early-evening hours saw the release of those magic B-R-A-C-K-E-T-S. The reaction was immediate, good and bad, with disgust and pleasure, and will continue until wrestlers take the mat March 19 inside Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The great thing about “March Matness” compared to men’s basketball and its “March Madness?” Wrestling provides 10 brackets to hoops’ one.
Some food for thought:
Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber competed just three times before the Big Ten Championships last weekend where he won a pair of matches to earn qualification. Stieber, an All-American two seasons ago, faces the No. 16 seed in the first round and with a win would face either Habat or Kindig in the second round. Kindig and Stieber each started the season ranked among the top five.
Another tough one is two-time NCAA champion Jesse Delgado (9-3) of Illinois. The 125-pounder is unseeded and opens against eighth-seeded Tyler Cox (30-5) of Wyoming.
Two 133-pounders -- Edinboro All-American A.J. Schopp (19-2) and Oklahoma’s Cody Brewer (17-1) -- received surprisingly low seeds. Brewer avenged his lone loss this season by beating Iowa State’s Earl Hall in the Big 12 finals. Hall (25-6) is seeded sixth in the bracket; Brewer is 13th. Schopp enters as the No. 9 seed.
The committee has made it clear that a wrestler’s complete body of work is taken into consideration for the at-large and seeding process. Injuries obviously play a large role. But with any venture as large as 10 brackets and 330 participants, questions will be raised and feathers will be ruffled.
Four returning champions earned No. 1 seeds and all are unbeaten this season. Ohio State’s Logan Stieber (24-0), Oklahoma State’s Alex Dieringer (29-0), Missouri’s J'Den Cox (33-0) and North Carolina State’s Nick Gwiazdowski (30-0) are a combined 116-0 entering next week’s championships. Northwestern’s Jason Tsirtsis (33-1), seeded second at 149, and the unseeded Delgado are also in the field. Logan Stieber will attempt to become the fourth four-time NCAA champion, joining Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson and Cornell’s Kyle Dake.
The two bigs
Conference qualifiers were held last weekend with the buzz obviously circulating around Ohio State’s tie with Iowa atop the final Big Ten standings and the strange status of the four-team Big 12.
The Buckeyes hosted the Big Ten meet and got a huge finals win by 125-pound freshman Nathan Tomasello against Iowa’s Thomas Gilman, plus a dominating technical fall by Logan Stieber against Hawkeye senior Josh Dziewa in the 141-pound title tilt. The Hawkeyes had a chance to win the team title outright, but Northwestern’s Michael McMullen edged Bobby Telford in the 285-pound final to keep OSU and Iowa at 120 points each. It was the first time two programs split the team trophy since 1932.
In Ames, the Big 12 held what may be its last four-team event. With no qualifier status in 2015, all 40 wrestlers went immediately into the at-large pool -- as long as they at least weighed in. Oklahoma State had seven champions to claim the program’s 39th conference crown. Expect an announcement sooner rather than later detailing a 2016 NCAA qualifier including the four Big 12 members and the six-team Western Wrestling Conference.
Also down to the wire
Like the Big Ten Championships, the West Regional and the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships were a fight to the finish. North Dakota State edged Wyoming by four points in Fargo to claim a second consecutive West Regional trophy. NDSU had five champions, none bigger than 184-pounder Hayden Zilmer, who beat Wyoming’s Ben Stroh in the title match.
In Pittsburgh, Virginia ran away from the host Panthers and defending champion Virginia Tech.
“I don’t think anyone predicted this was going to happen,” said Virginia coach Steve Garland, whose team was 2-3 in ACC duals this season. “It was a heck of an upset win and we are really excited about being a part of something that we think is going to be a good story about Virginia wrestling for years to come.”
How about them Tigers?
Five Missouri wrestlers are seeded inside the top four at their particular weight classes, three are No. 1 -- Alan Waters (30-0 at 125), Houdeshelt (32-1 at 149) and Cox (33-0 at 197). Throw in 141-pounder Lavion Mayes (33-2), seeded third, and 174-pounder Jon Eblen (26-5), seeded fourth, and you have the makings of a real contender. It does not hurt to have the other five Tigers in St. Louis as well; MU will open next week’s tournament with all 10 men in the field. Head coach Brian Smith’s squad completed the dual season unbeaten and claimed a third consecutive Mid-American Conference team title last weekend.
Usually there are a handful of wrestlers who enter the NCAA Championships with a sub-.500 winning percentage. Of the 330 participants in 2015, there are only three -- Wisconsin 141-pounder Jesse Thielke (5-11), OSU’s Hunter Stieber (3-4 at 149) and Purdue’s Patrick Robinson (14-17 at 165). Southern Illinois-Edwardsville 197-pounder Jake Tindle is an even .500 at 17-17.
Wrestling historians, and fans in general, like to summon Oklahoma State’s Mark Branch, now the head coach at Wyoming. As a freshman, Branch entered the 1994 NCAA Championships in North Carolina with an 8-9 record. Five wins later he was a national champion.