ST. LOUIS -- All the wrestling geeks have crunched the numbers. All the gurus of “bracketology” have gone through, match-by-match, all 10 weight classes and added every half point to figure out who is going to win the 2015 NCAA Championship in wrestling.
Problem is there are no crystal balls able to predict what will happen the next three days. Odds have been, though, that a Big Ten or Big 12 school would hoist the trophy. Not since 1988 when Bobby Douglas’s Arizona State team won the NCAA Championship has a school outside the elite wrestling conferences been crowned. Since the Sun Devils won the ’88 title in Ames, Iowa, the championships have been won by Iowa 12 times, Oklahoma State (7), Penn State (4), and Minnesota (3).
The usual cast of characters leads the list of contenders when wrestling kicks off Thursday at 12 p.m. inside the Scottrade Center. Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State are in the conversation. Cornell, a member of the Ivy League and EIWA, gets a few votes. Oklahoma State has won 34 NCAA titles, so it’s never smart to completely count them out. Ohio State, another Big Ten school, will try to join the Buckeye footballers as champions.
But the flavor of the month, the team that has everybody antsy for the tournament to start, is the Missouri Tigers. MU knocked off Iowa in the National Duals final and gives prognosticators plenty of reason to think they could win the program’s first national championship. Tiger head coach Brian Smith has performed a near miracle rivaling the turnaround of Kansas State football under Bill Snyder. Once a doormat of the Big 12 Smith coached his team to a Big 12 Championship four years ago. Two weeks ago MU won a third consecutive Mid-American title.
The stars seemed to be aligned. Everything is in order.
Can Missouri finish the deal?
“It’s been a great journey,” said Smith on Wednesday. “It’s a senior-laden team with five seniors and a good group of younger guys who have a lot of experience. They had a goal back in April of winning a national championship and have put themselves in position.
“It’s a pretty select group [of NCAA champions], so why not us. [Somebody else] is due. Why can’t it be Missouri?”
Having the tournament a stone’s throw from MU’s campus in Columbia brings extra attention to the program.
Tiger 197-pounder J’Den Cox welcomes the attention. Already a national champion, the sophomore from Columbia would like nothing better than to help his team win a championship this week. Saturday is a long ways off, however.
“In this tournament, in each bracket at each weight, the numbers don’t mean anything anymore,” said Cox, who enters the tournament unbeaten. “The rankings don’t matter. Who you are and what you’ve done throughout the season doesn’t matter now.
“It’s about one match at a time. Everybody has to step out, no matter who it is against, and win tough matches. That starts on Thursday.”
“This tournament is a roller coaster,” Minnesota head coach J Robinson said. “It’s so up and down. It doesn’t matter if you win on the front or the back side. The key at the end is consistency.
“Check your heartbeat now and then over the next few days and you’ll see it go up and down.”
Oklahoma State head coach John Smith has watched Brian Smith build his program at Missouri.
“He’s done a great job,” said OSU’s Smith. “There wasn’t much [at Missouri] when he got there and he’s really built something from the ground up. He has a veteran team.”
The Smith-led Tigers negotiated a grueling dual season in 2014-15. A 24-0 campaign included victories in Columbus against Ohio State, Cornell in Ithaca, Oklahoma State at home, and against Illinois, Lehigh and Iowa in Iowa City.
Dual meets and tournaments are not quite like oil and water … but close.
“Winning big dual meets throughout the year, that prepares you with tough matches in tough environments,” Brian Smith said. “Still, tournaments are different. It requires a team effort in an individual format.”
“Everybody has to take care of their business,” Cox said. “It’s one at a time. For [Missouri] to win the team championship it is going to take everybody working together.”
The Tigers start Thursday with 10 wrestlers. The question is how many will remain come Saturday?