1 ― Penn State: Six finalists, three champions at the rugged Big Ten Championships in Iowa City puts the Nittany Lions at the top of the list. At the beginning of the season nobody knew just how good Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal were going to be. Now we know. Head coach Cael Sanderson has the star power with a handful of potential finalists, including Zain Retherford, Morgan McIntosh, Nico Megaludis, and the rookie phenoms. Is that going to be enough to win the program’s fifth NCAA title in six seasons? It might matter more what Jordan Conaway and Jimmy Gulibon provide inside Madison Square Garden. Heading into DI’s final meet, PSU is the team to beat.
2 ― Oklahoma State: Head coach John Smith always has his troops ready in March. His Cowboys have challenged PSU in the past and might be the top challenger in NYC. Seven champions at the Big 12 Championships sends OSU into nationals with confidence. Dean Heil and Alex Dieringer are proven commodities. Throw in rookie Joe Smith, Anthony Collica, and Nolan Boyd, plus All-Americans Eddie Klimara and Austin Marsden and you have the makings of a strong tournament team. Three other qualifiers, including the always-dangerous Chandler Rogers, gives OSU a full complement of entries. Considered the New York Yankees of collegiate wrestling, will the karma of the program’s 100th year, Madison Square Garden, and a decade since its last title play into next week’s drama.
3 ― Iowa: Second to Penn State at the Big Tens, the Hawkeyes will enter nationals with something to prove. Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Brandon Sorensen, and Nathan Burak have produced at the big show. All four could wrestle on Saturday night. But, the key for Tom Brands and crew will be what Alex Meyer and Sammy Brooks do and if the Hawks have enough left come session number four and five. One thing is for sure … Iowa fans will make plenty of noise in NYC on the first day. Will they be as involved come Friday night?
4 ― Ohio State: The Buckeyes have been strong in March for the last decade. Head coach Tom Ryan saw his Buckeyes win the program’s first national title in 2015 and Nathan Tomasello, Bo Jordan, and Kyle Snyder are back. All three could make the finals with all eyes on Snyder, the best in the world in freestyle and top challenger to two-time champ Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State. Like Iowa, where OSU finishes depends on Micah Jordan and where he finishes in a wide-open 141 pound bracket, and fellow rookie Myles Martin, part of a 174-pound field that could be fun. Again, like Iowa, will the Buckeyes have enough left come Friday night?
5 ― North Carolina State: Yes, the Wolfpack beat the Cowboys, Gophers, and Hawkeyes and held off Virginia Tech for the ACC crown. And yes, putting NCSU fifth after an impressive regular season is questionable. But as head coach Pat Popolizio knows respect is earned at the national tournament. No doubt the red and white of NCSU will be fan favorites in MSG. Kevin Jack, Thomas Gantt, Max Rohskopf, and Pete Renda are not household names. “GWIZ” certainly is. At a tournament where either a Big Ten or Big 12 team has won every title since 1988, the Wolfpack still have to prove it.
6 ― Virginia Tech: Two ACC teams in the top six? If both the Wolfpack and Hokies finish in the top six then the basketball country will have to take notice. With an attitude all season, Tech has a right to stick its chest out. Nobody remembers a close dual with Penn State back in November, but top-to-bottom there is plenty of tournament points to be had by Joey Dance, Soloman Chishko, Nick Brascetta, Zach Epperly, Zack Zavatsky, and Ty Walz. Head coach Kevin Dresser has not been shy about promoting his team. If some of the big dogs stumble, Tech could be there to steal a trophy.
7 ― Missouri: The Tigers have been considered a great dual team of late. After a fourth-straight MAC title, MU enters the national tournament under the radar. J’Den Cox and Lavion Mayes are back to lead a team that finished fourth in 2015, a team that also had stars Alan Waters and Drake Houdeshelt. Rookie Daniel Lewis is one to watch in the 165-pound bracket and Willie Micklus is a returning All-American. If Missouri is to improve on fourth last March it will require a monumental effort from every Tiger in NYC.
8 ― Cornell: In 2015, Minnesota finished eighth at the national tournament with 59.5 points. Cornell’s trio of Nahshon Garrett, Gabe Dean and Brian Realbuto might total 59 points themselves this year, with Dylan Palacio also capable of a high finish at 157 pounds. It is highly unlikely that CU challenges for top honors, but if Rob Koll gets something from his other four NCAA qualifiers then last March’s fifth-place showing is certainly attainable.
Knocking on the door
Lehigh, Rutgers, Nebraska