The No. 2 Penn State Nittany Lions and the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers have been two of the most interesting teams to watch this season, and now these top-ten Big Ten foes will meet in Madison for a battle of the stars. Each team brings a No. 1 ranked wrestler to the mat with Wisconsin's Seth Gross holding down the top-spot at 133 pounds and Penn State Vincenzo Joseph confident as the No. 1 seed at 165 pounds after beating No. 2 last weekend in Iowa City. Adding to the intrigue is that fact that at both of those weights, 133 and 165, the opposing team is also bringing a top-three competitor to the dual and will look for the upset and the chance to jump to the top of the rankings.
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Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson continues to piece together what he believes to be a title-contending team, and Wisconsin, a team with four transfers in the starting lineup, has remained a threat in the team trophy race. A win for either team would be huge for momentum and confidence with the Big Ten tournament just over a month away. Penn State has the rankings advantage, but the last time Wisconsin wrestled the No. 2 team in the country, the Badgers beat the Huskers in the same Field House where this dual will occur. Here's what you need to know about how these squads stack up before the dual starts at 9 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
125 pounds: Brandon Meredith vs. Eric Barnett
Both Brandon Meredith and Eric Barnett have winning records, but neither of these two lightweight wrestlers are ranked in the Top 25, making 125 an opener to the big show at 133 pounds. Wisconsin will need to pick up the win here to stay in the dual, as the Badgers may have a hard time against the Penn State later in the dual, particularly at 174 pounds where they could lose big bonus points against Nittany Lion senior Mark Hall. Penn State's Brandon Meredith's best win this season came against No. 9 Michael Colaiocco of Penn in his Rec Hall debut, but he most recently struggled and took a loss against Maryland's unranked Brandon Cray. Barnett has a similar season, and while he doesn't have a ranked win on his resume, he does have five more total wins than his Penn State opponent and four fewer losses. This one is a toss-up but the pressure will be more on Wisconsin to pick up the early match win in front of the home crowd.
133 pounds: No. 2 Roman Bravo-Young vs. No. 1 Seth Gross
Oh boy, this is it. Roman Bravo-Young vs. Seth Gross. If both of these athletes wrestle as they are expected to, this one will be a barn-burner. No. 1 Gross has lost just once on the year, while Bravo-Young is undefeated but has not faced quite the level of competition as Gross. The Wisconsin graduate student was an early title favorite and Hodge contender, but a loss to Austin DeSanto in Carver-Hawkeye Arena earlier this year took him out of the Hodge rankings and dropped him to No. 2 in the country for about three weeks. After avenging the loss to DeSanto at Midlands, Gross earned his way back to the top of the rankings and has majored every opponent since then, but he's going to need to be at max capacity to take on the sneaky and quick Bravo-Young.
Watch the full DeSanto and Bravo-Young match from last weekend here:
A true sophomore, Bravo-Young has impressed this year, holding a 15-0 record with his biggest win coming against, well, Austin DeSanto. Bravo-Young wrestled the Iowa junior last weekend in Iowa City and took him down early in cradle off DeSanto's shot, but DeSanto's knee turned in a dangerous way, causing the Hawkeye to call for injury time. DeSanto continued to wrestle, but looked off and hurt as he battled for another 90 seconds before being locked up in another cradle and calling to be out of the match. Bravo-Young had his hand raised in Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the first time and put key points on the board for Penn State, but the win was still controversial, given DeSanto's injury default. Outside of DeSanto, Bravo-Young still has impressive top-15 wins over Sammy Alvarez of Rutgers and Ridge Lovett of Wisconsin, suggesting that he's dangerous and in this for the title. Gross will be a great test for the All-American Nittany Lion, and we'll find out on Friday just how competitive Bravo-Young can be in his quest for the national title. If he beats Seth Gross in Madison, he'll deny Wisconsin three important team points and leave as the No. 1 ranked 133-pounder in the country. Talk about motivation.
141 pounds: No. 2 Nick Lee vs. No. 7 Tristan Moran
Heading into the year, the script for this matchup may have been written. Nick Lee, a two-time All-American who has jumped levels this year taking on a senior who has made the tournament, and the Round of 12 once, would normally have the assumed advantage. And while the Nittany Lion still has a rankings lead as the No. 2 ranked guy in the country to Moran's No. 7, Wisconsin's Tristan Moran has shown this year that he's here to surprise some people. At 16-3 on the year, the Badger has beaten All-Americans Chad Red and Mitch McKee, and he also beat No. 10 Zach Sherman, with his only losses coming against Josh Heil, Max Murin and, most recently, Luke Pletcher. The Pletcher loss was the first time Moran has been majored this year, and it's this loss that is most concerning as the Badger senior prepares to take on a wrestler in Nick Lee who has been compared to Pletcher all year.
Here's what happened the last time Lee wrestled Moran in a dual:
Lee is 14-0 on the year with a 92.86% bonus rate, and while he hasn't faced any of the guys that Moran lost to yet this year, he did beat Murin twice last year. Lee is formidable, no doubt, but if Moran wrestles like he did against Red and McKee, this could be a wild one. An upset win for Wisconsin would send the Badger faithful into a frenzy and give huge momentum to the Red and White as they attempt the team upset win. A loss for Moran here would keep the rankings steady, and with Nick Lee just one spot behind Pletcher in the rankings, he's going to look to do what the Buckeye did to Moran and bonus the senior in front of Moran's home crowd.
149 pounds: Jarod Verkleeren vs. No. 15 Cole Martin
More like 157 pounds than 141 pounds, the 149 pound matchup is a weird one. Wisconsin's Cole Martin is currently ranked No. 15 in the country in a wide-open weight class, and he has wins over No. 18 Griffin Parriott, No. 16 Collin Purinton, No. 14 Graham Rooks. Four of his seven losses have come against top-ten opponents, and two of those four have come against wrestlers who were at one point ranked No. 1 in the country. Martin has wrestled some of the best in the country, and he's battled against all of them. Now the Badgers need their ranked guy to come out and earn a win against a Penn State starter in Madison and put up key points on the board.
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Martin has not wrestled Penn State's Jarod Verkleeren in college, but the Nittany Lion sophomore is 13-4 on the year and could push Martin. Of Verkleeren's four losses, one of them came against a top-ranked opponent, but his best win is against his teammate Luke Gardner at the Black Knight Open and thus the Penn State 149-pounder is not ranked. Martin should have the edge here based on the quality of competition that he's beaten and the fact that he'll have his home fans packed inside the Wisconsin arena. On the other hand Verkleeren has kept almost all of his losses close, and this will be one that will impact the dual score in a big win and is critical for the Badgers to win.
157 pounds: Bo Pipher vs. Drew Scharenbrock
We said this in our Penn State vs. Iowa preview, and we’ll say it again: Bo Pipher is a fighter. The junior is 9-10 in his first year as a starter for the Nittany Lions, and he’s held down the spot as Junior world team member Brady Berge recovers from an injury. Pipher refused to give up bonus points in his battles with the No. 1 and No. 5 wrestlers in the weight class, and he also pinned Markus Hartman of Army, the No. 11 ranked guy in the country. Pipher may be a “backup” but he’s playing an important role for the Nittany Lions as a reliable contender on the mat, and he now has a chance to earn a win against a Big Ten opponent with a winning record on Friday.
His opponent, Wisconsin's Drew Scharenbrock is 17-10, but he’s riding a four-match losing streak as he heads into a battle against the No. 2 team in the country. The two athletes have never faced each other in college, and while Scharenbrock has a winning record, he does not have any ranked wins. This could go either way, but just like the other close matchups in this dual, Wisconsin needs to look for the win if they want to keep the score close.
165 pounds: No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph vs. No. 3 Evan Wick
Remember what we said about 133 pounds being the dual of the night? That's true, but 165 pounds will be a wild one as well. Penn State's No. 1 Vincenzo Joseph is riding some momentum after holding off Iowa's No. 2 Alex Marinelli on Friday night against Iowa, and he now sits at 10-0 with a 55.5% bonus rate. A two-time NCAA champion, Joesph keeps his Hodge finalist potential alive if he holds off two-time All-American Evan Wick of Wisconsin, an athlete he has never faced in his college career.
Wick is 20-2 on the year with his only losses coming against David McFadden and Alex Marinelli, but both matches were decided by two points or less. After Joesph's tough performance against Marinelli in Carver-Hawkeye last weekend, it's hard to not consider him to have the edge in this matchup, but these athletes have not met in the NCAA tournament or the Big Ten tournament in either of Wick's two years in college, so Friday will be the first time fans have a chance to see these guys compete head-to-head. They also didn't meet in last year's dual, as Penn State sent out Mason Manville to wrestle for Joseph, and Joseph could sit out this dual if the Nittany Lion coaching staff felt that he needed recovery time after last weekend, but such a move is unlikely, creating anticipation for the first Joseph-Wick match in college wrestling. Both come to the mat with different styles, as Wick can use his length to his strength and Joseph always has the ability to throw in one of the nation's deadliest inside trips. If both athletes wrestle as expected, this is one you won't want to miss.
174 pounds: No. 2 Mark Hall vs. Jared Krattiger
The 174-pound bout is the one that will pose the biggest problems for Wisconsin in this dual as this is perhaps the matchup with the biggest Penn State advantage. Three-time NCAA finalist and 2017 NCAA champion Mark Hall is coming off his first loss of the year and his first loss outside of the NCAA tournament since his freshman year, but he's a key anchor in the Penn State team and will look to put up a pin, tech or major here against an athlete that is 7-12 with losses in four of his last five matches. Hall has a 77.78% bonus rate with perhaps his biggest result of the year coming by fall against Nebraska All-American Mikey Labriola to win the dual for Penn State against the Huskers. He also picked up a pin against Maryland and will no doubt want to further distance himself from the loss against Iowa's Michael Kemerer by putting up more bonus points against Wisconsin's Jared Krattiger. Kemerer pinned Krattiger earlier this season, and Hall will hope to put up the same result. These two athletes, like Joseph and Wick, have never faced each other in college, as Krattiger is just in his first year as a starter for the Badger.
Wisconsin will need team points on the board before this matchup because the results of 174 are expected to swing the dual in favor of the Nittany Lions. The Badgers could, however, theoretically choose to start at 174 just to gauge the dual situation, meaning that the dual would finish at 165 pounds with Wick and Joseph, a potentially winnable match for either team and one that will have the fans on their feet. Regardless of where the dual starts and ends, 174 pounds should be Hall's match all the way unless something wild happens.
184 pounds: No. 7 Aaron Brooks vs. Johnny Sebastian
Aaron Brooks and Johnny Sebastian are both wrestlers who have the potential to be All-Americans at the end of the year, but both could also fall in the Round of 16. Penn State's true freshman Brooks could even go so far as to be a finalist, and his only loss on the year came against an All-American, furthering this potential. The tricky thing about Brooks is the opposite concern with Sebastian: he's new to the scene. Having only wrestled in a Penn State singlet since December, Brooks is still feeling out the college landscape, and while he's shown excellence, such as his win over Iowa's Abe Assad in Carver, he needs more duals under his belt before he's considered a favorite to battle for a title.
Johnny Sebastian, on the other hand, has been around the block, qualifying for the NCAA tournament twice as an undergraduate at Northwestern and now looking for a shot at the podium in his sixth and final year, this time in a Wisconsin singlet. Sebastian is 9-3 on the year with losses against Minnesota's rising Owen Webster, Northern Iowa's Taylor Lujan and Army's Noah Stewart, and he'll face a young Brooks who is hungry to show off in Madison. This should be a Penn State win, but Brooks needs to wrestle like he did against Assad if he wants to pick up a point against the veteran Sebastian. The Badger senior is 0-4 against Penn State starters in his career, and while he's never wrestled Brooks, he has competed against Brook's training partners Mark Hall and Shakur Rasheed and dropped to both of them over the last three years. This is a time for Brooks to shine, but Sebastian will no doubt be fighting to stay in the match prove that he belongs back in the Top 20 rankings.
197 pounds: No. 19 Shakur Rasheed vs. Taylor Watkins or Peter Christensen
Penn State's All-American Shakur Rasheed has been up and down all season for the Nittany Lions after returning from an injury after last year's NCAA tournament. The 197-pounder recently bumped up to his All-American weight after graduate transfer Kyle Conel went down with an injury, but he hasn't looked to be at full strength yet. At 2-3 on the year, Rasheed has wins over No. 19 Jordan Pagano and Matt Wroblewski, and he'll need to pick up a third against Taylor Watkins to stay in the rankings. Wisconsin's 197-pounder is 6-13 on the year and has shared starting duties with Peter Christensen, an 8-8 wrestler who has also struggled on the year. The 197 pound weight has been a weaker spot for the Badgers this year, and Rasheed should be looking at this matchup as a must-win. If he can win and win with bonus points, he could give Nittany Lion fans some more confidence in their starter, but a loss would not only give Wisconsin three critical team points but make his efforts to end up on the podium in March even more questionable.
285 pounds: No. 15 Seth Nevills vs. No. 5 Trent Hillger
If the dual starts at 125 pounds, we're in for a treat with Seth Nevills vs. Trent Hillger. Nevills, Penn State's new starter at heavyweight after the injury of Anthony Cassar, is 11-1 on the year with a ranked win over Christian Lance and his only loss coming against No. 3 Tony Cassioppi of Iowa. Wisconsin All-American Trent Hillger is in a similar situation at 18-3 with his only losses coming against No. 1 Gable Steveson, No. 3 Cassioppi and No. 4 Matt Stencel. Hillger has proven himself by battling through the NCAA tournament as a freshman and finishing on the podium. He'll be expected to do the same this year, and, because of this background, he'll be expected to win against Nevills. But this Penn State freshman is the real deal, and if he could beat an All-American on the road, he'll make a stronger entrance into the All-American conversation and give Penn State fans more confidence that they could make a run for the team title.
Wisconsin is only favored, according to the rankings, at 133, 149 and heavyweight with a lot of the dual coming down to the unranked matchups at 125 and 157. If Wisconsin wins the duals they are expected to win, secures the W in both unranked matches, and holds off Mark Hall from picking up too many bonus points, this could be a huge team victory for the Badgers. A key component to that situation, however, is Trent Hillger. Hillger needs to overcome Nevills for the Badgers to win the dual but Nevills has pulled out the win with the dual on the line and won for Penn State twice this season. He might be in a similar situation with the team win riding on him this Friday.