The Iowa Hawkeyes started the season as the No. 2 team in the country after finishing fourth in last year's tournament, but coach Tom Brands' team didn't need long to solidify themselves as the best team in the country. After the defending champions Penn State lost to Arizona State on Nov. 22, it's been all Iowa, all the way.
Led by No. 1 Spencer Lee at 125 pounds and Lee's former high school club teammate No. 1 Michael Kemerer at 174 pounds, the Hawkeyes have all ten of their starters in the top ten of the national rankings and plan to do some damage at the national tournament in March. This team has been dominant, fun, unified, and Iowa proud.
Before the bright lights shine on the mats in Minneapolis, here's a look back at the best moments from Iowa's impressive 13-0 undefeated season and the milestones that the team hit along the way.
Shutouts against UT-Chattanooga, Indiana, Purdue
There's no better way for a national title contending team to win its first dual of the year than posting a perfect shutout score. Penn State opened its year with a 45-0 win over Navy, and Iowa followed seven days later with a 39-0 win over UT-Chattanooga in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Lee started the success with a major decision over Fabian Gutierrez, while fellow lightweight Austin DeSanto also earned bonus points up a weight class at 141 pounds. A third Pennsylvania native, Kaleb Young, also notched bonus and redshirt freshman Tony Cassioppi made his starting debut at heavyweight win a pin in front of the home fans. The shutout would be the first of three for the Hawks, but the performance set the stage for a dominant season from start to finish.
The state of Indiana may not let the Hawkeyes back in after the team steamrolled past Purdue and Indiana on a three-day road trip that saw Iowa post two 41-0 scores and notch critical ranked wins. Lee, of course, led the Hawkeyes in both duals with two tech falls, and those finishes help contribute to a five-match tech fall win streak for the two-time champ.
Junior leader Alex Marinelli and redshirt freshman Cassioppi did edge out their NCAA championship teammate in team points by both picking up two pins in the duals. Cassioppi didn't even need a combined three minutes in his two duals to beat Rudy Streck and Thomas Penola, and these duals helped solidify that Cassioppi is someone that can be counted on to score team points. Austin DeSanto also earned a pin against Indiana and a tech fall against Purdue.
The weekend also marked the starting debut of 184-pounder Abe Assad who rolled to wins over Jake Hinz of Indiana and Max Lyon of Purdue to keep the shutout alive in both duals.
The biggest dual victories, however, came in the Purdue match, as Kaleb Young picked up a critical 4-3 win over a then-No. 8 and improving Kendall Coleman, Michael Kemerer ended then-No.4 Dylan Lydy's hot streak and Jacob Warner upset then No. 2 Christian Brunner 8-2.
There's a new No. 1 in town
In just the third dual meet of the season, and the first Big Ten matchup of the year, Iowa's 133-pound All-American Austin DeSanto won what was perhaps his biggest match of the year against then-No. 1 Seth Gross. The junior Hawkeye topped the 2018 NCAA champion Gross 6-2 with a huge performance that changed the landscape of the weight class and elevated DeSanto to the No. 1 ranking in the country. DeSanto's ranking meant that Iowa had No. 1-ranked wrestlers at 125 and 133 pounds, creating a dynamic and dangerous 1-2 punch of top-ranked lightweights to start the lineup.
Gross would later avenge this loss at Midlands, but the Carver-Hawkeye win on Dec. 1 set up some momentum for DeSanto early.
The Hawkeye has continued to show signs of being a title contender, however, despite his later loss to Gross and a later injury default against Roman-Bravo Young.
He has a chance to beat both of those opponents at the Big Ten tournament and claim a No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament if everything goes his way, and, as we saw once before, DeSanto is capable of being the No. 1 wrestler in the country.
Abe Assad makes his home debut with a win over All-American Taylor Venz
Meet Iowa's new 184-pounder. After finishing second at the 2019 Midlands tournament in Chicago, true freshman Abe Assad agreed to remove his redshirt and step into the starting lineup for the Hawkeyes. He won his first two bouts as a starter on the road, but made his Carver-Hawkeye debut in style by taking down 2018 All-American Taylor Venz on Jan. 18. The Nebraska junior finished in the Round of 12 of last year's NCAA tournament but finished fourth in 2018. If Assad can hang with and beat podium guys like Venz, he could make himself a dangerous threat in March.
Watch the full match here:
Following the Venz win, Assad went 1-2 in duals, dropping to Penn State's Aaron Brooks and Michigan State's Cameron Caffey. Both athletes are ranked in the top ten, but that distinction didn't matter.
Assad went back to the bench as two-time Round of 12 wrestler Cash Wilcke stepped in for the freshman. Wilcke then dropped his latest match to Owen Webster, prompting Brands to suggest that Assad would return. However, against Oklahoma State, Brands surprised Hawkeye Nation by sending out Nelson Brands and resting his starter in preparation for the postseason. The younger Brands dropped his bout, and Assad will be expected to be the guy when the team travels to New Jersey for the Big Ten tournament.
Tom Brands, a Hawkeye legend, will do what's best for his team, but regardless, what we do know is that he has options at 184 pounds and one of those options beat an All-American on Jan. 18.
There's a new No. 1 in town, part two
Call it Carver magic, call it Iowa toughness, call it whatever you want, but, for the second time in a season, an Iowa wrestler took down a No. 1-ranked athlete and former NCAA champion in Carver-Hawkeye in dramatic fashion to take over the top spot in the weight. This time, the honor belonged to 2018 NCAA All-American Michael Kemerer. The senior Hawkeye delivered Hall his only loss to anyone other than Zahid Valencia in two years and solidified himself as the man to beat at the Big Ten and national tournament.
Hall will have another chance against Kemerer in a few weeks, but the win gave Iowa a second top-ranked wrestler and put two Young Gun Wrestling Club Pennsylvania boys at the top of the national standings. Kemerer's had a dream season after sitting out all of last year with an injury, and this win put an exclamation mark and his stellar performances, keeping his undefeated record alive and putting a bigger target on his back.
Hawks show off depth at 184 pounds
We've mentioned Iowa's depth at 184 pounds already, but this facet of the No. 1 team in the country is worth exploring further. Neither Nelson Brands nor Cash Wilcke will likely be moving on to the postseason, but both picked up ranked wins throughout the season and those two moments deserve to be mentioned in the dual-season highlights. Iowa could compete with either of these two athletes at the weight class and remain competitive for a team championship, so it's important to note these two ranked wins when considering the Iowa championship team and the competitiveness at 184 pounds.
The Hawkeyes started the year with redshirt freshman Nelson Brands earning the nod at 184 pounds, a full two weight classes above what he was listed at on the roster coming into the season. Brands put on a show in his first two duals for the Hawkeyes by beating then ranked Matthew Waddell of UT-Chattanooga and most notably No. 7 Samuel Colbray of Iowa State. Despite the two wins, teammate Cash Wilcke took over the spot against Wisconsin and fell to a tough Johnny Sebastian. Brands came back in the lineup against Princeton but lost the Travis Stefanik of Princeton in the last match before the Midlands tournament.
Assad earned his starting position after finishing above Brands and Wilcke at Midlands, but he took dual losses in January, causing Brands to send out Wilcke against Minnesota and Michigan. Wicke's win against No. 20 Jelani Embree gave him his first ranked dual win of the year and suggested that he could absolutely compete for a podium spot if he had the starting position. As mentioned, Assad is expected to get to call heading into the conference tournament, but it's a special problem to have when all three 184-pounders could battle against the best.
Max Murin comes back from an injury and beats No. 4 Mitch McKee on Feb. 15
And now the Hawkeye lineup is officially set at 141 pounds. Max Murin is back, and he's a title contender. In the second to last dual of the year, Iowa's two-time NCAA qualifier Max Murin took the mat at the last minute and battled All-American Mitch McKee of Minnesota through overtime for the tough 6-4 win. He wrestled without a brace for the first time in a long while, and while he admitted in the post-match presser that there might have been some rust to shake off in the first period, he was ready for the opportunity.
"I didn't even know I would be wrestling today, to be honest. I talked to Coach Brands earlier in the week, and he said 'we're probably going to go with [Carter] Happel. So I really didn't know I was wrestling," Murin said. "Me and Happel were both warming up and then he pointed at me and said 'Do you want to go? And I said 'Heck yeah, let's go.'"
And go he did. Murin hit two takedowns against McKee and then brought the match to a close in extra time with a final takedown. Fitting in with the theme of Iowa's unity this year though, it's about the team.
"It was a big relief, it felt really good, and awesome team win too," Murin said. He smiled at the press podium, his face still red from his match. He's back, and he's ready to win a title with this team.
The final dual win of the year
Iowa's 34-6 dual win over Oklahoma State on Feb. 23 had everything, but what was the most impressive moment for the Hawkeyes? Was it Spencer Lee majoring the No. 4 guy in the country who pinned him last year? Was it Austin DeSanto earning a first period pin? Was it senior Pat Lugo earning his first career pin in Carver-Hawkeye in his last match ever in the arena? How about Max Murin earning bonus over a ranked opponent in just his second match back from injury? The ranked wins from Alex Marinelli, Michael Kemerer and Jacob Warner? Tony Cassioppi ending his redshirt freshman win an 11-1 win? You could pick any of those moments to focus on in this dual, but if there's one thing to take away from Iowa's win over Oklahoma State it's that this team has fight from 125 to 285 pounds and is dangerous on the mat against any opponent.
The Cowboys notched a big win at 157 pounds when No. 19 Wyatt Sheets beat No. 5 Kaleb Young to end the shutout, and Oklahoma State also added points at 184 as No. 14 Anthony Montalvo beat Iowa backup Nelson Brands. Assad is expected to return to the lineup for Big Tens, but on Sunday night, the Cowboys did get a win at 184 pounds against Brands. Those two wins, however, weren't enough to stop the rolling Hawkeyes, and Iowa did exactly what the team needed to do in that dual to respond to last year's loss against this team and show the rest of the country why they are No. 1.