What does it take to be one of the 330 athletes competing on college wrestling's biggest stage in Minneapolis, Minnesota this March? Talent is helpful, grit is valued and determination can't be underestimated. Every college athlete in the sport has been training since the start of the season for this moment and this chance to prove they belong on the big stage, and it all comes down to one conference tournament.
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As each team prepares to send out its ten starters for the 2020 conference tournaments next weekend, it's time to look more specifically at exactly how well these athletes need to perform to ensure that they'll be on their way to U.S. Bank Stadium chasing an NCAA title and national glory.
A total of 283 automatic qualification spots have been allocated to wrestlers across college wrestling's seven conferences, with the Big Ten leading the way with 79 automatic qualifying spots. The Big 12 will send 54 automatic qualifiers to Minnesota while the EIWA and the MAC will send 44 and 41 representatives, respectively. The ACC has 35 spots, and the Pac-12 and the SoCon conference round out the group with 14 and 16 spots. For the full list by weight, take a look at the chart below.
|CONFERENCE||125 LBS||133 LBS||141 LBS||149 LBS||157 LBS||165 LBS||174 LBS||184 LBS||197 LBS||285 LBS||TOTAL|
But what does all of this mean? What do these automatic qualifying spots tell us about who we could see in the 2020 NCAA tournament bracket? These are just a few of the biggest takeaways from the 2020 NCAA wrestling national tournament allocations.
Only the ACC champ advances at 197 pounds
The ACC has 35 automatic qualifier spots in the 2020 conference tournament, but the only weight where just the top spot earns an automatic bid is 197 pounds. One man leads that weight confidently in the coaches rankings and RPI, and his name is Jay Aiello. The 197-pounder for Virginia is 25-4 on the year with a big win over Iowa's Jacob Warner at Midlands, and his eighth-place ranking in the coaches poll suggests he's a dangerous force heading into conference tournaments.
His only losses have come against No. 6 Christian Brunner, No. 21 Jacob Seeley of Northern Colorado and No. 15 Greg Bulsak of Clarion, and none of these losses have been more than four-point losses.
The ACC may only have one automatic spot at 197 pounds, but Aiello is looking like the guy to take it. He finished second in the tournament last year but qualified for nationals before finishing his season out with a 1-2 performance in Pittsburgh. This year, Aiello could own the weight class as he competes in the ACC championship looking for his first conference title.
Aiello's biggest competition will come from Kellan Stout of Pittsburgh, ranked No. 25 in the RPI. Stout is 11-8 on the year and will look to end his career with another national tournament appearance. Both guys could try to slip in with a wildcard spot, but a win at the ACCs would seal the deal for Aiello.
The SoCon has just 14 automatic qualifying spots. Campbell could take ten of them.
Campbell sent a school record of six wrestlers to the NCAA tournament last year, and if the Camels wrestle to rank at the 2020 SoCon tournament, the team could send even more this year. Here's why: the conference isn't that big, and they have all ten wrestlers in the top three of every weight. The defending SoCon champions have six No. 1 ranked wrestlers in the conference according to FloWrestling, a number unmatched by any other team in the country. Iowa doesn't have this kind of hold over the Big Ten, Arizona State doesn't have this hold over the Pac-12, Princeton doesn't have this kind of hold over the EIWA — the list goes on. Campbell is the far-and-away favorite in the SoCon, and while the conference allocations only offer 14 spots, the Camels could take ten.
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The lightest weight doesn't favor Campbell, as the conference takes just one automatic qualifier and UT-Chattanooga's Fabian Gutierrez leads the way, though he's only six sports ahead of Campbell's Korbin Meink in the coaches ranking. At 19-11, Meink has three more losses and two more wins that Gutierrez, but he has championship experience after making the tournament last year. These two athletes have faced each twice already this year with Gutierrez taking the sudden victory win in their last battle and Gutierrez also winning 3-2 in their first meeting of the year. Gutierrez also won against Meink in 2019 at the Hokie Open. It's tough to beat a guy you've never stopped until the bright lights, but if Meink can pull off the win and claim a SoCon crown, he sets the Camels up well for qualifying as many men as possible.
At 133 pounds, however, Campbell's Noah Gosner is leading the conference and has been having a sneaky good season at 27-5 with wins over ranked Allan Hart, Tim Rooney, Taylor Lamont and Devan Turner. He's No. 7 in the coaches ranking, and he'll need a conference title to secure his third trip to the NCAA tournament, but he's 23 spots ahead in the coaches ranking of his next foe, Codi Russell of App State. Gosner, Russell, Meink and Gutierrez all know that their teams need them to win, but only two of the four will advance to the national stage through automatic qualification.
Campbell also has the highest-ranked athletes in three of the four other weight classes that only qualify the conference champ including 141 pounds with Josh Heil, 165 pounds with Quentin Perez and 197 pounds with Chris Kober.
Heil is ranked 10th in the coaches rankings and ninth on Intermat, making him not only a threat to win the conference and earn a spot but possibly compete for a chance to battle for All-American honors. Heil qualified for the tournament his freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons, and now has a chance to place.
"He expects to win and he expects to dominate every single guy he wrestles, and I expect him to do the same. We expect him to do the same," coach Mike Evans said in a Campbell Athletics Facebook video interview after Heil's championship performance in Reno. "I've never seen a guy train the way he does, so to have anything less than first would be a shocker."
Perez for his part is 23-6 and ranked No. 16 on Intermat with his only losses against guys ranked ahead of him. His best wins came against No. 19 Philip Conigliaro of Harvard in a dual and against No. 13 Kennedy Monday in the Southeast Open in November by fall. Perez will look to qualify for third time and close out his career in Minneapolis along with his teammates.
The SoCon will also only take one rep at 197 pounds, and while the conference does not have a single rep in the Top 33 of the caoches ranking or the RPI rankings, Chris Kober does top the FloWrestling rankings for the conference and will be the favorite to win the bracket, if he wrestles to seed.
The Camels also lead at 184 pounds with Andrew Morgan and 285 pounds with Jere Heino, both weights where the conference will take two automatic qualifiers. Neither Morgan nor Heino, who come into the tournament with records of 26-6 and 21-4 respectively, need to win, but they're ranked high enough nationally at No. 9 and No. 12 that they should have confidence as they prepared to wrestle for a ticket to the big stage.
The key for Campbell to qualify all ten weights will be a win at 125 pounds and a win at 157 pounds along with two top-two finishes at 149 and 174 pounds.
At 149, the conference will take two automatic qualifiers and freshman Jason Kraisser, who has 10 pins on the year, is ranked third behind John Millner and Tanner Smith of App State and Chattanooga. Kraisser is not on the RPI rankings, while Millner and Smith are, so he'll need to steal a spot.
The Camels are in a similar spot at 157 pounds where only Matt Zovistoski of Appalachian State is ranked in the RPI, and only one guy will take the auto spot in this weight. Matthew Dallara of Campbell is ranked second in the weight class, however, he did take a major decision loss to Zovistoski last weekend. The 157-pound weight class could be the most difficult for the Camels, but a second-place finish doesn't automatically mean that Dallara would be out, rather just that he would have to wait and hope for a wild card spot if he can't beat Zovistoski.
The Camels 174-pound wrestler is currently ranked third, one rank out of what would be an automatic qualifying spot. Neal Richards of VMI leads the way for the conference at that weight with his No. 20 ranking nationally on Intermat while Thomas Flitz of App State is second, squeezing into the Top 33 of the coaches rankings. Austin Kraisser is currently third in the conference with a 21-7 record, but he'll need to be top-two to keep his season alive.
There's a possibility that Campbell doesn't automatically qualify any of the team's ten wrestlers, but there's an equal possibility that the team qualifies all ten.
Big Ten powerhouses Penn State and Ohio State may be missing some point-scorers in Minneapolis
Ohio State was the only team to qualify all ten weights last year, but the Buckeyes currently have three athletes outside the automatic qualifier spots at 125, 133 and 157 pounds in this year's rankings.
Sophomore 2019 national qualifier Malik Heinselman is a No. 11 pre-seed in the tournament, ahead of only Michigan State's Logan Griffin, Maryland's Brandon Cray, Penn State's Brandon Meredith. The Buckeye lightweight earned an automatic qualification last year with a ninth-place finish, but only eight wrestlers qualify automatically this year, putting Heinselman three spots away from that auto spot. If Heinselman is seeded as he's ranked at No. 12, he'll face No. 6 Michael DeAugustino of Northwestern who has been having a stellar season but took a 6-2 loss to Heinselman last season. A win here would put him against the No. 3 seed, assuming No. 3 beat No. 14, creating a matchup against Patrick McKee of Minnesota. McKee beat Heinselman 5-1 this year, and a loss would drop Heinselman down to the consolation bracket where he would wrestle Liam Cronin if everything went according to seed. Cronin has been having a stellar season but has not yet wrestled Heinselman in college. There's a path for the Buckeye to qualify for his second tournament, but he needs to beat everyone that he's supposed to beat and upset one or two guys along the way.
Ohio State's Jordan Decatur is another interesting wrestler, pre-seeded 14th out of 14 in the conference after a loss to Maryland's King Sandoval but also ranked No. 31 in the coaches rankings. If Decatur's seed follows his ranking, he'll have the most difficult path to qualify automatically for the NCAA tournament, as he'll likely face the No. 3 seed right away. The seeding isn't set for the tournament, particularly at 133 pounds, so it's difficult to predict who Decatur may face in this first match, but his path to an auto bid would be on the backside of the bracket. Decatur does not have a conference win against a Big Ten starter, but this would be his time to pick up his first.
The last Buckeye ranked outside of the automatic qualifier rankings is Elijah Cleary, a wrestler who earned his starting spot last weekend at the Mat Town Open II by beating out fellow potential starter Quinn Kinner 4-2.
The win against Kinner stands out as Cleary's best of the year and comes just a few weeks after Kinner took down Brady Berge of Penn State. While Berge likely won't get the start for the Nittany Lions given his injury, the win was still a solid one for Kinner and makes Cleary an even more dangerous threat given his success against his teammate Kinner. The Big Ten has six automatic allocations at 157 pounds, so Cleary's eleventh-place ranking in the conference based on the coaches ranking will require him to pull off an upset to secure a ticket next weekend to the national tournament. If Clearly earns the eleventh seed in the final bracket, he'll wrestle Jake Tucker of Michigan State first, an athlete he's wrestled just once before in college and lost 2-1. This previous result, however, suggest that Cleary can keep things close. A win for Cleary would put him against the No. 3 seed next, projected to be Kendall Coleman of Purdue. Cleary has never wrestled Coleman, but the Boilermaker has a tough 26-7 record and is a formidable opponent. Like Decatur and Heinselman, Cleary is still in this fight, but he needs to wrestle at his peak for multiple matches to punch his ticket to Minneapolis. The Buckeyes will certainly have their eyes on their veteran competitor to see if he can help fill out the team lineup at nationals next month.
If all of the Buckeyes are seeded based on their ranking, and all ten athletes wrestle to seed, the team will qualify seven of the 10 weight classes, as will Minnesota and Northwestern. Nebraska is expected to qualify all of its weights except for 125 pounds; Iowa, on the other hand is the only team with all ten starters ranked higher than the automatic-qualifier cutoff in each weight.
The defending national champions Penn State have eight of its ten starters in automatic-qualifying position with the only two weights outside of this range being 125 pounds and 157 pounds.
Penn State has struggled at 125 pounds for the last few seasons, with last year's starter Devin Schnupp failing to qualify for the national tournament, and this year's starter Brandon Meredith ranked last in the conference.
The team didn't need 125 pounds last year to win a title, but now it looks like they might also struggle at 157 pounds which could pose a problem.
With Junior World Team member Brady Berge out with a concussion, Bo Pipher is expected to the man for Penn State at this weight and will come into the tournament with a 3-6 conference record and a 9-11 overall record. The new 157-pound starter has Big Ten wins over Jahi Jones, Tyler Meisinger and Fernie Silva, and is pre-seeded as No. 13. Penn State will need some magic from Pipher to qualify the weight, but anything can happen.
Both the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions, however, do have new starting heavyweights that could sneak in if they wrestle to seed as Gary Traub of Ohio State is pre-seeded sixth and Seth Nevills of Penn State is pre-seeded seventh.
The conference tournaments always yield unexpected results, and while we can predict, theorize and analyze potential brackets and seeds all day long, the only thing we know for sure is that 283 athletes will secure their trips to the national tournament next weekend.