Most of the top ten teams in the country will strap on their headgear and take to the mats this week, and three of those top teams hail from the same conference.
No. 1 Iowa, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 10 Illinois will headline this weekend of college wrestling, with all three expected to walk away with dominant wins, but there’s far more intrigue than the rankings might suggest. How do the lineups of these teams look four weeks into an unusual, COVID-shortened season? How are these teams managing illness and injury? Is it too early to start predicting NCAA All-Americans?
The first few weeks of the season have shown that anything can happen, and here are some more of the biggest questions heading into this particular weekend that have championship implications.
1. Will Iowa run through Minnesota like the Hawks did against Nebraska?
Dominate. Score points. Win titles. That’s the Iowa mindset, and that mindset was on full display last Friday when the Hawkeyes took down the Huskers 31-6 with no mercy, picking up bonus points in four matches. Yet, the first thing that head coach Tom Brands said in his press conference Tuesday after the dual was this: “We still lost two matches, and you know you look at that dual meet, we could have won every weight class, and that’s really how you look at things. It was a dominating performance, but we’re going to see that team again, and so we’ve got to get better coming up here, going into Minnesota.”
As the Hawkeyes travel to Minnesota for a battle with the No. 15 Gophers, Brands is thinking about those two matches, and he’s thinking about the three weights — 157, 133, 285 — where several of his stars with take on Minnesota’s ranked leaders, Brayton Lee, Boo Dryden and Gable Steveson. If all of Brands’ starters wrestle, two of those duals, heavyweight and 157 pounds are the only two matches that could threaten the Hawks chance for a shutout if all wrestlers compete to their rank.
Minnesota’s 157-pound sophomore Brayton Lee is just one spot ahead of Iowa’s Kaleb Young in the rankings and had a better showing at the Big Ten tournament, but this is the first time that the two will face off in college. Lee has won his first three matches since moving up from 149 pounds last year, but Friday will mark his first test. Young, despite finishing his season on three losses last year, started 2021 with a major decision in his return, and he’s 3-0 against Gopher wrestlers in his career. If Young can win this one, he’ll help himself in the rankings, but he’ll show the rest of the weight class that he’s here for gold. A loss at 157 for Iowa likely won’t determine the outcome at the dual, but after Brands’ comments earlier in the week, it’s clear he’s here to do more than just win.
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The bigger challenge though that could hold Iowa back from winning 10-of-10 bouts on Friday is heavyweight Gable Steveson. The junior Gopher finished last year 15-0 as a Hodge finalist, and he had the No. 1 seed heading into the 2020 tournament. Facing the giant will be Iowa’s No. 3 Tony Cassioppi who lost 7-5 and 9-4 last season against Steveson.
Brands, however, reassured fans of his faith in Cassioppi and his ability to battle top-ranked Steveson, “I believe in our guy,” Brands said. He noted Steveson’s toughness and persistence, and he knows Cassioppi has “nothing to lose” in the upcoming battle. He’s right. Cassioppi has nothing to lose, and, again, the dual won’t likely be riding on his performance. Iowa needs to show up and be Iowa, and if they do that, the question will just be how dominant they can wrestle.
2. Will we see additional No. 1-ranked wrestlers Austin O’Connor, Ryan Deakin and Mekhi Lewis make their conference debut this weekend?
North Carolina, Northwestern and Virginia Tech have all dipped their toe into the 2021 wrestling season, but we have yet to see stars Mekhi Lewis, Austin O’Connor and Ryan Deakin face tests within their own conference.
Lewis, who won the 2019 NCAA championships at 165 pounds, took an Olympic redshirt last year but is back for his sophomore season with the Hokies and looking to win a second title. The young champ is 4-0 on the year with wins over Colt Yinger of Ohio, James Limongi of Kent State, Jack Ervien of Campbell and Austin Kraisser of Campbell, all of whom Lewis handled with bonus points. He’ll see No. 15 Jake Keating of Virginia this week, giving him his first ranked test and one that he’ll be expected to pass with flying colors. Lewis’ biggest challenger in the conference is No. 7 Jake Wentzel of Pitt who he’ll meet on Feb. 12, but assessing how Lewis does against Keating could offer an indication of his likeness to compete for the Hodge Trophy and his skill level against mid-ranked talent. Virginia Tech fans want to see a major, so eyes will be on Lewis and his point-scoring abilities against the Cavaliers.
Also in the ACC set to make his conference debut this weekend is No. 1-ranked Austin O’Connor of North Carolina who finished third in 2019 and was seeded No. 2 heading into the 2020 tournament at 149 pounds. O’Connor is a force ready to rumble, and he’ll have No. 19 Josh Finesilver, the brother of his 2019 ACC rival Mitch Finesilver, this weekend in North Carolina’s dual against Duke. O’Connor’s only dual this year so far was a first-minute pin against Jacson Muldrew of Garder-Webb, so this weekend will offer a little more indication of where he’s at as well.
Ryan Deakin, a Northwestern senior, is a Big Ten star yet to make debut, and the tri-meet against Maryland and Nebraska would be a good chance for him to shake off the rust. Deakin went 21-0 last year, earned the No. 1 seed heading into the tournament and was a Hodge Finalist, but he hasn’t wrestled collegiately since March. His Wildcats are 0-1 with a loss to Purdue, and while they'll be expected to put up points against the Terps, Northwestern could really use him in the Nebraska dual. If he wrestles in both matches, he’ll be expected to take on 0-2 Caleb Licking of Nebraska and one of three Terps: Michael Doetsch, Lucas Cordio or Garrett Fisk. Deakin is not listed on the list of probable starters for the Maryland dual, and it remains to be seen when the star will emerge.
3. What can we expect from the rest of the Big Ten after last week’s shakeups?
After taking the hard 31-6 loss to Iowa last weekend, Nebraska comes into this weekend fired up and ready for redemption, and the Huskers are on “Domination Watch” as well. The first dual for the Huskers on Saturday will be against Northwestern, where the Wildcats are favored in four bouts featuring a ranked wrestler: 125, 133, 149 and 157. If lightweight Liam Cronin can wrestle the way he did against No. 12 Pat McKee in Nebraska’s opening weekend, he could pull off the upset early and set up even more momentum for his new team, so this should be a fun one from start to finish. The second dual for No. 7 Nebraska is unranked Maryland where the Huskers will be expected to sweep, as the Terps have struggled to win more than a match in any of their first three outings. A 2-0 weekend for Huskers might not be enough to move up in the rankings, but they’ll certainly need convincing wins here to avoid moving down, and they should be able to achieve that goal.
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The Ohio State Buckeyes are also heading into the week seeking to redeem themselves after dropping 18-15 to Illinois last weekend. Their challenge this week? The scrappy and fun Scarlet Knights of Rutgers led by three-time All-American and two-time Big Ten champion Sebastian Rivera. Rutgers has wrestled just one dual — a 26-10 loss to Michigan — but the team looked tough and battled every weight. Rutgers has just two ranked athletes in Rivera and No. 6 Sammy Alvarez at 133 pounds, while the Bucks come into the dual with six guys in the Top 20. The Ohio State lineup, on paper, looks like it should have fared better than it did against Illinois, but this is a new chance and an opportunity to prove themselves to the Big Ten. Ohio State did pick up a win against Wisconsin last weekend to bring some momentum into the dual, and the Badgers themselves will hope to reset their season in a dual against the tough Boilermakers of Purdue on Friday night.
Penn State will once again miss a weekend as a result of COVID-19 and its dual against Michigan State will be postponed. Cael Sanderson’s young squad led by sophomore Big Ten champion Aaron Brooks and Big Ten finalists Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee won’t compete now until its tri-meet on Jan. 30 against Northwestern and Indiana.
4. Can Pittsburgh contend with NC State?
The No. 4 Wolfpack have put up three dominant wins already this year against Gardner-Webb, App State and Virginia. With eight ranked wrestlers set to compete, they should be in for another exciting weekend. Taking on the Pack though will be one of their toughest competitors this year. No. 12 Pittsburgh also brings five ranked athletes and an undefeated record to Reynolds Coliseum. NC State is favored, from a rankings standpoint, in six of the ranked matches in the dual, and the Pack went 6-for-10 in its last matchup against Pittsburgh, begging the question of how much Pitt can close the gap.
If the Panthers want to hang tough with Pat Popolizio and his squad though, they’ll need to win all the matchups they’re favored and then some, starting with 133 pounds. No. 4 Mickey Phillippi, a junior who has an impressive 50-5 record as a starter for the Panthers, will get his first shot at a ranked wrestler this weekend in No. 16 Jarrett Trombley of N.C. State, and he’ll need to win big to keep Pitt in the dual early. In their only collegiate meeting so far, Phillippi notched the win 4-0 over Trombley, and, if NC States’ Jakob Camacho extends his ten-match winning streak at 125 pounds, Phillippi will need a win to even the score and bonus points to give Pitt the edge. The Pack are then favored at 141 pounds with No. 11 Tariq Wilson facing off against No. 14 Cole Matthews in what should be one of the most fun matches of the night. Both Wolfpack stars Hayden and Trent Hidlay at 157 and 184 pounds also have a significant rankings advantage for N.C. State as well, though the younger and bigger Hidlay will have a ranked opponent in No. 16 Gregg Harvey.
Sandwiched between two Hidlays are N.C. State's Bullard Brothers, Thomas and Daniel, with both ranked in the Top 20. Daniel will wrestled unranked, undefeated Jared McGill of Pitt while Thomas has a top-10 opponent in Jake Wentzel. Just like 141, 165 pounds is full of intrigue as Thomas is 2-0 against Wentzel but needs a win here to crack the Top 10. If Hayden Hidlay can come away with big bonus points in his 157-pound bout as expected, Thomas Bullard could ride that wave in his home arena and keep his winning streak against Wentzel alive. But Wentzel's tough, and beat out Virginia Tech alum David McFadden for the ACC title last year, so there's pride on the line as well.
Pitt’s biggest advantage comes at 197 pounds with No. 5 Nino Bonaccorsi, who will likely take on N.C. State’s Nick Reenan, a 3-1 senior with a large upside who has been on and off in his folkstyle career. Bonaccorsi had the No. 10 seed going into NCAAs and is 4-0 on the year with a fall, a tech fall, a major and a decision. Reenan has never wrestled Bonaccorsi in college, as the Pitt junior previously wrestled at 184 pounds, but watching these two veterans do battle should be exciting. Expect Bonaccorsi to come out looking for bonus, and the question will be what kind of a fight Reenan puts up. N.C. State has the chance to end the dual with a win as No. 19 Deonte Wilson closes out the lineup in a dual that leans towards N.C. State on paper. The Pack are a fun team to watch no matter who they are competing against, and the intensity in Reynolds Coliseum in electric, fans or no fans. Be ready for this ACC showdown as Pitt tests itself against the best in the conference.
5. Does Missouri give up any points this weekend?
The Tigers take on Northern Illinois and Ohio this weekend, two unranked teams, and but the Black and Gold haven’t given up more than seven points in any dual this season. In fact, over the last seven duals, the Missouri Tigers have put up 238 team points compared to their opponents' 34. If this was a football team instead of a wrestling team, Brian Smith’s squad would be holding opponents to just over a field goal a game against a series of both unranked and ranked opponents. The growth, improvement and depth of this lineup is unreal, and the Tigers have a true chance to win a team trophy in March.
No. 3 Brock Mauller leads the way individually at 149 pounds where he is an absolute title contender, but he's not the only one in the Top 10. No. 7 Allan Hart is just behind at 141 pounds, and No. 12 Keegan O'Toole and Zach Elam at 165 and 285 pounds are right there are the edge. Jarret Jacques at 157 comes in ranked No. 13 with 197-pounder Rocky Elam and No. 15 while teammates Matt Schmitt and Jeremiah Kent at No. 17. Rounding out the lineup is No. 18-ranked 174 pounder Peyton Mocco and No. 20 Connor Brown at 125. This team has a huge growth potential and the future is bright.
For now though, Missouri is focused on the two duals ahead, and if results tell us anything it’s that this team could hold both of their opponents scoreless this weekend and further distance themselves from the rest of the MAC.
With ten ranked wrestlers from 125 to 285, Missouri has no weak spots, but their biggest threat from ending the weekend without giving up a single point comes from Northern Illinois' Brit Wilson at 184 pounds. Wilson won the MAC championship last year and has just ten losses as a starter for the Huskies. He's majored all three of his opponents so far this year, and he'll take on No. 17 Jeremiah Kent of Missouri this weekend with the goal of keeping his streak alive. Missouri is favored at every other weight in both duals, so while the Tigers will try to shutout both teams, they'll have their hands full at 184 pounds. Be ready for #MACtion at its finest as the Tigers continue their trophy chase.