While most conferences have wrapped up dual competition for the year, a few key Big Ten and Big 12 battles remain, including the always intense Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry and the return of the Iowa Hawkeyes against the Wisconsin Badgers. Here's a complete preview of all of the elite action that will be expected this weekend.
1. It's another rivalry weekend for the Ohio State Buckeyes
After dropping a tight dual to Michigan last weekend, Ohio State is back in action against the No. 2 Nittany Lions, a team that jumped a spot in the rankings after beating the same Michigan team Ohio State took a loss to. This weekend, these two Big Ten powerhouse programs will face each other in the Covelli Center in Columbus in a classic conference rivalry dual, and both lineups will be full of starpower.
For Ohio State sophomore Sammy Sasso, the dual is the only competition standing between him and his first undefeated dual season. Sasso comes into his match 8-0 on the year with 50 percent bonus, and with the exception of a tight 7-6 win over Michigan State's Peyton Omani, Sasso has been just absolutely dominant.
The 149-pound weight class has been an unpredictable one for Penn State with three wrestlers competing in the spot this year, but Terrell Barraclough has had the last couple of starts and earned a No. 20 ranking nationally, so he'll be expected to be the guy to take on Sasso.
Barraclough's toughness and skill are underrated, but Sasso is the best of the best in the conference this year. He'll likely take a bonus win here, and that's the kind of performance Ohio State will need to hang with Penn State. The Bucks dropped 20-16 in last year's dual after splitting the match wins 5-5 and losing because of bonus points. They'll want to avoid the same outcome this time.
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Sasso vs. Barraclough is one of five ranked matches in this dual, with the others coming at 165, 174, 184 and 285 pounds.
One non-ranked match that is of particular intrigue though is 125 pounds where Penn State's Robbie Howard will take on Ohio State's No. 10 Malik Heinselman. Howard recently topped Jack Medley of Michigan in a tough 6-5 decision, and Heinselman will be another test for the young Lion. This match could also have major Big Ten Tournament seeding implications as Howard has just one starting match on the year and needs to continue to prove himself in the conference, while Heinselman is 6-1 on the year with his only loss coming against No. 14 Devin Schroder 3-1.
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The Penn State lineup is young across the board. Both Barraclough and Howard are freshmen, and their teammates Joe Lee, Carter Starocci and Michael Beard are also competing in the Big Ten for the first time as starters.
Starocci's match against Ohio State's Kaleb Romero will be perhaps the biggest match of the night, with Starocci holding a No. 5 ranking and most recently beating Michigan's Logan Massa, and Romero coming into the dual as the No. 3-ranked guy with a 5-1 record. Romero will be the favorite on paper given that Starocci has an early-season loss to DJ Washington of Indiana, but Starocci is still a little unpredictable and could give Romero more than he's expected.
Joe Lee is a similar case of unknown potential. The Penn State rookie comes into the dual 3-1 with his only loss to Cam Amine, and he'll face No. 10 Ethan Smith of Ohio State who beat Amine two days before Lee lost. Smith has wrestled tough and competitive all year, and he'll need to win over Lee if he wants to give the Bucks an edge here, but, despite the Amine loss, Lee isn't a wrestler to write off.
The dual will also feature top-ten ranked wrestlers Roman Bravo-Young and Nick Lee of Penn State at 133 and 141 pounds, as well Penn State's No. 8 Brady Berge and No. 8 Seth Nevills at 157 and 285 pounds.
Aaron Brooks at 184 pounds will be one of Penn State's title contenders in March as well, as he currently holds down the No. 2 spot.
Penn State is favored in six of the ten matches, but bonus points will matter, and this dual is expected to be close again. The Nittany Lions will also take on the Terps later in the weekend in College Park in a match that will be expected to skew even more in favor of Penn State.
2. Will we see Stevan Micic?
When Michigan wrestled both Ohio State and Penn State last weekend, the Wolverines were missing a key part of their lineup: Stevan Micic.
The three-time All-American, NCAA finalist and Olympic representative for Serbia has been out so far this season with an injury, but he's listed as a probable for the Wolverines at 133 pounds for the first time in 2021. If he gets the start, he’ll likely take on Jacob Rundell of Michigan State who is solid, but has a 1-4 record so far in the Big Ten. Micic holds down the No. 2 ranking in Intermat and is a title favorite at the weight if he returns, though he hasn't wrestled a folkstyle match since March 2019. He’ll need four matches to be eligible for a wild card, and if he doesn’t pick up four matches before the NCAA tournament, he’ll need to win the conference.
The 133-pound weight class has been historically strong over the last five years, with the likes of Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young and Austin DeSanto being consistent top performers in the Big Ten. This year, Daton Fix of Oklahoma State will also be in the national mix, but Micic won't see him at the Big Ten tournament. A win at the conference tournament would secure his ticket to the NCAA tournament in St. Louis and perhaps also give him a top seed for that same tournament, but much remains to be seen. A Michigan lineup with Micic is a far stronger one than a lineup without him, and if he takes the mat this weekend, expect big things.
3. Iowa is back
After a pause in athletic activities following duals against Ohio State and Purdue, the No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes are back in action, taking on the Wisconsin Badgers this weekend. The dual will be on the Big Ten Network at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday. Neither team has released probable lineups for the dual, but if everyone wrestles, we'll see three ranked matchups between these two Big Ten teams.
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Leading the way for the Hawks is two-time NCAA Champion and Hodge Trophy winner Spencer Lee, but Lee isn't the only top-ranked Hawkeye. The Coaches' Rankings also has 141-pound Jaydin Eierman, 165-pound Alex Marinelli and 174-pound Michael Kemerer ranked at the top of their respective weight classes. Lee will be the only one of these four to see a ranked opponent against the Badgers as he'll take on No. 12 Eric Barnett who has had an impressive couple of weeks and is on a five-match winning streak. The problem for Barnett though is that Lee is also on a streak, and his streak involves four first-period pins in four matches. Lee pinned No. 9 Liam Cronin, No. 15 Pat McKee, Brady Koontz and Justin Cardani, and Cardani was one of Barnett's only two losses on the year. Barnett's tough, but Lee's a different kind of wrestler. These two have never wrestled in college, so this will be Barnett's first chance against the champ as Lee aims to continue his dominant season. Will Barnett be the first person to take Lee into the second period?
Lee's teammate heavyweight Tony Cassioppi is also on quite the pinning streak of his own, picking up second-period falls against No. 10 Luke Luffman, No. 16 Tate Orndorff, and Dorian Keys of Purude. He'll face No. 12 Trent Hillger this weekend if both athletes are healthy, and Cassioppi is 3-0 against Hillger in his career with two decisions and a medical forfeit.
Hillger has wrestled both of those decisions tough, losing 3-2 and 4-0, and while Hillger has had an up-and-down season so far, he has a chance to keep things tight with Cassioppi again and push for an upset.
Cassioppi has just one loss on the year to Gable Steveson of Minnesota in major decision fashion, and, Steveson and Michigan's Mason Parris are the only two people to have beaten Cassioppi since he took over the starting spot for the Hawkeyes in 2019.
Iowa is expected to win nine of the ten matchups on paper, including heavyweight, but if the Badgers are looking for a winnable upset, they might be targeting heavyweight, though Cassioppi has a history of preventing those upsets from happening.
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Perhaps the most interesting match of the dual will be at 184 pounds where Wisconsin has No. 7 Chris Weiler and Iowa has options. The Hawks have wrestled No. 15 Nelson Brands in the five team duals so far, but Brands has two losses now to Zac Braunagel and Max Lyon, holding a 3-2 record. He's never wrestled Weiler, who is 4-2 on the year with losses to Aaron Brooks and Rocky Jordan, but if Brands can pick up a top-ten win here, he can put himself in good position heading into the Big Ten tournament.
Brands has a win over Jordan, but Weiler has a win over Lyon, creating a fun battle on Sunday between Brands and Weiler if they take the mat. Iowa also has 184-pounder Abe Assad on the bench, though it's unlikely that Assad will get the nod with the Big Ten tournament looming right around the corner and match count critical. This is the only weight where Wisconsin is favored, and if Brands pulls off the upset, the Badgers face the threat of a shutout.
Every wrestler in the Hawks lineup is ranked in the top-15 in the country, with nine of the ten athletes in the top ten and eight of the ten in the top five. This is an Iowa team that is chasing a title this season, and Wisconsin will be the last dual team to see Iowa before the Black and Gold chase their first NCAA tournament title in over a decade.
4. Bedlam is back too
It’s Bedlam…again! The Oklahoma Sooners will travel to Stillwater for their second dual against the Cowboys this season, but a few things will be different this time, most notably the return of No. 1-ranked Daton Fix for Oklahoma State. The Cowboys topped the Sooners 24-10 without their star 133-pounder and now that Fix is back in the lineup, expect Oklahoma State to put even more points against their rival.
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Oklahoma has just four ranked wrestlers, three of whom will compete against ranked Cowboys with No. 6 Dom Demas being the lone Sooner without a top-20 opponent now that Kaid Brock is out with a knee injury and Dusty Hone is battling injuries of his own. Hone could see action against Demas, but he hasn’t been able to put up enough quality wins so far this season to crack the rankings just yet and may not be as tough a bout for Demas as he could be in a couple of weeks.
In the three ranked bouts, Oklahoma State is favored in two of them with both No. 4 Boo Lewallen and No. 12 AJ Ferrari having the edge over No. 18 Mitch Moore and No. 15 Jake Woodley on paper. Lewallen beat Moore 4-0 earlier this season in their only collegiate meeting, while Ferrari has a similar tight decision in 3-2 fashion over Woodley in their lone battle. Lewallen has just one loss on the season after a tight overtime loss to Brock Mauller of Missouri in the Cowboy Challenge but is absolutely still a title contender. Moore’s only two losses have been to Lewallen and Stanford’s Jaden Abas, but he didn’t compete in the Cowboy Challenge. This match will be a fun one. So will the whole dual, but like the team race, the edge here, at least for now, belongs to Lewallen and the Cowboys.
Ferrari also comes into this second match with only one loss on his season to Noah Adams of West Virginia by the same 3-2 score that he beat Woodley by, while his Sooner opponent has a 5-4 record following losses to Ferrari as well as Kordell Norfleet, Adams and Tanner Sloan. Woodley’s historically been tough, but he’ll need to find a new level if he wants to reverse the outcome of his match against the Cowboy freshman.
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Oklahoma State will compete another undefeated Big 12 season with a win over Oklahoma, and the Cowboys will be able to add another win to the Bedlam rivalry, but regardless of how lopsided or not this score may be, it’s always fun to watch these Oklahoma programs do battle.
5. The ranked matches for other top competitors across the Big Ten
The 141-pound weight class nationally is one of great interest with returning All-American Jaydin Eierman of Iowa, Nick Lee of Penn State and Sebastian Rivera of Rutgers leading the way.
Different rankers have different athletes on top of the weight class, with the NCAA Coaches Ranking ordering the athletes in the following way: No. 1 Jaydin Eierman, No. 2 Nick Lee and No. 3 Sebastian Rivera. However, Rivera has been underestimated before, twice in the 2018-2019 season against Spencer Lee and again in the 2020 Big Ten tournament in a field that included Roman Bravo-Young, Seth Gross and Austin DeSanto. In all of those cases, Rivera rose to the occasion, so to count him out again seems risky. Regardless of his ranking though, Rivera puts on a show, and he'll be front and center this weekend for Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights take on Maryland tonight.
Last season, Rivera made his return from injury with a pin against the Terps in College Park, and he'll look to put the same kind of exclamation mark on his dual season in this bout. He'll be expected to face Danny Bertoni of Maryland who is 2-5 on the year and has never wrestled Rivera. Watch for the two-time Big Ten champ in Rivera to come out quick and try to end the match early and put up bonus team points.
Rivera's former Northwestern teammate Ryan Deakin is also expected to take the mat this weekend as the top-ranked 157-pounder, and he'll wrestle No. 6 Brayton Lee of the Golden Gophers in what might be one of the biggest matchups if the weekend, if both guys compete. Lee wrestled down at 149 pounds last year, so he's never wrestled Deakin, but the Northwestern Big Ten champion ran through everyone in his weight in 2020 and is 2-0 so far on this season. Lee has also had an impressive season, dropping only one bout to No. 5 Kaleb Young in extra time. If Lee can hang with Deakin, he can be a title contender at the weight.
The Minnesota vs. Northwestern dual will also showcase Minnesota's top-ranked heavyweight and title contender Gable Steveson. Like Spencer Lee, Steveson has bonused every single competitor he's faced this year and has pinned his last two opponents in the first 4 minutes of the match. If Steveson wrestles Northwestern's 1-3 Jack Heyob, he'll be expected to keep his bonus streak going. In fact, if Gable Steveson wrestles anybody except Mason Parris of Michigan, he'll be expected to keep his bonus streak going. Given Steveson's confidence and swagger too, he's no doubt expecting to run through every match and every bracket for the rest of the season, no exceptions.
Last but not least, Nebraska's No. 1 197-pounder Eric Schultz will also be in action this weekend against Illinois, though he won't have a ranked competitor from the Fighting Illini. Matt Wroblewski has been the starter for the Illinois so far this season, posting a 5-2 record with his only losses to Jacob Warner and Thomas Penola, the former of which Schultz beat this year 3-2. Schultz is aiming for his first Big Ten and NCAA title this year as the top-ranked guy at the weight, and Wroblewsk will be his last bout before those tournament opportunities present themselves.
This weekend will feature such talent nationally from Spencer Lee to Daton Fix to Gable Steveson and beyond, so while there may not be as many duals as normal, the quality of the duals will be top notch.