After a 2021 NCAA tournament defined by three intense, momentum-building sudden victory championship finals, it’s only appropriate that the NCAA would spend time evaluating overtime rules to make sure that this intensity and excitement continued to be on display in the years to come. Overtime NCAA finals are not unheard of, but the number of matches in 2021 that went into extra time matched the total number of overtime finals for the last five years combined. The result of the extra time rules evaluation led to one major change: a two-minute sudden victory overtime period.
But what does this new rule mean for athletes, and how might it have have influenced the 2021 results? Let’s break it down.
OVERTIME UPDATE: NCAA proposes new overtime rules
The NCAA 2020-2021 rules stated that any match tied after regulation would go to “the first round of overtime,” which included a “sudden-victory period of one minute with no rest between the regular match and the sudden-victory period” with both wrestlers starting in a neutral position. The first wrestler to score would win.
All three of the championship finals that required extra time were settled in this first sudden victory period, with the fastest win coming from Carter Starocci who took Michael Kemerer of Iowa down in the first 10 seconds of sudden victory for the win. Teammate Nick Lee also settled his match against Jaydin Eierman pretty quickly, taking down the Hawkeye within 15 seconds of the start of the sudden victory period, while fellow Penn State champion Roman Bravo-Young earned his winning takedown 39 seconds into extra time.
Had any of these wrestlers been tied after the first minute of sudden victory, they would enter two thirty-second tiebreaker periods, with each wrestler selecting their position to start one of the two tiebreaker sessions. The wrestlers with the most points after the tiebreaker would win, unless the score was still tied, at which point a second sudden victory minute would begin in neutral, followed by another round of tiebreakers if the score remained tied. The athlete with the most amount of riding time after the second tiebreaker would be considered a winner. If no wrestler had a riding time advantage, this pattern of sudden victory and tiebreakers would continue until a winner was declared.
This process, however, will change dramatically this season. The new NCAA overtime rules extended the length of the first sudden victory period to two minutes, creating more suspense. Any wrestler who scores during that sudden victory period is the winner. Matches tied at the end of the first two-minute sudden victory will go to the same tiebreaker pattern of two thirty-second periods. Any wrestler with a riding time advantage, even a second of riding time advantage, will be declared the winner after the first tiebreaker, if neither wrestler scores a point. However, if the score is still tied after the tiebreaker and neither wrestler has a riding time advantage, the match will move forward with one minute of sudden victory, and if necessary, another round of tiebreakers. The goal of the first two-minute sudden victory period, however, is to limit the number of matches that advance to tiebreakers to build up the energy earlier in the match. The new rules also require wrestlers to leverage their gas tanks. This is a test of endurance.
While this new rule may extend some matches, it's unlikely that a match, particularly an NCAA tournament match, will be as long and drawn out as one the longest college wrestling match in recent history that occurred on January 14, 2019 when Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix met Rutgers’ Nick Suriano for the third time. These two gritty 133-pounders wrestled to a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation, leading to a scoreless sudden victory, a 2-2 score after the first tiebreaker, and another scoreless second sudden victory. Fix ultimately prevailed after a penalty call against Surino, but the 32:12 match will forever be legendary. These two athletes also battled it out in the 2019 NCAA finals, and again went into extra time, with Suriano winning that one in a second sudden victory.
Of the 57 matches from the 2021 tournament that went into extra time, 37 ended in the first minute of sudden victory. None, of course, took as long, time-wise, as that 2019 Suriano and Fix bout. Fourteen matches during the 2021 tournament ended after the first round of tiebreakers, while three matches proceeded to the second sudden victory. Three more matches needed a second round of tiebreakers before declaring a winner.
Looking back at 20 matches that went beyond the first sudden victory, let’s start with those settled in the first tiebreaker round. These are the matches that would have been most impacted by the new rules, had they been in place in 2020-21, because these are the matches that were settled within two minutes of extra time.
Breaking the tie: The potential impact of a two-minute sudden victory in TB-1 matches
Three of the 14 TB-1 matches in the 2021 NCAA championships occurred in the Blood Round and impacted All-American ranks, including Lucas Byrd's 6-2 win over Mickey Phillipi at 133 pounds, Zach Sherman's 2-1 victory over Dom Demas 2-1 at 141 pounds and Jaden Abas' win over Max Murin by the same score at 149 pounds.
Abas' match in particular, a match defined by escapes, is a fun one to play out hypothetically under the revised overtimes rule, given that neither wrestler in this match scored an offensive point. Murin and Abas each picked up an escape point in the second and third periods respectively in this Blood Round battle, and Abas added an escape point in the first tiebreaker and rode out Murin for the win. Sherman's and Demas' match actually followed a similar pattern, with both wrestlers earning escapes in regulation and Sherman escaping and riding out Demas in the first tiebreaker to earn a spot on the podium.
Under new rules, Sherman, Demas, Abas and Murin along with Bryd and Phillipi would have had to wrestle from neutral for another minute before having the chance to go to tiebreakers. Byrd explained in a press conference after the tournament that competing in an overtime match in the Blood Round was particularly stressful and created added nerves because that's the round where “boys go to die, and where men come out on the other side.” However, tiebreakers give the wrestlers a little more space to breathe because they have an opportunity to be more strategic in their efforts to escape and ride-out their opponents during the two thirty-second segments. A two-minute sudden victory period, on the other hand, will now extended the ferociousness of that opening extra time period, creating more urgency.
Would one of these guys have made a move for a takedown in such a situation? How would the other athlete have defended such an attack in a more fatigued state? We'll never know, but this is the kind of high-stakes situation that will be fascinating to watch in the extended sudden victory period.
Five additional TB-1 matches from the 2021 NCAA tournament were determined by escapes, with one of them coming in the Round of 16, one in the quarterfinals and three in the semifinals. Austin O'Connor, much like his teammate Sherman, pulled out a 2-1 win over Missouri's Brock Mauller by picking up the lone escape in the tiebreaker and using that momentum to advance to, and win, the national finals.
Brandon Courtney and Trent Hidlay joined O'Connor as finalists who earned their spot in the Saturday night match through escapes in TB-1, though neither wrestler ultimately converted that opportunity into a national championship like O'Connor.
While all of these matches had significant impacts on the tournament and the standings, perhaps the craziest tiebreaker match that would almost unquestionably have been impacted by a two-minute sudden victory was the 7-6 decision win for Boo Lewallen over Dean Heil in the second round of the tournament. At the end of regulation in this match, the two wrestlers were tied 4-4 after a takedown and two escapes each, and the sequences of events at the end of this match actually led to a second NCAA wrestling rule change about clock stoppage, but, the match is also noteworthy in a discussion of overtime structure.
Both athletes went scoreless in sudden victory, but Heil, whose effort and grit in this match will not be forgotten despite the outcome, picked up a reversal in the first tiebreaker to greatly shift the momentum in this part of extra time. He benefited from being able to start that first tiebreaker in the down position, and it's certainly unclear whether he could have been able to pull off something similar if he had to wrestle from neutral in sudden victory for another minute, as the new rules would require. Regardless, under last year's rules, Lewallen then had a chance to start in the down position for the last 30-second tiebreaker, and he too executed big points, escaping from Heil and fighting for a takedown, nearly picking up two points. Despite a challenge from the Oklahoma State coaches, Lewallen did not earn the takedown but attempted to score another takedown in the last seven seconds of the match. Heil fought him off, but a clock error forced a restart, giving Lewallen another chance, one that he capitalized on for the winning takedown that allowed him to stay alive in the tournament and ultimately achieve All-American honors.
The rules of overtime matter without a doubt, and these TB-1 matches prove that.
Sudden death: How the new rules could change the second sudden victory period
While most of the matches that went into extra time were settled in the first minute of sudden victory or the first round of tiebreakers, three of these matches extended into a second sudden victory, forcing the wrestlers back on their feet to fight from neutral again.
To set the scene, under the old rules, these two athletes, at this point in a match, are exhausted. They've been competing on the national stage for eight minutes in what was, in the case of two of these matches, not the first bout of a long tournament. Parker Keckeisen, Northern Iowa's third-place true freshman at 184 pounds, mentioned the challenge of competing in these marathon matches in such an intense tournament, but he said he was ready for the difficulty of extra time.
"I've been in those deep waters all the time, coach puts us in those situations, so I was prepared, ready," Keckeisen said in the press conference after his 4-2 quarterfinal win over Hunter Bolen in SV-2. "We were hanging in collar ties, and I heard him breathing heavy, so I'm like 'it's time to go,' when I felt an opportunity snapping my hand off, moving my feet, and I think I just got to a double, and I don't know, I blacked out for a little bit there."
Keckeisen and Bolen were tied 1-1 at 184 pounds after regulation and stayed tied after each picked up an escape point in tiebreakers, but Keckeisen scored a takedown with a double leg in the second sudden victory. The new rules wouldn't require Keckeisen and Bolen to deal with those tiebreakers first; Keckeisen could have taken his time in neutral and launched into that double leg without interruption during a now two-minute initial sudden victory.
Rocky Elam and Myles Amine fought through a similar situation, as both wrestlers came into their SV-2 consolation semifinals with several matches and having already achieved All-American honors but wanting more. Fatigue from previous bouts didn't slow either wrestler, and their action and effort in regulation put the score at 5-5 heading into sudden victory, a score representative of a high-paced match. The scoring slowed in the first sudden victory period though, and both wrestlers were still tied up 5-5 heading into tiebreakers. Escapes from Amine and Elam in tiebreakers led them into sudden victory round two, when Amine nearly needed the entire minute to secure his takedown. Ultimately, a shot with 10 seconds left turned into a takedown and the Wolverine picked up the win 8-6.
Amine would go on to wrestle for third, while Elam finished fifth, and while neither wrestler addressed the overtime challenge in their medal-round interviews, the length of this match was certainly memorable. This year's rules would mean that Amine and Elam, like Bolen and Keckeisen, would go straight from the scoreless first minute of sudden victory into the second, and, in a match like this, that difference is interesting to explore. Did the tiebreaker help Amine figure out something new in terms of how to take down Elam? Or did those two 30-second tiebreakers just wear out the wrestlers and slow their pace in the second sudden victory? These questions didn't matter in 2021 because the old rules dictated the pace of the match, but this new plan for continuous two-minute sudden victory could be impactful.
Tiebreaker intensity: How TB-2 matches could have been affected by the new OT rules
The three longest matches in the 2021 NCAA tournament were settled in a second round of tiebreakers with Jake Logan, Jacob Wright and Killian Cardinale all earning victories in this fashion. Cardinale's match, much like the three TB-1 Blood Round matches, helped him earn All-American honors, as he topped NC State's Jacob Camacho 6-5 after riding out the Wolfpack wrestler for the entire thirty seconds of the second tiebreaker. Wright, on the other hand, picked up his win in the second round of the 157 pound bracket while Logan battled through extra time in the first round of the consolation bracket.
Wright earns extra credit for his perseverance in the tournament as he followed his TB-2 win against Thomas with a second overtime win again Johnny Lovett in TB-1. His match against Thomas in particular was a rematch of a Big 12 conference tournament battle where he reversed the outcome of his 8-2 loss against the Sooner with a dramatic riding time win in TB-2.
Each wrestler went scoreless in the first sudden victory period of this match, then both picked up an escape in the first tiebreaker and failed to secure a takedown in the second sudden victory period. Wright rode Thomas for 19 seconds before Thomas escaped in the second tiebreaker, and Thomas managed to only hold Wright down for 15 seconds during his change in the top position. This four second difference changed the outcome of the match, giving Wright the edge. With an extended sudden victory, maybe one of the two wrestlers could have finished this bout earlier, but, even if that wasn't the case, the new rules would also mean that any wrestler with a riding time advantage after the first tiebreaker would be the winner, preventing this match from needing a second tiebreaker to the settle the score.
Will wrestlers miss the old rules? Will the new rules have a substantial effect on the kinds of matches wrestled in the 2022 NCAA tournament? The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but the procedure for settling close matches will certainly be different, and athletes will need to be ready.