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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | March 1, 2022

Revisiting Penn State vs. Iowa: Where the top two wrestling teams stand heading into the postseason

Watch all the best action from the 2021 Wrestling Championship finals

Heading into the Big Ten conference tournament, the No. 1 Penn State Nittany Lions and No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes lead the conference and the country, and both of these squads have the potential to take home gold in March. Here's what we know about the Penn State and Iowa lineups heading into the Big Ten tournament and how this team race could play out over the next few weeks.

First, the complete lineups and records for both teams:  

125 No. 9 Drake Ayala (14-4) No. 6 Drew Hildebrandt (8-1)  
133 No. 3 Austin DeSanto (14-2) No. 1 Roman Bravo-Young (14-0)  
141 No. 2 Jaydin Eierman (15-1) No. 1 Nick Lee (14-0)  
149 No. 10 Max Murin (8-2) No. 16 Beau Bartlett (11-6)  
157 No. 9 Kaleb Young (14-5) Brady Berge (5-1)  
165 No. 5 Alex Marinelli (18-1) No. 26 Creighton Edsell (10-3)  
174 No. 5 Michael Kemerer (7-2) No. 1 Carter Starocci (15-0)  
184 No. 18 Abe Assad (10-5) No. 1 Aaron Brooks (14-0)  
197 No. 4 Jacob Warner (13-3) No. 1 Max Dean (15-1)  
285 No. 3 Tony Cassioppi (13-2) No. 5 Greg Kerkvliet (14-1)   

* Rankings based on latest NCAA Coaches rankings 

Rivalries renewed at 141 and 174 pounds

The Nick Lee vs. Jaydin Eierman and Carter Starocci vs. Michael Kemerer rivalries have created so much excitement at these two weight classes and added extra intensity to a team race that is already full of drama and interest. These two pairs will be expected to meet again, though both weight classes are deep and advancing to the Big Ten finals is no sure thing. 

BIG TEN REWIND: Here's how Iowa won the 2021 conference championship 

Last season, Eierman and Kemerer, Iowa's two graduate student veterans and Hawkeye leaders, both beat their Penn State opponents at the 2021 Big Ten championships in regulation, allowing them to earn the No. 1 seeds in their weight class heading into the national tournament. Momentum was on Iowa's side heading into the NCAA tournament, but Penn State knows how to turn things around in their favor.

At 141 pounds, Lee, who fell to Eierman 5-4 in regulation of the Big Ten finals, came into the national tournament with the No. 2 seed while his Iowa foe held down the top spot. The Nittany Lion, though, breezed past all of his opponents including All-Americans Zach Sherman and Sebastian Rivera to earn another shot against Eierman, who had buried all of his opponents as well on the top side. The match stayed tight, with both athletes scoring two points each heading into overtime. And that's when Lee made his move. With Eierman trying to work the Nittany Lion into a body lock, Lee reversed the force to take down the Hawkeye within the first 20 seconds of the overtime period. He was a national champion. 

The same situation played out in nearly identical fashion up at 174 pounds where Kemerer came in as the top seed and Starocci worked his way into the finals from the No. 3 seed to set up the Big Ten rematch. The match, also tied at the end of regulation, rolled into extra time before the Nittany Lion went on the attack and took down Kemerer for his own national title. At the time, Kemerer was considered to be the undisputed favorite to win the 174-pound weight class at the NCAA tournament, as Starocci had taken an early-season loss to DJ Washington that had tempered some fan expectations. But, in the end, Starocci finished the task, became a champ and unseated the undefeated Hawk. 

Kemerer and Eierman would both have their rematch on home turf during the Penn State-Iowa dual this year, and, again, both bouts went into overtime. Again Starocci and Lee prevailed, though Kemerer and Eierman looked just as talented as their competitors and appear primed for a third opportunity against the Nittany Lions. Starocci and Lee still have never won a Big Ten title, and they'll look to correct that this year. Adding to the depth at these two weights are Sebastian Rivera of Rutgers and Chad Red of Nebraska at 141 pounds, as well as Michael Labriola of Nebraska and Logan Massa of Michigan at 174. Any of these athletes could ruin the party for Lee, Eierman, Starocci or Kemerer and complicate these rivalries; in fact, Labriola's win against Kemerer last weekend already dropped Kemerer down in the rankings and puts him, potentially, in the semifinals against Starocci during the Big Ten tournament. 

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Nothing is guaranteed in the Big Ten tournament, but without wins at one or both of these weights, Iowa will struggle to match Penn State's power in the team race. It's fair to call both of these weights coin-flips at this point, given that two of the three contests have needed extra time and been won by the narrowest of margins, so get ready for some intense, tight matches at 141 and 174. 

Penn State will depend on its champs on the quest for a Big Ten title

In addition to Nick Lee and Carter Starocci, Penn State also has NCAA champions in 184-pounder Aaron Brooks and 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young. Both young men won Big Ten titles last year and have looked unstoppable this season. Roman Bravo-Young comes into the Big Ten tournament 14-0 with his biggest wins coming against No. 3 Austin DeSanto, No. 4 Michael McGee, No. 7 Dylan Ragusin, No. 16 Joe Olivieri and No. 21 Kyle Biscaglia. 

His 3-2 win against Iowa's DeSanto, in particular, demonstrated just how savvy Bravo-Young has become over the past few seasons, as he wrestled confidently against the aggressive, fast and relentless Hawkeye. DeSanto does have two wins over Bravo-Young dating back to the 2019 Big Ten and NCAA tournament, but he hasn't beaten his Nittany Lion rival since then. Iowa's potential to reverse the result here is certainly possible, as DeSanto's only losses this year have come against Bravo-Young by one point and against NCAA Finalist Daton Fix by two points, but, for now, this rivalry leans Penn State's way. 

Watch Roman Bravo-Young beat Austin DeSanto 5-2 in the 2021 Big Ten finals: 

If Iowa has one weaker weight, it, unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, comes in a place where Penn State is perhaps the strongest: 184 pounds. The Hawks are expected to put forward No. 18 Abe Assad, a good wrestler with a 10-6 record whose best wins this year came against No. 21 Zach Braunagel and No. 30 Chris Weiler. Given that the Big Ten has 12 automatic qualifying spots at this weight, Assad is an expected qualifier and could win a match or two at nationals, based on his current resume and record so far in his career. His Penn State counterpart Brooks, however, is the nation's leader at the weight and hasn't lost a match since January 2020 when he dropped 9-5 to All-American Taylor Venz.

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Brooks has already beaten his biggest Big Ten competition, Myles Amine, earlier this year, outscoring the Wolverine 3-2, and he's wrestling in a calm, free fashion that has come to define the Penn State program. Winning this weight class is no easy task, but Brooks is looking every bit like a national championship wrestler heading into this postseason, while Iowa is hoping to get production out of Assad and surprise fans at this weight class with a push towards the podium. With specific regards to the team race against Penn State, Iowa is going to want to score more points from Assad at 184 than Penn State scores at its weakest weight, which is likely 165 pounds, but both teams have ranked athletes at these so-called weak weights. Points are absolutely possible from all ten athletes at Iowa and Penn State. The question will just be, how many points?

125 pounds holds unique intrigue 

Penn State has the advantage on paper at 133, 141, 174 and 184 pounds with its four champs, but the Nittany Lions also have a weapon at 125 pounds in All-American Drew Hildbrandt, a sixth-year senior transfer from Central Michigan who has put up an impressive 8-1 season so far with his only loss coming 2-1 against Michigan's NCAA champion Nick Suriano. The lightweight Lion comes into the postseason ranked No. 6 by the coaches poll, and he'll look to advance to the finals in a fairly open 125-pound bracket during his first appearance in the Big Ten tournament. Hildbrandt wrestled a limited schedule this season after taking his first match in early January following his transfer to Penn State, and his best win thus far has come against NCAA qualifier No. 10 Malik Heinselman whom he beat 2-0 in Penn State's team win over the Buckeyes. 

Heinselman is one of just two wrestlers with a win over Iowa's starter at this weight, No. 9 Drake Ayala, a true freshman who stepped into the lineup after Spencer Lee elected to pursue ACL surgery in December. Despite the loss to Heinselman in sudden victory and three losses to Minnesota's Pat McKee, Iowa's Ayala has put together a solid 14-4 season with wins over NCAA qualifiers No. 15 Noah Surtin and No. 13 Michael DeAugustino, No. 26 Justin Cardani and Big Ten finalist No. 7 Devin Schroder.

Watch Drew Hildebrandt wrestle No. 1 Nick Suriano in the Michigan-Penn State dual earlier this year: 

Ayala missed the Penn State dual due to an injury, leading Hildebrandt to major Iowa backup Jesse Ybarra, but Ayala will be expected to give the Nittany Lion lightweight a different kind of test at the Big Ten tournament.  Ayala's speed makes him dangerous, but Hildebrandt is solid in all positions and wrestles with discipline. Hildebrandt's technique and funk have also improved throughout his semester with the Nittany Lions, making him even more powerful as a potential conference finalist. 

STATE OF THE WEIGHT: Meet the national title contenders at 125 pounds 

Michigan's Nick Suriano leads the weight right now nationally, while Wisconsin's Eric Barnett holds down the No. 2 spot in the conference in the coaches rankings, though Hildbrandt did earn the No. 2 pre-seed for the Big Ten tournament. Barnett, Heinselman, Schroder and Ayala followed, based on pre-seeds, with DeAugustino and McKee rounding out the top eight seeds. 

If these pre-seeds hold up as the tournament seeds and all matches go chalk in the first round,

Hildebrandt could meet DeAugustino in the second round, and Schroder could earn a match against Heinselman as well. This particular scenario could put Ayala on a collision course with Hildebrandt in the semifinal as well if he wins his first two bouts, though he'll likely need an upset to make that happen. If Hildebrandt stays the No. 2 seed, he's in a much more comfortable position on the opposite side of Nick Suriano in the bracket and has a more clear path to the finals, given his record so far. Regardless of seeding, 125 pounds is a wild weight, and Iowa will need Ayala to put himself in contention with All-American caliber competition to push Penn State at this weight. 

Iowa's point-scoring potential comes at 149, 157 and 165

Penn State has a series of champions spread across four weights, but Iowa's best chance to pull even with the Nittany Lions comes in the middleweights, as the Hawks are favored at 149, 157 and 165 pounds. Iowa won all three of these weights in the dual, but Penn State's lineup will look a little different at the Big Tournament than the lineup the team fielded against Iowa, as fifth-year senior Brady Berge has officially dropped down to 157 pounds and will be expected to take on Iowa's No. 9 Kaleb Young while No. 23 Creighton Edsell will step in at 165 pounds. Iowa's Alex Marinelli majored Berge when the Penn State senior wrestled up at 165 pounds, but the Nittany Lion lineup is stronger with Berge down against Young.

PENN STATE VS. IOWA: Complete results from the 2022 dual meet

In their last meeting, Berge actually beat Young 3-2 in the 2021 NCAA tournament before injury defaulting out. Young would go on to finish seventh and earn his second All-American trophy, and if Iowa wants to push Penn State in the conference tournament this year, Young will need to wrestle at that level. Reversing his result against Berge and advancing to the Big Ten finals like he did in 2021 will be key for Young and his Hawkeyes, but Berge, much like Hildebrandt at 125, looks to be improving every week and should be a concern for Iowa. 

At 165 pounds, Iowa will field a tried and true champion in Alex Marinelli, a three-time Big Ten conference winner and someone who has wrestled his best at this tournament. Penn State's Edsell won't be Marinelli's biggest concern in the conference, as he'll instead most likely be concerned with earning a rematch against Ohio State's Carson Kharchala, but if Marinelli can rack up some bonus points on his quest to the finals, he could supremely help the Hawks. Edsell is 10-3 on the year with losses to Anthony Valencia, Julian Ramirez and Austin Yant, all solid competition, and he kept all three of those bouts to a decision. If the Big Ten pre-seeds hold up, Edsell and Marinelli could face each other in the second round, but only if Edsell upsets Hayden Lohrey of Purdue first. 

The only one of these three middleweights where Penn State and Iowa will be expected to put forward the same starters that they did in the dual is 149 pounds where Iowa's No. 10 Max Murin will likely take on Penn State's No. 16 Beau Bartlett. The true sophomore Bartlett came to State College as a highly touted recruit and has been solid in the Big Ten at this weight, though he missed qualifying for the national tournament last year after taking losses to Michael Blockhus and Yahya Thomas in last year's Big Ten tournament. Bartlett's biggest strength is that he wrestles just about everyone, including NCAA finalist Sammy Sasso, close. He's defensive and smart on the mat, but Murin is a tough matchup for him.

The Hawkeye beat Bartlett 4-1 in the dual this year and followed that up with a win over NCAA qualifier Kaden Gfeller, but Murin has also missed time this year and hasn't wrestled a complete schedule. Murin's capable of advancing deep into this bracket as he has wins against All-American Thomas and national qualifiers Gfeller, Ian Parker and Blockhus, but he'll need to be at full strength to repeat those performances. Iowa's point output at this weight will depend on how many gritty wins the 149-pounder can pull out on the big stage, and Penn State's biggest goal will be to qualify the weight and earn as high as seed as possible here. 

Upperweight battles continue

The two heaviest weight classes ‚ÄĒ 197 pounds and 285 pounds ‚ÄĒ played out in opposite ways during the Penn State vs. Iowa dual with the Nittany Lions taking over 197 pounds and Iowa closing out the night by taking a definitive win at heavyweight. Both matches, though, ended in a decision and all four of these athletes have the potential for a spot in the NCAA finals.¬†

Penn State's Max Dean currently holds down the No. 1 spot at 197 pounds, the fifth athlete on the Blue and White roster to have this top spot, and he comes into the postseason with a 15-1 record. His only loss on the season thus far came against Michigan State's No. 5 Cameron Caffey, but his win over Iowa's Jacob Warner was close too, until about the last 50 seconds. Trailing 3-0 going into the third period against the Hawk, Dean escaped quickly and went to work offensively, taking down Warner with a minute to go and notching back points to give him the 8-3 win. He looked so controlled in that match, never concerned about the score, and just locked in his bow-and-arrow and secured the win. The loss was one of three for Warner this year, as he also took Ls against Iowa State's Yonger Batisda and Nebraska's Eric Schultz.

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This weight class is anyone's game, and neither Dean nor Warner have ever won a Big Ten title at 197 pounds. Caffey is also absolutely a threat for the championship though, as is Michigan's Patrick Brucki and Rutgers' Greg Bulsak. The team race could come down to who navigates the challenges of a wide-open 197 pounds and breaks through to score key team points.  

The heavyweight national order is a little more clear, as Minnesota's Gable Steveson stands alone as the reigning champ and the top prospect to win again, both at the conference and national level. Arizona State's undefeated Cohlton Schultz is also in his own tier right now at No. 2, though Iowa's Tony Cassioppi did top the Sun Devil 5-0 in last year's NCAA tournament. Cassioppi, who finished third nationally in 2021, has a loss on the year to No. 1 Steveson and to Princeton's Jack DelGarbino, but he has yet to face No. 4 Mason Parris this year, a wrestler who pinned him in the Big Ten tournament last year. Parris has two losses on the season, one to Steveson by major decision and one to Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet, a sophomore who finished seventh last year but has been performing on a different, more advanced level since then. Kerkvliet is a national finals threat, but Cassioopi handled him in their only meeting so far this year, topping the Nittany Lion 7-2. Iowa will need Cassioppi to repeat this kind of performance and push for a finals appearance of his own, so the question will be how much Kerkvliet learned from his match with Hawkeye and what adjustments he can make to fend off Cassioppi the next time they meet. 

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Penn State no doubt is the favorite to win both the Big Ten and NCAA tournament, and the Nittany Lions already showed that they were better than the Hawkeyes this year, taking down Iowa 19-13 in the dual. But the postseason is a different game, and both teams have a chance to take home gold if their top wrestlers peak at the right time. 

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