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Shannon Scovel | NCAA.com | March 5, 2022

5 storylines to know ahead of the ACC wrestling tournament

Watch all the best action from the 2021 Wrestling Championship finals

There's just something different about the ACC. With only six teams, these athletes are uniquely familiar with each other, and the rivalries run deep. These matches are personal, and the quest for team and individual conference glory all begins Sunday, March 6 on the ACC Network and ACC Network Extra. 

BRACKETOLOGY: See the complete ACC tournament brackets here

The conference received a record 39 NCAA tournament allocations, demonstrating how much the conference has improved over the last five years, but who will earn those spots? Here's everything you need to know about the upcoming conference tournament, including the five biggest storylines heading into the event. 

N.C. State chases a fourth consecutive ACC title 

Ranked No. 4 in the country, the N.C. State Wolfpack lead a competitive ACC field and will look to add to their history of success at this year's conference tournament with another title. The Pack won the last three ACC championships, and the team's success against Virginia Tech to close out the regular season last month suggests that they have the lineup capable of bringing home gold again. 

The squad is led by No. 1 seeds Tariq Wilson at 149 pounds, Trent Hidlay at 184 pounds and Isaac Trumble of 197, with Wilson and Hidlay boasting undefeated records heading into this tournament. Trumble is also undefeated in the conference, though he does have three out-of-conference losses against Aiden Conner, Jacob Warner, Louie DePrez, none of which impacted his ACC seed. 

In addition to these three stars, the Pack also have No. 2 seeds at 125 pounds, 165 pounds, 174 pounds and 285 pound, demonstrating the depth of this team's potential and strength. Last year, N.C. State left the conference tournament with five champions, and if the Pack can match that total this year, they should be in a great position to hold off Virginia Tech once again. Three of those five champions return as Wilson, Trent and Hayden Hidlay will look to repeat their performance and Trumble will strive to capture his first conference championship. 

ACC RECAP: Complete results and analysis from the N.C. State - Virginia Tech dual 

Wilson will challenge for his next title up a weight from where he was last year when he beat North Carolina's Zach Sherman for the crown, but his quest for gold isn't any easier. Wilson could face Sherman again in the semifinals, depending on whether or not the Tar Heel middleweight can outscore Virginia's Jarod Verkleeren. Wilson has a 6-2 win over Sherman this year and a 5-1 win against Verkleeren, so both of those opponents are beatable for the Wolfpack senior, but the weight is tough. On the opposite side of the bracket, Virginia Tech's Bryce Andonian will aim to work his way up to the finals, but he'll need a win over either Josh Finesilver or Dan Mancini to accomplish that goal. Andonian has not wrestled Mancini this year, but he did pin Finesilver, and he's certainly a favorite to challenge for the conference crown. 

Trent Hidlay's win last year came against Tech's Hunter Bolen in the 184-pound finals, and the Hokie rivals enters this year's bracket as the No. 3 seed, meaning he'll have to get past both Duke's Vincent Baker and North Carolina's Gaven Kane if he wants another shot at Hidlay. Given that the top two seeds have a bye in this small bracket, Hidlay will need to beat either Gregg Harvey or Michael Battista to advance to the finals, and he has bonus wins over both of those wrestlers already this year. 

The older Hidlay brother, Hayden, has a unique situation at his weight as he looks to defend his conference title, and he warrants his own storyline. 

Hayden Hidlay looks to win his fifth conference title in a stacked 174-pound bracket

While N.C. State has three No. 1 seeds, perhaps their most experienced and accomplished wrestler in the lineup will aim to capture a title of his own from the No. 2 spot. Graduate student Hayden Hidlay has won the last four ACC championships at 157 pounds before bumping up to 174 pounds to train more consistently with his upperweight, NCAA finalist brother Trent Hidlay, and he's translated that change into great success. However, on senior night in Reynolds Coliseum during the last weekend of the regular season, Hidlay took the first ACC dual meet loss of his career when he fell by pin to North Carolina's Clay Lautt. Hidlay was leading the match at the time but the Tar Heel put the Wolfpack leader on his back to earn six team points, and, ultimately, secure the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament. 

One week before his upset win against Hidlay, Lautt took a 6-2 decision loss to Virginia Tech's Mekhi Lewis, so when Hidlay then beat Lewis two days after his Lautt loss, speculation began about the conference seeding of these three stars. Ultimately, Lautt earned the No. 1 seed, Hidlay slotted in at the No. 2 seed, and Lewis, the only NCAA champion in the group, took the No. 3 seed. This combination sets up a Hidlay-Lewis semifinal if Lewis wins his first match against Hunter Kernan, and the winner of that semifinal takes on the winner of Lautt vs. either Justin Phillips or Matt Finesilver. 

HOKIE HERO: Here's how Mekhi Lewis topped Vincenzo Joseph to win the 2019 NCAA tournament

Lautt comes into the tournament with a 14-4 record on this year, and all four of his losses came against NCAA qualifiers or NCAA All-Americans. The Tar Heel junior could put himself in a great position in the NCAA wrestling bracket if he wins this tournament, but Hidlay has a history of success on this stage, and Lewis obviously has a win over the Carolina star. The 174-pound weight class is one of the deepest in the country, so wherever these athletes end up seeded at NCAAs will result in tough matches, but there is certainly momentum to be gained from winning this stacked weight at the ACC tournament. 

Austin O’Connor paces his team and the conference as the lone 2021 NCAA champion

The depth of the ACC has expanded in recent years with four wrestlers making the finals in last year’s national tournament, but just one, North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor, claimed top honors in his weight class last season. The senior Tar Heel champion has put together an impressive record so far this year, recording 16 wins and just one loss, and he's on track to contend for another national title, this time up at 157 pounds. The only ACC wrestler with wins over O'Connor has since graduated, making him the undisputed leader at the weight in the conference and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. 

Watch Austin O'Connor win his 2021 NCAA wrestling title against Sammy Sasso: 

O'Connor will have a bye in the first round before taking on either Elijah Cleary of Pitt or Wade Unger of Duke, depending on who wins that first-round match. Earlier this year, O'Connor recorded wins over both athletes, though his match against Cleary came down to the wire in a 3-2 decision. Cleary has never beaten O'Connor, but he certainly poses a challenge if he beat Unger and advances to the semifinals. Jake Keating, Virginia's No. 2-seeded 157-pounder, will aim to work his way up from the other side of the bracket, and he'll have to navigate past either Ed Scott or Connor Brady, both athletes Keating beat earlier this year by decisions. Despite having only six teams in this conference, there are a number of guys at 157 pounds who can keep this weight interesting, though O'Connor is certainly the most credentialed. 

Between O'Connor at 157 pounds and Lautt at 174 pounds as the No. 1 seeds in their respective weight classes, North Carolina, as a team, has the potential to surprise fans and push the conference leaders. The depth of this team extends beyond those leaders too, as the Tar Heels have No. 2 seeds at 133, 141 and 184 pounds in Joe Heilmann, Kizhan Clarke and Gavin Kane. Heilmann and Kane will both have to overcome All-Americans at their weight to win a title, with 133 pounds led by Virginia Tech's Korbin Myers and 184 paced by N.C. State's Trent Hidlay. Myers beat Heilmann 8-2 in the North Carolina-Virginia Tech dual, while Hidlay majored Kane 13-3, so topping these two would be quite the upset. 

Clarke, a graduate transfer from American University, also lost the No. 1 seed in his bracket, but he kept the result closer, dropping just 3-2 to Pittsburgh's Cole Mathews. This loss is the only L on Clarke's resume so far this year, and he definitely has the potential to reverse that result. Ryan Jack and Virginia's Collin Gerardi, the other two ranked wrestlers at this weight, will look to scramble the bracket and create more excitement at the conference level, but, at least for now, the bracket suggests this one will be battle between Clarke and Matthews with both looking to earn as high a seed as possible in the NCAA tournament with a conference victory. 

Pitt's national finalists set to battle for conference glory

In addition to Cole Matthews as the No. 1 seed at 141 pounds, the Panthers also have a top-seeded wrestler at 165-pounds in Jacob Wentzel, a 2021 NCAA finalist with a 14-5 record on the year so far. Wentzel is undefeated in conference matches, but he's been pushed into tie-breakers with N.C. State's Thomas Bullard, so he'll need to wrestle at his best to escape some of the challenges in his bracket. 

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Wentzel and 197-pound teammate Nino Bonaccorsi made history last year when they became the first two Pittsburgh wrestlers to make the finals in the same national tournament since 1963. While they both lost to their opponents, their performances over the championship weekend led Pitt to its best finish in program history since 1970. Bonaccorsi, a 2021 ACC champion, comes into this year's ACC tournament as the No. 2 seed after dropping to N.C. State's Trumble earlier this year, but he's still absolutely a contender at this weight. The Panther upperweight is 13-3 on the year with his other two losses both coming against quality opponents in Greg Bulsak and Patrick Brucki. Five of the six teams in the conference have ranked wrestlers at 197 pounds, but Bonaccorsi has wrestled on this stage before, and he knows how to win. Pitt has capabilities to have at least three ACC champions this year, but pulling off that feat will require some upsets. In a small conference like this, every match counts. 

Sam Latona and Jakob Camacho rivalry continues

The ACC rivalry duals this year has brought a number of exciting matchups, and one of the most exciting battles over the last few years has been the competitiveness between Virginia Tech’s Sam Latona and N.C. State's Jacob Camacho. Latona first beat Camacho in a high-intensity matchup during the 2021 dual between these two teams, and, with the team win on the line, Latona came through for the Hokies. He followed that result up with another win over Camacho in nearly identical fashion, and he went on to out-place the Wolfpack lightweight at the national tournament.

Heading into the N.C. State-Virginia Tech dual this year, Camacho held a 14-2 record with his only losses coming against Spencer Lee and Noah Surtin, while Latona had an 10-6 record with losses to Joe Manchio, Malik Heinselman, Brody Teske, Surin, Brandon Courtney and Vito Arujau. The Pack underclassman looked to have the edge going into the third matchup between these two, but, once again, Latona found a way to win. The Hokie is now 3-0 against Camacho and will aim to add to that total in this tournament to win his second ACC title.

N.C. State, as a team, has started to pull away from Virginia Tech a little more this year, at least on the dual stage, but Latona has a chance to put up big points for his team and keep the Hokies in this fight if he can continue to win. 

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