Breaking down the NCAA bracket
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — To win an NCAA Division I wrestling championship, or to score one of the four team trophies, a team has to have both title contenders and a deep roster of wrestlers capable of scoring points.
Three teams — Missouri, Lehigh and Iowa — qualified all 10, and another five — Penn State, Nebraska, North Carolina State, Navy and Minnesota — qualified nine. Another nine qualified eight wrestlers.
However, of those 17 schools, only around a third meet the criteria it takes to accumulate enough points to finish in the top four.
Iowa’s stable of talented veterans makes it the team to beat. It would take a sub-par tournament from the Hawkeyes and a peak performance from Penn State’s young team for the Nittany Lions to claim another crown.
So, if Iowa wins and Penn State is likely second, what other teams can claim a trophy? Michigan, Nebraska, NC State and Oklahoma State will vy for the other two places. Many predict a clean sweep by the Big Ten, but that is far from a certainty. The Wolfpack has what it takes to prevent a Big Ten sweep.
As for the individual races? What follows is one assessment of how each weight might unfold.
125 pounds:No wrestler at any weight may be more dominant, more seemingly bulletproof than Iowa’s Spencer Lee. He’s only 7-0, but all have been bonus point wins, and none lasted more than 5:33. Barring a catastrophic injury or an unimaginable upset, he’s the safest bet on the board. If Penn State’s Robbie Howard could get by Ohio State’s Malik Heinselman, who owns a pair of 5-2 wins over the Nittany Lion freshman, he could gain momentum and challenge for All-America honors.
Projected finalists: (1) Spencer Lee vs. (3) Brandon Courtney, Arizona State
133 pounds: There are a number of talented wrestlers at this weight, but two seem to have elevated themselves: Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix and Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young. Both are young, strong and quick, so a finals matchup would be entertaining. Fix, however, seems to have a bit more in his offensive arsenal. Bravo-Young has an edge in quickness, but the question is whether that would translate to points against an opponent with equal talent and superior international experience.
Projected finalists: (1) Daton Fix vs. (2) Roman Bravo-Young
141 pounds: From the quarterfinals on, this weight could offer the most entertaining matches, from wrestlers arrayed around the country. Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman is rightfully seeded No. 1, but No. 2 Nick Lee of Penn State, No. 3 Sebastian Rivera and host of others will have a say in who is the eventual winner. Lee owns a win over Rivera and a narrow loss to Eierman. The Nittany Lion’s ability to consistently find solutions to problems presented by wrestlers he’s previously met could make the difference here.
Projected finalists: (1) Jaydin Eirman vs. (2) Nick Lee
149 pounds: This is among the most difficult weights to predict because of the balance. Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso is seeded first, but several others could prevent him from living up that seed. Oklahoma State’s Boo Lewallen, Missouri’s Brock Mauller and even darkhorse Ridge Lovett of Nebraska, who impressed at the Big Ten tournament, could emerge at the top of the podium. However, look to the bottom of the bracket, to No. 2 seed Austin O’Connor, for a wrestler who has the pedigree and experience to get it done.
Projected finalists: (1) Sammy Sasso vs. (2) Austin O’Connor
157 pounds: Choosing from among the top three seeds here (1) Ryan Deakin of Northwestern, (2) Hayden Hidlay of North Carolina State and (3) David Carr of Iowa State is difficult. Minnesota’s Brayton Lee could crash the party, too. Hidlay has been to the finals before, only to suffer a heartbreaking, controversial loss. Deakin, though, cruised through the Big Ten tournament and only allowed one point. If he wrestles at that level in St. Louis, he’ll be hard to beat. If he doesn’t, Hidlay would be the one to exploit the opening. Penn State’s Brady Berge continues to improve and is a serious challenger for All-America honors.
Projected finalists: (1) Ryan Deakin vs. (2) Hayden Hidlay
165 pounds: Iowa’s Alex Marinelli, the top seed, has been among the best 165-pounders in the country for years. However, he hasn’t lived up to his ranking at the NCAA tournament, placing sixth and seventh. That trend may continue with defending champion Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech in Marinelli’s half of the draw. The winner, however, may be in the bottom half. Anthony Valencia, brother of champion Zahid, doesn’t get as much press wrestling in the west at Arizona State, but his pedigree and track record could prove valuable on the big stage. Penn State’s Joe Lee was a bit erratic at Big Tens, but if he gets a few rough edges smoothed out, he could challenge for a spot on the podium.
Projected finalists: (4) Mekhi Lewis vs. (2) Anthony Valencia
174 pounds: Iowa’s top-seeded Michael Kemerer is the favorite of most here, and it’s understandable. His top-level defense and deceptively effective offense make a nearly unbeatable combination. Second-seeded Demetrius Romero is a relative unknown because he wrestles for Utah Valley. He has nationals experience, but is that enough for him to deal with the pressure of a high seed and matching expectations? Penn State’s Carter Starocci has beaten a host of higher seeded wrestlers, except for Kemerer, and has the talent to reach the finals for another crack at the Hawkeye.
Projected finalists: (1) Michael Kemerer vs. (2) Carter Starocci
184 pounds: This weight is littered with talent, from Binghamton’s Lou Deprez to Northern Iowa’s Parker Keckeisen to Rutgers’ John Poznanski to Virginia Tech’s Hunter Bolen. The class of the weight, however, is found at the top with No. 2 seed Trent Hidlay of North Carolina State and No. 1 seed Aaron Brooks of Penn State. Will Brooks have the edge based on better competition from the preeminent conference? It’s a question a lot of people would like to see answered in the finals.
Projected finalists: (1) Aaron Brooks vs. (2) Trent Hidlay
197 pounds: This is another weight with depth of talent, but no clear favorite. Any of seven or eight wrestlers could emerge as champion and the seeds here could scatter. The top two seeds, Michigan’s Myles Amine and Nebraska’s Eric Schultz emerged from the Big Ten, but the eventual winner could come from farther west. Oklahoma State’s A.J. Ferrari, seeded fourth, follows in Bo Nickal’s footsteps from Allen, Texas, and presents intriguing possibilities. But go farther west yet, to Arizona, to find Kordell Norfleet. The third seed has the talent and athleticism to survive a deep field. Penn State’s Michael Beard has the talent to finish above his No. 15 seed, but would have be at his best to earn a medal.
Projected finalists: (1) Myles Amine vs. (4) Kordell Norfleet
285 pounds: An argument could be made that there has never been a more talented athletic collection of heavyweight talent in an NCAA bracket than this year. But while that may be true, it’s also true that one wrestler is the clear favorite — Minnesota’s Gable Steveson. His combination of size, skill and athleticism is unmatched. Barring injury or a monumental upset, he will ascend to the top of the podium after finishing third in his first tournament. Nittany Lion Greg Kerkvliet, the No. 9 seed, could medal if he is able to translate the experience of his first Big Ten tournament into on-mat adjustments.
Projected finalists: (1) Gable Steveson vs. (3) Matt Stencel, Central Michigan