Preview by Curt Heinrichs
This weekend, Madison, Wisconsin will play host to the toughest tournament in American sports (with apologies to Bellator, who claims to have the “toughest tournament in sports.” Bellator’s 4 and 8 man tournaments aren’t even close) as the Big Ten Wrestling Tournament comes to town. In the 10 contested weight classes, this year’s Big Ten tournament features a total of 9 NCAA individual champions and dozens of All-American finishes (to finish as an All-American, a wrestler must place in the top 8 in his weight class at the NCAA tournament). The dominance of collegiate wrestling by the Big Ten can only be compared to that of the SEC in college football, and this year is no different with Penn State, Iowa, and Minnesota as 3 of the frontrunners for the team title at the NCAA tournament.
Prior to competing for the team title at the NCAA tournament, wrestlers must first qualify for the tournament by competing in the Big Ten Tournament. As is the case in the NCAA basketball tournament, conference champs in each weight class will automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament, but the wrestling tournament has some specific differences from the basketball tournament. While the basketball bracket is filled in by a selection committee, the wrestling tournament is more up to a wrestler’s body of work during the season in addition to conference tournament results. Here is a great explanation of the weight class allocation process. Basically, the Big Ten earned a certain number of spots at the NCAA tournament based on the in-season performance of the Big Ten wrestlers at that weight. While the in-season performances determined how many wrestlers will qualify in each weight class, the Big Ten tournament placement determines who will be competing at the NCAA tournament.
Last Thursday the NCAA announced the official qualifier allocation and the Big Ten was by far the leader in automatic qualifiers. In addition to the already determined number of automatic qualifiers, the NCAA will allow for 4 at-large selections per weight class, but by far the safer bet to advance to the tournament is to snag one of the automatic bids.
With the tournament rapidly approaching and the automatic qualifiers announced, the Big Ten announced the pre-seeds for this weekend’s action on Monday. The Buckeyes were one of 4 teams to have a seeded wrestler in all 10 weight classes. Over the past week, I’ve done a great deal of work in anticipation of the Big Ten tournament. In this post, I take a look at some of the favorites in the tournament and I’ll predict what each Buckeye needs to do to advance to the NCAA tournament.
Let’s start at the top with 125 lbs.
125 lbs – 7 automatic qualifiers
The Big Ten boasts 6 wrestlers ranked in the final Intermat rankings, including # 2-4. Last year’s NCAA champion and runner-up return in Illinois’ Jesse Delgado and Penn State’s Nico Megaludis, and both should be among the favorites to stand on the top of the podium again at this year’s tournament.
Megaludis brings a 23-2 record to the post-season, with both losses coming to #1 ranked Nahshon Garrett of Cornell. Nico avenged his loss to Delgado in last year’s finals with a win earlier this season. Megaludis should be the favorite to win the Big Ten.
Jesse Delgado of Illinois has wrestled tough this season, but has a pair of losses to conference opponents. Additionally, while Delgado has just 2 losses, he has not been as dominant as one may expect a defending champ to be.
Iowa is in a tough position as they have a pair of wrestlers at 125 lbs that could each earn All-American status this season, but only 1 wrestler can compete per school per weight class. They’ll need to make a tough decision between Cory Clark and Thomas Gilman, but both could factor into the individual competition.
Buckeye Outlook at 125: redshirt freshman Nick Roberts is prohibitively seeded 8th at the Big Ten tournament, behind Camden Eppert (Purdue) and Tim Lambert (Nebraska). Roberts has wrestled inconsistently and Coach Tom Ryan even went so far as to question his effort in a number of matches this season that he appeared to have the chance to win. While Roberts winning the tournament would be a huge stretch, he was beating Eppert before faltering and has a win over Lambert this season. If Roberts can wrestle to the best of his ability, he is certainly capable of placing in the top 7 and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
133 lbs- 8 automatic qualifiers
The Big Ten features an impressive 8 ranked wrestlers at 133 lbs with returning NCAA runner-up Tony Ramos of Iowa leading the pack. Also leading the hunt is 3 time All-American Tyler Graff of Wisconsin, who has yet to win a Big Ten title.
Tony Ramos of Iowa is one of the more polarizing figures in NCAA wrestling, having learned to play the role of heel very well. There is no questioning the skill Ramos possess, nor can anyone question the amount of effort that Ramos puts forth in his matches. Ramos’ downfall is that he is an emotional wrestler and wears his heart on his sleeve, which often is detrimental to his public perception. Ramos has slipped up a pair of times this season, but each loss has been to out-of-conference opponents.
As previously mentioned, Tyler Graff of Wisconsin is all but assured of a high placement in the Big Ten tournament, especially because he’ll be wrestling for one final time in front of a pro-Badger crowd at Wisconsin. Like Ramos, Graff has not lost to any conference foes, but Graff has also not wrestled Johnni DiJulius or Tony Ramos at this point in the season.
Minnesota’s David Thorn returns as an All-American, but has yet to show that he can compete with the likes of Ramos or Graff.
Buckeye Outlook at 133: Johnni DiJulius has just 4 losses on the season, with 3 of the losses coming to Big Ten foes. JDJ hit a bit of a tough patch, dropping 3 of 5 matches, but has responded nicely. DiJulius has been ranked in the top 5 this season, but has not wrestled Ramos or Graff and dropped a match to Thorn at the NWCA Duals. Johnni is certainly capable of being a finalist this weekend, but needs to get his attack going early and often. He scored first against Thorn, but was unable to maintain the scoring and lost 8-5. DiJulius should almost certainly qualify for his 2nd NCAA tournament by placing in the top 8.
141 lbs- 6 automatic qualifiers
For all intents and purposes, 141 lbs is a 2 horse race between Penn State’s freshman Zain Retherford and Ohio State’s Logan Stieber. Stieber’s lone loss of the season (and his first in almost 2 years) came to Retherford in the dual between Penn State and Ohio State back in December.
Retherford is the prohibitive #1 seed with a win over Stieber as the signature win thus far in his undefeated season. He has wins over Dardanes of Minnesota and Dutton of Michigan as well as Dziewa of Iowa.
Aside from his loss to Retherford, Stieber has been utterly dominant, winning every match by bonus points. If he stays true to form, Logan could tech fall his way to the finals to set up a rematch with Retherford.
Also likely to find themselves on the podium on Sunday are Chris Dardanes (Minnesota) and Josh Dziewa (Iowa), who have shown the most consistency throughout the season.
Buckeye Outlook at 141 lbs: Stieber is a 2 time NCAA champion. He flat-out knows how to win. Do not be surprised to see Stieber wrestling like a man on a mission. He’ll be competing at the NCAA tournament, and should be wrestling on Saturday night at the tournament at that.
149 lbs- 6 automatic qualifiers
149 lbs features 6 ranked wrestlers and a huge amount of parity. Though Jake Sueflohn of Nebraska snagged the #1 pre-seed, there is no real frontrunner in this field.
Sueflohn is a scrappy wrestler who finds a way to win in almost every situation. Sueflohn got his 3 losses out of the way early in the season and has only lost to Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern in Big Ten competition. Surprisingly (to me at least), Sueflohn has not achieved All-American status in his first 2 seasons. The Cornhusker has not wrestled Nick Dardanes yet this season.
Nick Dardanes was an All-American a year ago and has just 2 losses to this point in the season. Dardanes finds a way to win close matches and is not a guy I’d like to wrestle at this point in the season as he’s got a 7 match winning streak going heading into the post-season.
Michigan’s Eric Grajales came into college with great expectations, but he has yet to live up to being one of the most highly-ranked recruits as a high school senior. Grajales has never earned All-American laurels, and is probably maddening to watch if you’re a fan of the Wolverines (and if you are, I’m shocked that you’re reading this). Grajales is known to be wildly inconsistent and notably lost a 17-14 match to Brody Grothus in a recent match that looked more like a high-intensity drill session than a collegiate match.
Jason Tsirtsis is just a freshman, but has only 3 losses through his first regular season. Tsirtsis is never truly out of a match and could factor into the placement at 149 lbs.
Highly-touted Andrew Alton of Penn State has bounced in and out of the Nittany Lion lineup and it appears that he is again out. Alton has the ability to place high in the Big Ten, so his absence is fantastic for Ian Paddock as he tries to qualify for his 4th NCAA tournament.
Buckeye Outlook at 149 lbs: Paddock is a 3 time NCAA qualifier. As the 6th pre-seed, Paddock can earn a trip to the NCAA tournament in his final campaign if he wrestles to his seed. Paddock has a number of wins over Grajales over his career, and another would be sweet if he were to earn it at the Big Ten tournament. Paddock appeared to injure his ankle against Dardanes at the NWCA National Duals and missed out on the Senior Day festivities against Virginia Tech last weekend. If Paddock is back to full-strength, he should be expected to advance to the NCAA tournament.
157 lbs- 8 automatic qualifiers
157 lbs is as unpredictable as any weight class in the Big Ten. The final Intermat rankings featured 7 ranked wrestlers from the Big Ten, but there are 4 that stand out from the crowd and they are Derek St. John of Iowa, James Green of Nebraska, Dylan Ness of Minnesota, and Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin. It’s fun to predict who will win the tournament this weekend, and quite frankly it is next to impossible as all for could make a strong argument.
Returning NCAA champion Derek St. John of Iowa is pre-seeded at 4th in the Big Ten. 4th. That is not a misprint. St. John has losses to Green, Ness, and Jordan of late. St. John is a gamer who wrestles well in March, so he can’t be discounted despite his losses this season.
James Green set the tone in his victory over DSJ with a blast double at the end of the 1st period, which seemed to take the wind from DSJ’s sails. Green is a hard worker with a great gas tank. His loss to Jordan in his last match was the only blemish to date this season.
An Ohioan following in his dad’s footsteps, Isaac Jordan followed dad Jim to Wisconsin, where he is adding his own page to the family’s legacy in Madison. Jordan has split with DSJ this season, but has wrestled excellently of late, thus earning the #1 seed with wins over Green, DSJ, and Taylor Walsh of Indiana. Though he’s currently the #1 pre-seed, I would not be shocked if Jordan were bumped off by St. John or Green or even Ness.
Dylan Ness was an All-American a year ago, but has been on the receiving end of a few lopsided losses this season. Ness handed DSJ his first loss in ages and nearly stuck the Hawkeye in their dual this season.
Also looking to find himself on the podium is Indiana’s pinning machine Taylor Walsh. Walsh has 23 pins already this season, but has admittedly not faced the toughest out of conference schedule.
Buckeye Outlook at 157 lbs: Randy Languis is seeded 11th in the pre-seeds. His lone win against Big Ten competition is against Wildmo of Michigan State, who is seeded 12th. Languis will have his work cut out for him if he intends to reach the NCAA tournament. An at-large berth will not be given to Languis, so he will need to finish in the top 8 this weekend.
Thanks for reading Part 1 of my preview. Part 2 will be posted in the next few days. Let me know in the comments if I missed anything obvious or if you have any better guess as to who will win the 157 lb title.