The best conference tournament in The country is set to kick off this Saturday in Columbus as the Big Ten wrestlers vie for a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Each conference earned a set number of automatic qualifiers per weight class based on the performances of the conference wrestlers throughout the regular season. For example, the Big Ten earned five automatic bids at 125 lbs, so the top five placers at the tournament are guaranteed to qualify for the NCAA tournament without relying on an at-large bid.
With a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line, the intensity will be high in every match. Let's take a look at how things may play out in each weight class.
Automatic Qualifiers: 5
Ranked Wrestlers: 6
No. 1 Thomas Gilman (Iowa)
No. 2 Jesse Delgado (Illinois)
No. 3 Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State)
No. 4 Tim Lambert (Nebraska)
No. 5 Jordan Conaway (Penn State)
No. 6 Conor Youtsey (Michigan)
No. 7 Garrison White (Northwestern)
No. 8 Luke Welch (Purdue)
Who to watch at 125: This should be a three horse race for the title. Illinois' Jesse Delgado is a two-time defending NCAA champion, but has missed the bulk of this season due to injury. Delgado has not looked quite himself to this point, so nothing is guaranteed. Iowa sophomore Thomas Gilman stood alone atop the Big Ten for most of the season, but hit a serious skid lately, particularly at the NWCA National Duals where he showed that he can be rattled. Tomasello should be among those in the running for a Big Ten title. Depending on how the seeds are assigned, Tomasello will probably not hit Gilman or Delgado until at least the semifinals. Lambert should lead the second tier of wrestlers at 125.
Buckeye Outlook at 125: Tomasello tore through the Big Ten this season, losing only to Gilman 2-1 in overtime. He has shown that he is head and shoulders above the rest of the field (except Delgado as the two haven't yet wrestled), and should score big points for the Buckeyes on his way to the podium.
Automatic Qualifiers: 12
Ranked Wrestlers: 11
No.1 Chris Dardanes (Minnesota)
No. 2 Ryan Taylor (Wisconsin)
No. 3 Jimmy Gulibon (Penn State)
No.4 Johnni DiJulius (Ohio State)
No. 5 Cory Clark (Iowa)
No. 6 Zane Richards (Illinois)
No. 7 Danny Sabatello (Purdue)
No. 8 Rossi Bruno (Michigan)
No. 9 Eric Montoya (Nebraska)
No. 10 Scott Delvecchio (Rutgers)
No. 11 Geoff Alexander (Maryland)
No. 12 Dominick Malone (Northwestern)
No. 13 Garth Yenter (Michigan State)
No. 14 Alonzo Shepherd (Indiana)
Who to watch at 133: You know in old cartoons when Bugs Bunny would get into a fight and there would be a giant cloud of dust and flailing arms and suddenly you'd see Bugs next to the pile chomping on a carrot? That's how this weight class looks to me with Dardanes as the favorite and then the Bugs Bunny scrap pile chasing after him. Ryan Taylor of Wisconsin (and a teammate of Bo Jordan at St Paris Graham High School) has been on fire lately and has avenged 2/3 of his losses from earlier in the season. Cory Clark was an All-American last season at 125, but has losses to four Big Ten wrestlers. Looking at the rest of the weight class, all of the competitors have losses to other Big Ten wrestlers, so this weight could come down to the seeding to determine favorable matchups. You may be better off drawing names out of a hat than trying to predict the outcome of this bracket.
Buckeye Outlook at 133: DiJulius has never been an All-American, though he certainly has the ability. He has hit a rough patch of late after being ranked in the top five early in the year. As mentioned above, Johnni's placement will depend upon his matchups (and his aggressive he is from the neutral position).
Automatic Qualifiers: 8
Ranked Wrestlers: 6
No. 1 Logan Stieber (Ohio State)
No. 2 Nick Dardanes (Minnesota)
No. 3 Anthony Abidin (Nebraska)
No. 4 Steven Rodrigues (Illinois)
No. 5 Anthony Ashnault (Rutgers)
No. 6 Josh Dziewa (Iowa)
No. 7 Jameson Oster (Northwestern)
No. 8 Nick Lawrence (Purdue)
No. 9 Kade Moss (Penn State)
No. 10 George Fisher (Michigan)
No. 11 Javier Gasca III (Michigan State)
No. 12 Shyhiem Brown (Maryland)
No. 13 Jesse Thielke (Wisconsin)
No. 14 Sean Brown
Who To Watch at 141: Stieber. And Stieber. And Stieber. Logan is looking to become just the 14th wrestler to win four Big Ten titles and the first Buckeye to ever achieve the feat. Stieber has 18 wins by bonus points this season and just three by decision (only Nick Lawrence of Purdue and Nick Dardanes were the only Big Ten opponents to keep a match with Stieber within eight points). Stieber led Dardanes by five but then allowed a comeback and nearly lost in their only meeting this season. Logan has never had an undefeated season, but currently sits at 21-0. I'm expecting a Stieber vs Dardanes rematch in the finals.
Buckeye Outlook at 141: Don't blink when Stieber hits the mat. It'll be history in the making.
Automatic Qualifiers: 7
Ranked Wrestlers: 6
No. 1 Brandon Sorensen (Iowa)
No. 2 Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern)
No. 3 Hunter Stieber (Ohio State)
No. 4 Ken Theobald (Rutgers)
No. 5 Alec Pantaleo (Michigan)
No. 6 Zack Beitz (Penn State)
No. 7 Justin Arthur (Nebraska)
No. 8 Rylan Lubeck (Wisconsin)
Who To Watch at 149: Tsirtsis was last year's Big Ten and NCAA champion as a freshman. Not too shabby. Tsirtsis' only loss this season was to Sorensen, whose only Big Ten loss was to teammate Brody Grothus (yep, Iowa had two studs at 149). Stieber has twice been an NCAA semifinalist, but only has three matches to his record this season thanks to a nagging injury. Hunter stuck with Sorensen in their match, but a lack of cardio cost him the match. The Big Ten champion at 149 will be one of these three and then the drop off is steep.
Buckeye Outlook at 149: if the Buckeyes are going to challenge for Big Ten and NCAA titles, they are going to need big points from Stieber at 149. He is certainly capable of big things as a Big Ten champ in 2013 before a 3rd place finish at the NCAA tournament that year. We should be able to tell if Hunter is fully recovered after his first match.
Automatic Qualifiers: 8
Ranked Wrestlers: 9
No. 1 Isaiah Martinez (Illinois)
No. 2 Dylan Ness (Minnesota)
No. 3 James Green (Nebraska)
No. 4 Brian Murphy (Michigan)
No. 5 Doug Welch (Purdue)
No. 6 Josh Demas (Ohio State)
No.7 Mike Kelly (Iowa)
No. 8 Anthony Perrotti (Rutgers)
No. 9 Luke Frey (Penn State)
No. 10 Louis Mascola (Maryland)
No. 11 Luke Blanton (Indiana)
No. 12 TJ Ruschell (Wisconsin)
No. 13 Ben Sullivan (Northwestern)
No 14 Travis Curley
Who To Watch at 157: Green has been hanging around the top of the Big Ten for years with a title and runner-up finish to his credit along with three All-American finishes. Brian Murphy is a solid wrestler who is good in all phases. Dylan Ness is a two-time NCAA runner-up who won his first 26 matches this season before losing at the National Duals. While all of these guys could win, the unknown quantity at 157 is Isaiah Martinez, who is undefeated as a freshman with wins over Green, Welch, Perrotti, and a pin over Ian Miller. Martinez can score in bursts and put his opponent in a deep hole in a hurry. I'm not certain how he will react when facing one stud after another. A surprise in this weight class is Luke Frey taking the place of Dylan Alton; once hyped coming out of high school, the Altons never quite lived up to the expectations and it appears their careers will come to an end with neither in the starting lineup.
Buckeye Outlook at 157: Demas started the season hot, winning his first ten matches. He has since hit a rough patch, dropping five of his last seven. Josh is an outstanding neutral wrestler with a knack for scoring on the edge of the mat. He pushed Ness to the brink before losing late, so he has the ability to stick with the top guys. He'll be in his last Big Ten tournament in front of his home crowd, so the pieces are in place for a great weekend.
Automatic Qualifiers: 8
Ranked Wrestlers: 8
No.1 Bo Jordan (Ohio State)
No.2 Isaac Jordan (Wisconsin)
No. 3 Taylor Walsh (Indiana)
No. 4 Pierce Harger (Northwestern)
No.5 Jackson Morse (Illinois)
No. 6 Garrett Hammond (Penn State)
No.7 Nick Moore (Iowa)
No. 8 Nick Wanzek (Minnesota)
No. 9 Austin Wilson (Nebraska)
No. 10 Pat Robinson (Purdue)
No. 11 Nick Viscario (Rutgers)
No. 12 Garrett Sutton (Michigan)
No. 13 Roger Wildmo (Michigan State)
No. 14 Justin Alexander (Maryland)
Who To Watch at 165: When I was in high school and spent a week at Jeff Jordan’s State Champ Camp (I fell short of becoming a state champion by about 75 places, but that’s another story). I clearly remember watching Jeff’s son Bo and Jim Jordan’s son Isaac wrestling and drilling next to us and thinking “these kids are in elementary school and they’re better than me.” Now that they’re in high school, Isaac and Bo continue to be better than me, and most of the Big Ten for that matter as neither has lost to a Big Ten opponent this season. The Jordans are first cousins and they should be vying for first place on Sunday if they continue to tear through the conference. Bo was undefeated during his redshirt season and is unbeaten this season. Isaac finished last season as an All-American in an unreal weight class and only has a pair of losses this season. With the Jordans the clear favorites, the rest of the field is led by Indiana’s pinning sensation Taylor Walsh, who has 21 pins this season, though most have come at the expense of some inferior competition. Walsh appears to be a bit inconsistent against top competition, earning two pins over Pierce Harger before allowing a 15-0 tech fall to Harger. Jackson Morse is a tough kid, but he looks to be a step behind Harger and Walsh.
Buckeye Outlook at 165: Bo has wins over Moore, Walsh, Wanzek, and a pair of wins over UM’s Taylor Massa before driving Massa away to the realm of 174 (I’d like to believe that Massa’s exodus is due to his losses to Bo, but who knows?). Bo has been rattling off bonus point wins like they’re easy to come by and I don’t foresee him slowing down this weekend. Bo should be a finalist and score a ton of points in the process.
Automatic Qualifiers: 10
Ranked Wrestlers: 9
No. 1 Robert Kokesh (Nebraska)
No. 2 Matt Brown (Penn State)
No. 3 Mike Evans (Iowa)
No. 4 Logan Storley (Minnesota)
No. 5 Zach Brunson (Illinois)
No. 6 Mark Martin (Ohio State)
No. 7 Chad Welch (Purdue)
No. 8 Frank Cousins (Wisconsin)
No. 9 Taylor Massa (Michigan)
No. 10 Nate Jackson (Indiana)
No. 11 Josh Snook (Maryland)
No. 12 Phil Bakuckas (Rutgers)
No. 13 Nick Proctor (Michigan State)
Who To Watch at 174: Kokesh is a two-time All-American who is undefeated this season with wins over Martin, Brown, Brunson, and Welch. Matt Brown was an NCAA runner-up a few years ago with wins over Storley and Evans. Mike Evans is a two-time All-American with wins over Brunson, Martin, Storley, and Welch. Evans’ mustache is undefeated two years running. Storley is a three-time All-American, but he doesn’t have any big-time quality wins this season. If these four were in a tournament 100 times, they may each win a quarter of the times. This weight class is going to be awesome to watch play out and I’m not sure that anything I can say will do it justice.
Buckeye Outlook at 174: Mark Martin came into Ohio State with high hopes, but has yet to break through in three years in the starting lineup. He has an incredible knack for keeping matches close (see Martin’s opening round match at the NCAA tournament in 2013 against Kyle Dake which was scoreless going into the 3rd period), but still struggles to capitalize when the match is on the line. Martin has every opportunity to place with wins this season over several Big Ten foes. It’s unlikely that Mark will place higher than 6th, but he will be in great position to do so if he’s able to capitalize in the key moments of his matches.
Automatic Qualifiers: 10
Ranked Wrestlers: 7
No. 1 Sammy Brooks (Iowa)
No. 2 Domenic Abounader (Michigan)
No. 3 Ricky Robertson (Wisconsin)
No. 4 Brett Pfaff (Minnesota)
No. 5 Kenny Courts (Ohio State)
No. 6 TJ Dudley (Nebraska)
No. 7 Nikko Reyes (Illinois)
No. 8 Matt McCutcheon (Penn State)
No. 9 John Rizqallah (Michigan State)
No. 10 Patrick Kissel (Purdue)
No. 11 Anthony Pafumi (Rutgers)
No. 12 Mitch Sliga (Northwestern)
No. 13 Matt Irick (Indiana)
No. 14 Tony Gardner (Maryland)
Who To Watch at 184: This weight class looks to be wide open with no real favorite standing out from the crowd. Brooks has wins over Reyes, Pfarr, and McCutcheon, but lost late in the season to Abounader. Abounader (who is an Ohio native and St. Edward graduate) seems wildly inconsistent this season, but has the ability to take anybody down at any given time. Ricky Robertson of Wisconsin should be someone to keep an eye on as he only has a pair of losses against Big Ten competition (and Aaron Studebaker is at 197 lbs), so he is certainly in the running.
Buckeye Outlook at 184: Kenny Courts is another Buckeye who came into college with unreal potential. Courts has appeared to hit a wall in his development, but still has the ability to score a 5 point move at any point in a match. Courts was able to defeat Pfarr after losing to him early in the season. You never really know what you’re going to get when Courts steps onto the mat, but he is certainly capable of putting up big points. Courts is the hardest Buckeye to prognosticate because he is capable of winning the tournament or going 0-2. Any points he would be able to score will be huge for the team race, especially if Kenny is able to outplace Brooks and Pfarr.
Automatic Qualifiers: 9
Ranked Wrestlers: 9
No. 1 Kyle Snyder (Ohio State)
No. 2 Morgan McIntosh (Penn State)
No. 3 Scott Schiller (Minnesota)
No. 4 Nathan Burak (Iowa)
No. 5 Aaron Studebaker (Nebraska)
No. 6 Max Huntley (Michigan)
No. 7 Alex Polizzi (Northwestern)
No. 8 Timmy McCall (Wisconsin)
No. 9 Braden Atwood (Purdue)
No 10 Nick McDiarmid (Michigan State)
No. 11 Jeff Koepke (Illinois)
No. 12 Hayden Hrymack (Rutgers)
No. 13 Rob Fitzgerald (Maryland)
No. 14 Luke Sheridan (Indiana)
Who To Watch at 197: Much like 174, this weight class isn’t necessarily wide-open, but there are four wrestlers that are way ahead of the rest of the pack. Snyder is just a true freshman, but his win over McIntosh seemed to be the turning point for his season and a major feather in his cap. He has won 10 consecutive matches since a controversial loss at home to Burak, and Snyder seems to have found the key to scoring points on the edge of the mat. McIntosh is a tough wrestler with a great skill set, but I’m favoring Schiller or Burak. Schiller is a tough wrestler to get off balance and seems to be the most physically gifted wrestler in the field. This could be another weight where any of these guys could win the title on any given day.
Buckeye Outlook at 197: Expect big things from Snyder, especially if the Buckeyes are going to stand a chance at winning the team title. Stealing valuable points from Schiller and Burak will be key at 197. Snyder has really wrestled well since his loss to Burak, and I don’t expect much to change this weekend.
Automatic Qualifiers: 9
Ranked Wrestlers: 10
No. 1 Connor Medbery (Wisconsin)
No. 2 Adam Coon (Michigan)
No. 3 Mike McMullan (Northwestern)
No. 4 Bobby Telford (Iowa)
No. 5 Jimmy Lawson (Penn State)
No. 6 Michael Kroells (Minnesota)
No. 7 Spencer Myers (Maryland)
No. 8 Billy Smith (Rutgers)
No. 9 Nick Tavanello (Ohio State)
No. 10 Brooks Black (Illinois)
No. 11 Collin Jensen (Nebraska)
No. 12 Chris Nash (Michigan State)
No. 13 Garret Goldman (Indiana)
No. 14 Gelen Robinson (Purdue)
Who To Watch at Heavyweight: Once again there is an absolute glut of talent at heavyweight in the Big Ten. McMullan has finished no lower than 3rd in three trips to the NCAA tournament, but he lost consecutive matches this year to Medbery and Telford before avenging his loss to Telford. Telford has twice earned All-American finishes but has losses to Coon and McMullan on his record. Medbery has only lost to Telford and has been able to score a large number of points on several Big Ten foes to date. Adam Coon of Michigan is another wrestler to beware of since he was at one point ranked No. 1 a season ago, but failed to even place at the Big Ten tournament in 2014. He will likely have a chip on his shoulder this time around. Penn State’s Lawson is a former college football player at Monmouth, and he has what seems to be the strength of ten men. In a season shortened by injury, only Telford has gotten the better of Lawson. This weight is going to be impossible to choose a winner, and many matches will likely come down to a tiebreaker period to determine a winner.
Buckeye Outlook at Heavyweight: Nick Tavanello is a fierce competitor who has lost much of the season to a knee injury. Tavanello returned in the National Duals, but lost on a last second takedown. Cardio may be a factor, as will the size difference that Tav gives up to many of the elite heavyweights. Tavanello’s downfall may be size, but he is often able to score on his quickness, which could play in his favor. Tavanello should place in the top 9 and secure one of the automatic bids to the NCAA tournament.
It’s no surprise that Iowa is likely the favorite despite the possibility that they may have very few champions. The Hawkeye depth is impressive and there is no real weak spot in the lineup aside from maybe 165 lbs. Minnesota should lean heavily on Ness, the Dardanes brothers, Schiller, and Storley to score points, but if any of them should falter, the Golden Gophers will be out of contention. Ohio State stands in position to make a run for the title with Logan Stieber, Bo Jordan, and Kyle Snyder all top preseeds. The Buckeye fate will likely rest on the remainder of the lineup since Stieber, Jordan, and Snyder should rack up placement points by the truckload. If Hunter Stieber is able to come back at full strength and if guys like Kenny Courts can wrestle to his potential, the Buckeyes could have a real chance at taking home the top hardware, though it will take a full team effort.