Ohio State is set to host its biggest dual meet of the year versus the Iowa Hawkeyes, a matchup of two Top 4 teams with big histories and high expectations.
The program is pulling out all the stops to pack The Schottenstein Center Sunday, promoting the final home dual for seniors Kyle Snyder, Bo Jordan and Nathan Tomasello. Yesterday, head coach Tom Ryan announced that football coach Urban Meyer will sit matside to cheer on the Buckeyes, encouraging fans to follow suit.
Ryan has hopes of breaking the NCAA record for the largest indoor crowd for a dual meet, currently held by Penn State from the 2013 season. The Nittany Lions turned out 15,996 that year for a meet versus Pitt; the Buckeyes came within sight of the record last season with the Lions came to town, with 15,388 showing up in support of the Scarlet & Grey.
Q: Iowa has more history and tradition than anyone in the Big Ten. How is the program adjusting to the life with a dominant Penn State winning titles seemingly every year, and with Ohio State becoming a perennial contender?
Ross: Not well. It's been eight years since Iowa last won a national title and the only Big Ten title they've won in that span was a slightly bizarre joint championship with Ohio State in 2015 (ties -- so weird!). Worse, they've had some pretty distant finishes in the years since Iowa's last title.
There's definitely been a lot of grumbling and discontent among the fanbase about that. This year in particular there's a little bit less because I think there was a general acceptance that Iowa was going to take a step back after losing five senior starters last season and having several question marks this season, while Penn State returned all five national champions from a year ago.
That said, there's certainly an expectation that Iowa is always going to be competitive and while that has (thankfully) turned out to be the case, there were some doubts early in the season when guys like Lee and Marinelli weren't in the lineup. I think there's some cautious optimism for the future with Iowa retooling its approach to recruiting and starting to land some of the high-profile blue chip studs (like Spencer Lee, Alex Marinelli, and Jacob Warner) that have fueled the rise of Ohio State and Penn State. But they still need to land more guys like that to keep up with the Joneses, so we'll see how things progress on that front.
Q: The Hawkeyes started the season farther down the rankings than one would typically expect, and midway through the season find themselves right back in the Top 4. What is the upside for this team, and what are their goals in the postseason?
Ross: I think a lot will hinge on how things play out for Iowa over the next few weeks. They're in the midst of an absolutely brutal stretch of the schedule -- Oklahoma State last week, Ohio State this week, Michigan next week, and Penn State a few weeks after that; that's basically every Top 5 team but Missouri -- but the upside to that is seeing how Iowa stacks up against several of the top contenders they're likely to see in March.
Just how good is Spencer Lee as a true freshman? Have Brandon Sorensen and Michael Kemerer closed the gap on Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf at all? Can Alex Marinelli make a run for a solid podium placement at 165? Can Sam Stoll be the "best of the rest" at heavyweight after Kyle Snyder (and, realistically, Adam Coon)? I think once we have better answers to those questions, we'll know more about the potential of this team.
There's also the Pat Downey question -- is he going to be at Iowa, how good can he be, will he stay out of trouble? On paper, he could potentially add another 15 points (at least) to Iowa's total team score, which would be significant. Gun to my head, I think Iowa's highest upside right now is 3rd place at Big Tens and NCAAs, though that may rely on a few things going right. Whether they can raise that ceiling any higher depends on what answers we get to the aforementioned questions over the next month or so.
The goal at Iowa doesn't really change -- championships -- but if you told me right now Iowa would get 3rd place finishes at Big Tens and NCAAs, I... wouldn't be too upset by that, frankly, given all the question marks this team had to start the season (and still has, really).
Q: Burning Spencer Lee’s redshirt was one of the biggest stories of the season - how has he changed the team now that he’s in the lineup, and what are his strengths and vulnerabilities as 125?
Ross: He's provided a huge spark for the team in several ways. From a dual meet standpoint, he allows Iowa to get things started with a bang -- and quite often bonus points. That's huge because with Iowa's weakness at 133 and 141 there were times early in the season when they were starting duals in a 9-0 (or worse) hole, which makes things difficult -- there's not much room for error in the subsequent seven weights.
He's also an electrifying presence that fires up the crowd and also seems to fire up his teammates; they feed off his energy and his strength. In the bigger picture, he's allowed Iowa to set their sights a little higher this season -- that's the benefit of adding a guy who could be an NCAA finalist and add at least 20 points to your team score in a tournament setting. He's the biggest recruit Iowa has landed in several years and there's been a mountain of hype around him for years, so actually getting to see him wrestle in an Iowa singlet has been immensely exciting and gratifying for Iowa fans, too.
As far as a scouting report goes... his strengths are that he's solid in every position: he's good in neutral and has a vice-like grip and an impressive ability to suck guys in when he gets his hands on them. He's especially strong on the mat, though, particularly in the top position, where he's able to ride guys extremely well and get bonus points off tilts and turns quite often. Seven of his eight wins this year have been pins or technical falls.
He's also shown some pretty strong defense from neutral to keep opponents away from his legs. That said, he had a few issues there last week against Oklahoma State's Piccininni, which is tied to his biggest weakness, which right now appears to be cardio. He gassed pretty hard in the second and third periods against Piccininni; his only points in those periods came from a few escapes and he let Piccininni get to his legs more often and actually succeed at takedowns as well.
He doesn't have a lot of mat time this year and as a true freshman he's still adjusting to a lot of the realities of college wrestling (like one-hour weigh-ins), so he definitely seems more vulnerable the longer a match goes. He's also less than a year removed from ACL surgery and while he's obviously been cleared by doctors to compete, he's wearing a bulky brace and doesn't move as smoothly as I expect he will when he's a year or two removed from that surgery.
Q: Brandon Sorensen is one of the best middleweights in the country, and earns bonus points at a high rate. What is his legacy at Iowa, and how should Ke-Shawn Hayes go about trying to steal the upset?
ROSS: It's a little funny to hear you say that he earns bonus points at a high rate, because the most common knock on him among Iowa fans is that he doesn't get enough bonus points and has a knack for wrestling overly conservative at times. The reality is that he's earned bonus points in over 60% of his wins the last two seasons (over 70% this season), which isn't too bad. (I think part of the issue is that as the longtime #2 guy at 149 he gets compared to the #1 guy in Retherford, but that's probably not entirely fair, given how freakishly good Zain is.)
But he does tend to wrestle more cautiously against the top guys, which can lead to a lot of nerve-wracking matches and close decisions. Right now his legacy is as a very, very good and very consistent wrestler who couldn't quite get over the top; he's a three-time All-American and he's never finished outside the Top 4 -- but he's also never won a Big Ten or NCAA title (the unfortunate side effect of being a very good 149er in the Age of Zain).
To change that legacy he'll need to bring home some hardware in March; to do that he'll probably need to finally beat Zain, which... welp. I think Hayes' best shot at an upset is to come out on fire and take it to Sorensen early. He sometimes starts matches a little slowly and can be a little flat-footed, so if Hayes can get to his legs and get some early takedowns, he could put Sorensen in a hole and force him to be more aggressive, which may leave him open to other mistakes.
Q: At 157 and 165, rankings-wise, the matches appear pretty even. Who has the edge in each match and why?
Ross: I think the middleweights (149-165) are the only area of this dual where Iowa has any sort of notable advantage, given the strength of Sorensen, Kemerer, and Marinelli this season. That said, Ohio State does have some high quality guys at these weights as well. I give Kemerer the edge at 157 because he's been wrestling at an incredibly high level this season and, really, dating back to last season. His only losses in college have been to Jason Nolf (twice) and Dylan Palacio. There's certainly no shame in losing to Nolf and Palacio caught Kemerer with some funk at NCAAs last year. Micah Jordan is very good, but I'm not sure I expect too much funk out of him. I give Marinelli an edge at 165 because he should have a lot of confidence right now after his recent wins, while Campbell is likely a little less confident with his recent losing funk; Marinelli also works a pretty hard tempo, which can be very wearing on guys later in matches.
Q: Kemerer has been a buzzsaw this season at 157, with pins or techs in all but four of his matches. What is the key to his dominance this season?
Ross: I think Kemerer is showing a similar growth pattern to what you often see out of elite guys in this sport: a very good first year, but then a certain amount of leveling up in the second year. At that point they know what to expect from college wrestling, they've got the weigh-ins and training down, they've had more time in the weight room to get stronger, they've honed their techniques, etc. They just become even better versions of themselves, essentially.
Kemerer has always been strong from neutral and adept at getting to opponents' legs and finishing from multiple positions; this year he's also improved his mat game and he's definitely looking to score more near fall points or get pins wherever possible. The best guys in this sport always seem to be looking to pin their opponents and that's the mindset Kemerer seems to have embraced this season.
Q: At 165, Te’Shan Campbell is coming off a rare string of consecutive losses and Marinelli will be wrestling back home in The Schott, a venue where he won four state titles. Is this match Marinelli's to lose?
Ross: I wouldn't quite go that far, but I think he's the favorite and, as I said above, I think he's going to enter the match with some real confidence, given his recent wins this season as well as the historical success he's had in this venue. I'm sure he'll be eager to put on a good show for his friends and family in attendance.
Marinelli has been difficult to take down this season (and difficult to keep down when opponents have been able to get takedowns) and while he hasn't yet been quite the offensive dynamo that we expected, he puts a lot of pressure on opponents with his tie-ups and works a heavy tempo that really grinds on guys. If this is a close match in the third, I'd favor him to get the decisive points based on his track record this season.
Q: What match are you most excited about, and why?
Ross: Hands down, Tomasello-Lee at 125. It's a possible Big Ten Tournament final preview (and maybe even NCAA Tournament final preview, depending on how the seeds shake out), but more than anything it's a chance to see Lee take on a world-class opponent who's been one of the top lightweights in the sport over the last four years. That's a really exciting proposition.
Plus, they're two guys who like to score points and entertain in general, so while there's definitely a possibility this match is very tactical and low-scoring (Lee's lone loss this year was a 3-1 defeat in the Midlands semifinals and I recall many a Tomasello match with Iowa's Thomas Gilman that was very tight and defensively wrestled), I'm hoping we see some fireworks and exciting wrestling.
My runner-up pick would be 184 IF Downey wrestles. That doesn't seem likely as I write this, but if he does face Myles Martin, I think that could produce some pretty wild action. Both Martin and Downey like to go for big moves, so I could see them throwing caution to the wind and trading bombs in that one.
Q: Prediction time: How does it play out?
Ross: My heart obviously wants to pick Iowa (it always does!), but my head doesn't quite see how it happens. Assuming Iowa wins 149-165, they're going to need to find multiple upsets elsewhere. Even if Iowa were to get wins from, say, Lee and Downey (which look like they're most plausible upset bids, and even that assumes that Downey actually wrestles on Sunday), that probably wouldn't be enough because Ohio State has an excellent chance to get bonus points at several weights. 133, 174, 184, 197 all look like weights were Ohio State could get bonus points (with 141 as a possibility too) and I think it would probably be a small miracle if Kyle Snyder didn't get bonus points for the Buckeyes at 285.
The path to an Iowa win most likely involves 1-2 upsets which, if they happened, would probably be Upset of the Year material. Iowa's lineup is better than it was about six weeks ago, but it still has some definite holes, while Ohio State has tremendous quality at pretty much every weight (only two guys in the OSU roster are ranked lower than #6 at their respective weights, if memory serves) -- that's tough to overcome. I hope to be wrong, but my official pick is a score around Ohio State 23, Iowa 9.