Preview: No. 2 Ohio State Hits Las Vegas In Search of Third-Straight Cliff Keen Invitational Championship

By Andy Vance on November 30, 2018 at 9:20 am
The 2017 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational champions

Most visitors leave Las Vegas on the wrong side of the ledger, but for Ohio State's wrestling team, Sin City has been quite kind over the past two seasons. The No. 2 Buckeyes head back to America's Playground this weekend to defend their back-to-back Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational championships and will face some of the best wrestlers in the country.

Ohio State is one of 42 teams to enter the two-day tournament, including more than 30 D-I schools. The Buckeyes may enter as the two-time defending event champions, but they face a loaded field in what is arguably this season’s most-competitive regular season tournament: eleven of the Top-20 teams in the country will be in Vegas with more than 100 nationally-ranked wrestlers taking the mats.

Last year Tom Ryan took 10 wrestlers to Las Vegas, put seven into the quarterfinals, six into the semifinals, three of whom would win it all. The Buckeyes outpaced the second-place Michigan Wolverines by 15.5 points, all without the services of headliners Nathan Tomasello, Joey McKenna and Kyle Snyder.

He'll field all of his starters this season, and will expect a similar finish.

The Favorites

Six Buckeyes received pre-seeds Wednesday, with half of those slated at the top spot in the bracket. Joey McKenna, Myles Martin and Kollin Moore each received the top seed at their respective weight classes, as befitting their status as NCAA title contenders.

Moore is the most likely Buckeye to repeat as Cliff Keen champion, at least on paper. He is No. 3 in the country at 197 pounds, and the next-highest ranked entrant in the class is No. 8 Nathan Traxler of Stanford.

Don't be surprised if Moore starts the weekend slow given his recent return from Bucharest, Romania, for the U23 World Freestyle championships... where he won the Silver Medal, by the way. But with some major road miles under his belt and cutting from 97 kg., down to 197 pounds, it will surprise no one if his early-round victories aren't all pins or tech falls.

That said, Moore should cruise through to victory given his undeniable talent and experience relative to the field.

U23 teammate Myles Martin, at 184 pounds, won't face the same cut Moore has in making the shift from freestyle back to NCAA competition, but he faces a tougher field: all four of the top-four wrestlers in the class are entered this weekend. That said, defending Cliff Keen champion Martin is a -400 favorite to win again, according to FloWrestling, with no one else in the field better than -300; he is an NCAA champion who has made the finals more often than not, after all.

At 141 pounds, Joey McKenna will likely run into Missouri standout Jaydin Eierman at the end of the tournament. The two have quite a bit of history, including an epic battle at the 2018 U.S. Open (also in Las Vegas), from which McKenna emerged as champion.

Still this will be a rubber match, of sorts, in folkstyle competition. Eierman won their meeting in the bloodround of the 2017 NCAA tournament, but McKenna returned the favor in the third-place match last March in Cleveland.

As Flo analyst Andrew Spey notes, "the funky Eierman and the fundamental McKenna are a fascinating contrast in styles, and two of the best young lightweight talents in America." This class will be one of the most entertaining of the weekend.

The Contenders

In addition to the trio of top seeds, Luke Pletcher, Micah Jordan and Ke-Shawn Hayes each received pre-seeds in the top four of their respective classes.

Pletcher stood alongside Martin and Moore a year ago as tournament champions, having chewed his way through the class, dispatching three ranked wrestlers including Michigan's Stephan Micic.

Micic, alas, won his next three matches versus Pletcher, in the dual meet, at the Big Ten Tournament, and at the NCAA Championships. The Wolverine, ranked No. 3 in the country, was expected to be in the field in Las Vegas again this year, along with No. 2 Nick Suriano of Rutgers and No. 7 Ethan Lizak of Minnesota, but was pulled from competition Thursday.

The Michigan Man's departure likely leaves Suriano as the favorite, but Pletcher isn't wrestling the same types of matches this year he did last season. Last year, he had just four bonus-point victories all year long; this season he has six wins with bonus points under his belt already. If he can maintain this more aggressive approach, he should be well-positioned to give Suriano a run for his money.

Jordan, at 149 pounds, pulled the No. 2 seed in the tourney, behind Rutgers star Anthony Ashnault. Even if he isn't the favorite, Micah tends to do some of his best wrestling in this tournament, as he won titles here in 2015 and 2016, before coming on the wrong side of an 8-6 decision in the final match last year to Michigan's Alec Pantaleo.

Speaking of Pantaelo, he would likely have entered the lists as the favorite at 157 pounds, but like Micic, is being held out of the tournament this weekend.

That certainly gives Hayes a clearer path to a Cliff Keen championship of his own, though I'm sure he would have rather had the opportunity to beat a Wolverine along the way. Instead he'll face ranked Top-10 contenders from Nebraska, Northwestern and Minnesota.

Hayes is filling out well at 157 pounds after moving up for the second time in as many years. It will be interesting to see how he performs in a field that is stacked with ranked talent, but in which he is clearly one of the more talented competitors.

The Dark Horses

Chase Singletary, wrestling at heavyweight, has an opportunity to establish himself as a contender this weekend. Despite mixed reviews on his early-season work, he stands 10-0 on the season, with an excellent tournament win over Mason Parris and a dual-meet-winning victory on the road at Arizona State ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Minnesota phenom Gable Steveson enters the field as the clear favorite, but after him No. 9 Conan Jennings is the only other Top 10 guy entered. If Singletary makes it to the latter rounds of the tournament, his stock will rise considerably, even if an upset of Steveson seems unlikely at the moment.

Other first-timers at the Cliff Keen include Kaleb Romero at 165 pounds and Ethan Smith at 174. Romero is 5-1 on the season, and Smith at 9-2 continues to battle Te'Shan Campbell for a starting spot. Both young Bucks are longshots to make the finals, but how they perform on the first day of the tournament will go a long way to deciding how the Buckeyes finish up in the team race.

Brakan Mead, at 125 pounds, rounds out the lineup. He is 3-3 thus far this season, and went 2-2 last year at the Cliff Keen. The 125-pound field is one of the tougher in the tournament, so Mead will once again have his work cut out for him this weekend.

When and Where

Live video streaming of the tournament is available via FloWrestling ($), with live results available for free via FloArena.

The event kicks off at High Noon:

  • Friday
    • Noon: early rounds
    • 9 p.m.: Quarterfinals and consolation rounds
  • Saturday
    • Noon: consolation rounds
    • 1 p.m.: Semifinals, consolation and 5th-8th place matches
    • 6 p.m.: Finals & 3rd place matches
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