Eighty universities field NCAA Division I wrestling teams. Of the Top 10 in that select group, six call the Big Ten home.
That is one reason why many observers call the Big Ten Wrestling Championships the toughest tournament in the country. Ohio State begins its title defense at that tournament Saturday at 11 a.m.
The Buckeyes are not only the defending tournament champions – they have three of the past tour tournament titles to their credit. While Penn State has dominated the NCAA Championships, Tom Ryan's teams have been Kings in the North more frequently of late.
That may change this weekend, however, as the Nittany Lions appear to be prohibitive favorites in Minneapolis. Ryan told reporters last week that his team needed to win "all the big matches" in front of them, where their rivals to the East only needed a few breaks to fall their way.
To put it into perspective, Ohio State has one No. 1 seed in the tournament in Myles Martin at 184 pounds. Penn State has four. To the Buckeyes' credit, Ohio State’s entire 10-man lineup earned top-8 pre-seeds for the tournament; Michigan is the only other school to also have its complete lineup seeded in the top-8.
Setting aside the team race, the Ohio State storylines this weekend are many, and they are compelling:
- Myles Martin, Micah Jordan, Joey McKenna and Te'Shan Campbell will wrestle in their final conference tournaments;
- Joey McKenna will go for his fourth conference crown, having won a pair of Pac-12 titles before winning last year's Big Ten championship at 141 pounds;
- McKenna and Kollin Moore have never lost a match in a conference tournament; Moore is the two-time defending champion at 197 pounds;
- Seventy-eight automatic bids to the 2019 NCAA Championships will be up for grabs in Minneapolis.
That last part is especially important. Ohio State is one of only two teams in the country to earn its conference automatic bids at all 10 weight classes – now the athletes have to go out and earn the right to fill those bids for the NCAA tourney in Pittsburgh.
(NCAA Auto Bids)
|125||Malik Heinselman||21-7||8th (nine NCAA bids)||30th||15th|
|133||Luke Pletcher||20-4||5th (eight NCAA bids)||7th||6th|
|141||Joey McKenna||16-2||3rd (nine NCAA bids)||3rd||1st|
|149||Micah Jordan||22-1||2nd (six NCAA bids)||2nd||4th|
|157||Ke-Shawn Hayes||18-7||7th (nine NCAA bids)||7th||4th|
|165||Te'Shan Campbell||17-4||6th (nine NCAA bids)||24th||N/R|
|174||Ethan Smith||15-8||6th (eight NCAA bids)||20th||11th|
|184||Myles Martin||17-0||1st (eight NCAA bids)||1st||1st|
|197||Kollin Moore||16-1||2nd (five NCAA bids)||2nd||1st|
|285||Chase Singletary||18-5||5th (seven NCAA bids)||10th||6th|
The Buckeyes claimed three conference crowns over the past four seasons (2015, 2017, 2018), including a 164.5-point blowout a year ago that marked the biggest team score in 16 years (Minnesota, 174.0 in 2002) at the Big Ten Championships. Seventy percent of the lineup advanced to the finals with four champions and three runners-up.
Opening-round action gets underway Saturday at 11 a.m. on BTNPlus with the preliminary, quarterfinal, semifinal and wrestleback matches taking place in Sessions I and II (session II starts at 5 p.m.).
Consolation semifinals and seventh-place matches get underway at 11 a.m. on Sunday, while first-, third- and fifth-place matches begin at 2 p.m. BTN Plus will provide live streaming coverage of Session III, while the championship rounds will be carried live on the Big Ten Network.
125 pounds: Malik Heinselman, 8th seed
True freshman Malik Heinselman shed his redshirt mid-season because Ryan and staff felt he provided the team the best opportunity to reach its postseason goals. He finished the season 21-7, ranked 30th in the NCAA Coaches Panel and 15th in the RPI.
Less reassuring? His record versus the field this weekend is just 2-4. Heinselman came to Ohio State as one of the top recruits in the class, and he has serious international freestyle credibility and senior-level potential, but he gives up some size and strength to the veterans in the class at the moment.
The tradeoff between burning a redshirt or not in his case was sacrificing size and strength for getting him battle-tested against the best wrestlers in the country, and having faced five of the Top 15 wrestlers in the country already this season, he certainly gained that experience along the way.
To earn an automatic bid, he only need wrestle to seed as there are nine automatic bids up for grabs. His opening match is versus Purdue's Devin Schroder, which is a tough but winnable match. If he wins the opener, however, he'll face No. 1 seed Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern; lose and he'll like face Indiana's Elijah Oliver in the wrestlebacks.
133 pounds: Luke Pletcher, 5th seed
Pletcher is a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He is perceived as a guy content to grind out low-scoring decisions, seeming to wait for the perfect shot rather than driving the action... and yet half of his victories in the regular season came with bonus points attached.
He seemed to be in what he later admitted was the "worst slump of my career," in the early weeks of 2019, and then came out against Nebraska and scored the most points he'd put on the board since the Cliff Keen tournament in November.
A 2018 Big Ten finalist, Pletcher has all of the skills and strength needed to be on the podium in Pittsburgh later this month. His path to a title in Minneapolis this weekend is a tough one, though: he's slated for a rematch with Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young in the quarterfinals, and would face No. 1 Stevan Micic of Michigan in the semis.
141 pounds: Joey McKenna, 3rd seed
In some ways, it's a surprise that McKenna isn't the No. 1 seed in this tournament. He spent much of the season ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in the country behind Cornell superstar Yianni Diakomihalis, is currently ranked No. 3 in the NCAA Coaches Panel and is No. 1 in the RPI.
He finished the regular season with a record of 16-2, and is 5-2 versus ranked opponents and is 5-1 versus the field in Minneapolis. But his loss to Diakomihalis in the last match of the dual-meet schedule and February loss to Penn State's Nick Lee gave the conference coaches reason to doubt the New Jersey native, and he slid to the No. 3 spot.
McKenna should cruise through his first two matches Saturday, but will get his rematch with Lee in the semifinals. No. 1 seed Michael Carr should come out on top in the other half of the bracket.
149 pounds: Micah Jordan, 2nd seed
It's hard to believe this is the last Big Ten tournament for "The Mongoose," and maybe harder to believe that with a career record of 106-19 that he has never won a conference crown.
Jordan finished the season 22-1, with his only loss coming to Big Ten foe Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers, the No. 1 seed in the tournament. It seems fairly likely that the two will face off again in what will be Jordan's third conference final in a row.
157 pounds: Ke-Shawn Hayes, 7th seed
Ke-Shawn Hayes has wrestled the toughest schedule of anyone on the team this season, explaining why he is the No. 7 man in the country despite having finished the season with a record of 18-7.
He has five wins over top-20 opponents this season and is No. 4 in the RPI in part because 11 of his last 14 opponents have been ranked, and seven of those were Top 10 opponents.
His bracket is pretty rough, too. After a match he should win over Rutgers' John Van Brill, he'll face No. 2 seed Tyler Berger of Nebraska for the second time this season. Get past Berger, and its a rematch with Northwestern's Ryan Deakin. Get past Deakin and, congratulations, here's a rematch with No. 1 seed Jason Nolf of Penn State.
Give Hayes all the credit in the world: he's a warrior, and he's got the scars to prove it.
165 pounds: Te'Shan Campbell, 7th seed
Te'Shan Campbell is a three-time NCAA qualifier and former ACC Champion who hasn't quite lived up to his potential in Columbus. Starting the season at 174 pounds, he was unseated by redshirt freshman Ethan Smith, and dropped back down to 165 in relief of embattled first-year starter Kaleb Romero.
Campbell is perhaps the most physically gifted wrestler on the team. Tom Ryan told reporters last week that the senior from Pittsburgh can deadlift more than 600 pounds, and he is a hammer from the top position.
But on his feet, he just hasn't gotten the job done against the top competition in the conference. This weekend he'll open against Tyler Morland of Northwestern, a man he beat via a 6-0 decision earlier this season. That's where the good news ends though, as he'll then face Alex "The Bull" Marinelli in the second bout, and The Bull will be coming off a first-round bye to boot.
174 pounds: Ethan Smith, 6th seed
Smith is one of the exciting developments this season. After battling with Campbell for the starting spot throughout the first months of the season, he proved himself to be a capable contender with four wins over Top 20 opponents and a near-50% bonus rate.
His only blowout loss of the season came to No. 1 Mark Hall of Penn State, as he was more or less within a takedown of his opponent in his four losses in calendar year 2019.
Smith should win his first round against Carver James of Illinois, and then gets a chance to avenge his loss to Dylan Lydy of Purdue. If he does that, he'll have a second shot at Myles Amine of Michigan, the man he nearly upset in front of a near-capacity crowd in Columbus earlier this year.
184 pounds: Myles Martin, No. 1 seed
TL;DR: Myles Martin is good at wrestling and will win this tournament.
Longer version: Martin's half of the bracket will present few challenges for the former NCAA champion, and his most-likely opponent in the finals is No. 2 seed Shakur Rasheed of Penn State... if Rasheed wrestles. The No. 2 man in the country has battled a leg injury since mid-January, and has wrestled in just two matches since.
197 pounds: Kollin Moore, 2nd seed
Moore is the two-time defending champion at 197 pounds, and would be the prohibitive favorite to win again... if the No. 1 seed weren't Hodge Trophy favorite Bo Nickal of Penn State.
Moore is 16-1 this season, 7-1 versus the field and 6-1 versus ranked foes, and the "1" in each of those records is Nickal, who pinned Moore in 98 seconds during their dual-meet match earlier this season.
Prior to that expected rematch, Moore doesn't have much resistance. He'll likely face Jacob Warner of Iowa in the semifinals; Warner is 14-3 this season, but is a redshirt freshman in his first Big Ten tournament.
285 pounds: Chase Singletary, 5th seed
Like Ethan Smith, Singletary is one of the great stories this season. The redshirt freshman finished the regular season with a record of 18-5 with a pair of wins versus Top-10 foes and four wins overall against men in the Top 20.
He rides into Minneapolis on a three-match win streak, two of which came against ranked foes on dramatic third-period takedowns. The bad news for the young Buck is that he is in the same side of the bracket as freshman phenom Gable Steveson of Minnesota, who is 27-0 and looking to cement himself as a true superstar in front of a home-town crowd.
To get to Steveson, Singletary will have to avenge his December loss to Trent Hillger of Wisconsin. The redshirt freshman is a much different wrestler than he was in December, and has the momentum behind him to get the job done.
How It Plays Out
This is a tough tournament, and the Buckeyes drew some of the toughest brackets in the conference. There are some exciting matches in store Saturday, and all 10 wrestlers should place high enough to earn automatic bids to the NCAA Championships in Pittsburgh.
Myles Martin, Micah Jordan and Joey McKenna are all in the hunt for conference titles, and young Bucks Malik Heinselman, Ethan Smith and Chase Singletary have the chance to prove they're ready for the biggest stages in the sport.
From hardwood to the mats, here is the timelapse.
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) March 8, 2019
Penn State will probably end Ohio State's streak of conference title victories, but the Buckeyes aren't ready to concede anything.