The NCAA championships are set to get underway this Thursday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A year ago this Iowa team put a lot of good wrestling together, and through that they took the country by surprise when the brought home the third place trophy (and accumulated more bonus points than team champions Penn State).
While this tournament is always circled as the most important one of the season, this year the Championships hold some extra significance for several of the Hawkeye wrestlers. Four of Iowa’s ten starters draw their roots from the state of Pennsylvania, with all of them winning prep titles in the very city they look to compete in this weekend. Spencer Lee, Austin DeSanto, Max Murin, and Kaleb Young all hail from eastern Pennsylvania and will be “heading home” so to speak.
This year things were a little bit different in the construction of the brackets as all wrestlers in the field were seeded. Previously only the top 16 wrestlers received a seed and the remaining 17 were then drawn in to face a seeded opponent.
#3 Spencer Lee
First Round Opponent: #30 Christian Moody (Oklahoma)
Second Round Opponent: #14 Ryan Millhof (Arizona State) or #19 Zeke Moisey (Nebraska)
Sophomore Spencer Lee will begin his quest for title number two this weekend as the bracket’s #3 seed after his Big Ten runner-up performance in Minnesota. There is no question the Lee we saw on conference weekend was a much closer version to what we witnessed during his 2018 postseason run. He won two matches by way of bonus and dropped an overtime match to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera.
He kicks things off at National’s against Christian Moody of Oklahoma, which should be a match that Lee will be heavily favored in. A win there will pit him against either Millhof or Moisey, with Millhof being the favored wrestler to advance to face Lee. In his career Lee is 1-0 against Moisey, winning this year’s dual meeting 18-4 and has never faced Millhof. Millhof was a 2016 All-American at this weight back when he wrestled for Oklahoma.
Looking at the rest of Lee’s bracket Sean Russell of Minnesota is the wrestler favored to be his quarterfinals opponent. In his career Lee is 3-0 vs Russell with two bonus victories. Should things continue he could wind up facing Nick Piccinni of Oklahoma State in the semifinals, who pinned Lee in their dual meeting in January, though Lee is still 2-1 against the Cowboy in his career.
Looking at the trends its safe to say that after Big Ten’s it certainly looks as though Lee is trending in the right direction and if he is able to recapture his 2018 form it would be tough to bet against him. He was right there against the top seed Rivera in the Big Ten finals, who actually scored by countering Lee’s leg attack.
*Note: Since this was written it has been announced that Millhof will be withdrawing from the tournament. Lee’s new potential second round pairing is #14 Sean Fausz (NC State) or #19 Alex Mackall (Iowa State).
#7 Austin DeSanto
First Round Opponent: #26 Codi Russell (Appalachian State)
Second Round Opponent: #10 Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) or #23 Mario Guillen (Ohio)
If we just look at the draw itself Iowa fans shouldn’t have too much to complain about when it comes to Austin DeSanto. Its possible that by finishing fourth at the Big Ten tournament that DeSanto may have given himself an easier path when all is said and done. The Hawkeye opens with Codi Russell, a wrestler DeSanto pinned in under a minute last season. A win advances him to a potential meeting against #10 seed Roman Bravo-Young of Penn State, who DeSanto defeated 12-8 at Big Ten’s.
What may be the biggest pay off is the other top wrestler in DeSanto’s quarter of the bracket is Michigan’s Stevan Micic, who defaulted out of the conference tournament due to injury concerns. The duo are 1-1 against each other, trading major decisions last season. If Micic is less than 100%, it could potentially open the door for another DeSanto victory in their series.
The wrestler that beat DeSanto for third at Big Ten’s, Minnesota’s Ethan Lizak, drew returning All-American Traiq Wilson as his potential round of 16 match. The biggest benefit for DeSanto would depend on Micic’s health. If at full strength Iowa fans might have preferred a match up with #3 seed Nick Suriano of Rutgers, which is the other top wrestler on DeSanto’s half of the bracket.
Wrestling is a sport that rarely goes all the way to chalk, but looking at this draw through Hawk-colored glasses this draw does not appear to be unfavorable.
#22 Max Murin
First Round Opponent: #11 Tristan Moran (Wisconsin)
Second Round Opponent: #6 Michael Carr (Illinois) or Anthony Sparacio (Binghampton)
Looking at Murin’s draw the one thing that stands out is his path on the front side appears to be very Big Ten heavy. He opens his tournament with #11 Moran of Wisconsin, and a win there should setup the rubber match between him and #6 Carr. Should Murin manage to defeat Carr once again, the top wrestler in his quarterfinal is #3 seed Nick Lee of Penn State.
Murin performed well at the Big Ten tournament avenging regular season losses to Kyle Luigs of Indiana and Carr of Illinois on the way to his seventh place finish. His losses were to the aforementioned Lee and Minnesota’s Mitch McKee. During the regular season dual both Iowa and Wisconsin wrestled their backups, which makes this opening match a bit of an unknown. If Murin can find away to upset Moran, and then find away to beat Carr once again he will put his team in a very strong position heading into the quarterfinal round.
#10 Pat Lugo
First Round Opponent: #23 Joshua Maruca (Arizona State)
Second Round Opponent: #7 Kaden Gfeller (Oklahoma State) or #26 Ryan Blees (Virginia Tech)
Moving on to Pat Lugo’s draw we see some less than favorable matchups out of the gate than one would like to see. For starters he will face #23 Maruca of Arizona State in round one, which is a wrestler that beat him last year at the Midlands Championships by a score of 4-1.
Assuming Lugo is able to wrestle to seed and advance that would make his next likely opponent the #7 seed Gfeller of Oklahoma State, a wrestler whom he narrowly defeated earlier in the year, 7-4.
The other top wrestler in Lugo’s quarterfinal of the bracket is Ohio State’s #2 seed Micah Jordan. Due to Big Ten scheduling these two wrestlers did not face each other during the regular season and they did not hit at the conference tournament.
#6 Kaleb Young
First Round Opponent: #27 Dan Reed (Columbia)
Second Round Opponent: #11 Ke-Shawn Hayes (Ohio State) or #22 Zac Carson (Ohio)
So far its been a pretty successful season for Young since he has dropped down to the 157-pound weight class, though I am sure he would like to close the year out on the podium. He came into his new weight and established himself in the upper tier of wrestlers, but so far he hasn’t had a breakthrough into the top group.
Young’s tournament will open with a pair of favorable matches first #27 Reed of Columbia followed be either #11 Hayes or #22 Carson. Of the three Hayes is the only opponent Young has faced this season and that was at the Big Ten tournament where he won 11-1. Young isn’t known for his high school bouts and is more viewed for his workman-like ethic on the mat.
The one thing that can be said about this weight is that none of the top four seeds look very susceptible to upsets, but of the three Young faced the one that appeared to have the most separation was Northwestern’s #3 Ryan Deakin. During the regular season Young lost a sudden victory match to #2 seed Tyler Berger and at Big Ten’s he dropped a 5-3 and 3-2 match to Alec Pantaleo. He faced Deakin in the Midlands finals where he lost that match by a score of 6-2.
#1 Alex Marinelli
First Round Opponent: #32 Joe Smith (Oklahoma State) or #33 Mitch Mooreland (Northwestern)
Second Round Opponent: #16 Thomas Bullard (NC State) or #17 Jonathan Viruet (Brown)
In terms of a top seed, its very possible that Iowa’s Alex Marinelli has one of the toughest draws conceivable for this tournament. His first round match will likely be against Oklahoma State’s Joe Smith who is a two-time All-American for the Cowboys. Smith spent his entire season, except for his conference tournament qualifier at 174 pounds, which played a big factor in his low seed.
Should Marinelli win he will face either #16 Bullard or #17 Viruet. While he has never faced the former, in two career matches that he has faced Viruet he has won by a two point margin, the most recent being a grinding Midlands match earlier this season. Finally, the other top wrestler in Marinelli’s quarterfinal is Virginia Tech’s #7 seed Mekhi Lewis, who defeated Marinelli in two freestyle matches this past summer at the Junior World Team Trials.
All of this to get another match against the top of the weight class, #4 Evan Wick of Wisconsin, and if we are really looking ahead #2 Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State. No one ever said winning a NCAA title is easy, but the path that the Bull runs through is littered with challenges.
#12 Cash Wilcke
First Round Opponent: #21 Nick Gravina (Rutgers)
Second Round Opponent: #5 Max Dean (Cornell) or #28 Noah Stewart (Army)
A two-time round of 12 finisher, will this finally be the year that Cash Wilcke breaks through on to the podium? The 184-pound class is full of solid wrestlers throughout the top seeds, but the junior has surprised us on more than one occasion this time of the year. He will start his tournament against #21 Gravina of Rutgers, who did not appear when the two team’s dualed back in December, and then medically forfeited to the Hawk at the Big Ten tournament. He’s a wrestler that has struggled with injuries all season, but was always a handful in previous years.
Should Wilcke advance it would mean an early meeting with one of the weight’s top seeds Max Dean. To date Wilcke’s only win over a top ten wrestler is #9 seed Taylor Venz of Nebraska (though he has also defeated #10 Sammy Colbray in freestyle).
#5 Jacob Warner
First Round Opponent: #28 Drew Phipps (Bucknell)
Second Round Opponent: #12 Rocco Caywood (Army) or #21 Thomas Lane (Cal Poly)
After a third place showing at the Big Ten tournament, Iowa freshman Jacob Warner is looking to deliver for the Hawkeyes in his first ever NCAA appearance. He will start out with Bucknell’s #28 Phipps, which should be a winnable match to advance to the round of 16.
There he could see Army’s #12 Caywood, who defeated Warner earlier this season at the Midlands. That tournament was the second appearance of the season for Warner after an injury prevented him from taking the mat all of November. Since the turn of the calendar Warner has looked like a much improved wrestler, taking losses only to #2 Kollin Moore of Ohio State and #3 Preston Weigel of Oklahoma State.
It’s always tough to predict too far into brackets, but assuming both Warner and Brucki reach the quarterfinals to set up the #4 vs #5 matchup it will be another Midlands rematch in which Warner can avenge a loss. Last season Brucki defeated Warner 4-2.
#29 Sam Stoll
First Round Opponent: #4 Jordan Wood (Lehigh)
Second Round Opponent: #13 Matt Voss (George Mason) or #20 Zach Elam (Missouri)
Finally, we reach Sam Stoll, who will attempt to close out his career with another All-American honor in his third NCAA appearance. Stoll’s career has been one of injuries as his knee hampered his finish as a freshman, and prevented him from even attempting to compete as a sophomore. Last year he was finally healthy enough to get on the podium, but additional injuries have once again limited the former blue chip recruit.
Because of those injuries Stoll needed a wildcard to even qualify for the tournament, and in doing so he finds himself facing a top seed in round one #4 Wood of Lehigh. Still we should consider that Stoll is a high caliber wrestler that is very capable of stealing a match. Essentially a win in round one turns Stoll in to the #4 seed himself, which would certainly open up the bracket for the Hawkeye senior. He has never faced either of his potential second round opponents, #13 Voss or #20 Elam.
The one thing we are certainly hoping for is a healthy enough Stoll that can go out there and compete one final time before calling it a career. For the majority of his career Stoll was considered a top ten wrestler, and it would definitely be more satisfying to see him go out on his own terms rather than seeing another injury force him to default.