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History Tells us to Expect a High Scoring Team Race in St. Louis

NCAA Wrestling

The brackets are out for the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship which means we have a clearer view than we have all season of what this year’s edition of March Matness will look like in St. Louis. There is plenty yet to be decided and the match-ups will be poured over, analyzed, and dissected ad nauseum over the next week leading up to the action kicking off Thursday, March 16th. Before we start getting into the individual weight classes, I wanted to take another look at the team race, specifically how many points it is going to take to win this thing.

The number of team points scored by the winner and, just as importantly, the second place team over the years varies widely. Championships have been won with less than 100 points while in 2001 Iowa came up short despite scoring 125.5. Plenty of teams have failed to take home titles despite scoring more than 100 points and it looks almost certain to happen again this season. One simple way to project a team’s score at nationals is to look at their seeds and then award each wrestler the advancement and placement points they will earn if they wrestle exactly to that seed. By doing that, we can get some idea of how many points a team will score. However, this projection does not account for bonus points and we know that some teams will overperform while others won’t quite live up to the hype.

We can still get a pretty good idea of how many points the contenders will score this year by looking at the top teams in past years, looking at their projected points by seed, and comparing that to their final point total. Looking at every team that finished in the top 10 over the past five seasons, teams scored 1.28 points in the actual tournament for every 1 point projected. That continues to climb for top five teams (1.31) and top three teams (1.37). However, looking at high finishing teams skews the number to the high side. This is because teams that overperform tend to finish higher in the standings as well. Because of that, it is also useful to look at the same measure for the top five teams in projected points for the last five seasons, regardless of their finish. As expected, the ratio drops to 1.20 points scored per projected point when you look at it that way and it holds steady looking at the top three teams in projected points for each season.

So, 1.2 is a reasonable multiplier to use, but we each team will be different. Therefore we also need to look at how often the top teams do well versus how often they don’t. The eventual champion has been in the top three in projected points in each of the past five seasons. Every one of those teams had a ratio of at least 1.22 to 1. Of the 15 teams that entered the tournament in the top three in projected points, nine of them exceeded the 1.2 number with two of the top three doing so in four of the five years while only one did it in the other.

What does that tell us? It suggests that most of the top teams are probably going to score at least 20% more points than projected which means it is going to take a high score to win. Here are the projections for the top five teams based on seeds.

School Points
Penn State 113
Oklahoma State 104
Ohio State 92.5
Virginia Tech 75
Iowa 74

As you can see, even if the top three only score at their projections, something that is rare for individual teams much less all three as a group, we will have two teams over 100 points and another close to it. Only three of the 15 teams projected to be in the top three since 2012 have failed to at least score the same number of points as they projected. Twice, in 2012 and 2015, the projected top five all exceeded their projections. If two of the top three exceed 1.2 as has been the case most often recently, we will have two teams at 111 or higher at the very least. If the two that do well are Penn State and Oklahoma State, we will have a runner-up that is either very close to or exceeds the record for most points scored without winning a title.

School Points
Penn State 135.6
Oklahoma State 124.8
Ohio State 111
Virginia Tech 90
Iowa 88.8

This is what each team’s score would be if they met the 1.2 ratio. There have been teams that have gone much higher, Penn State in 2012 had a ratio of 1.65 to 1 on their way to 143 points after projecting to score less than 2017 Ohio State before the tournament. It is almost certain that someone won’t hit 1.2, but enough of them will that this promises to be a high-scoring race for the top two or three spots.

There is an interesting parallel here as the 2001 Iowa team that set the record for highest scoring runner-up lost to the Minnesota team that had 10 All-Americans and no finalists. Oklahoma State enters the tournament with all wrestlers seeded ninth or better while Penn State looks to be much more top heavy. I’m not ready to predict all 10 Cowboys making the podium, but it is another interesting story to follow in an intriguing team battle.

The bottom line is that while we don’t know exactly what awaits next week, we have four teams projected to score a lot of points and another that isn’t far behind. History tells us that not all of these teams will fall apart, meaning anyone who wants the title is going to have to pile up the points. If Nick Suriano (Penn State) isn’t healthy by then, the race is a virtual dead heat when bonus points are factored in while Ohio State can put themselves right in the mix even if the top two wrestle well. Keep an eye on that 125.5 total for the runner-up, we may see history in 2017!

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