The 2017 NCAA Wrestling Division I championship which kicks off tomorrow in St. Louis features a statistical oddity that jumps off the page at anyone looking at the brackets. That there are 10 undefeated wrestlers is not a record, however, that each one is in a different weight class, giving each bracket one and only one undefeated competitor is a remarkable quirk. Each of the 10 undefeated wrestlers has claimed the top seed for the tournament leading many to speculate about the possibility of 10 undefeated champions. That seems unlikely given the madness that typically occurs each March, but we wondered just how often undefeated number one seeds claim the title.
Looking back at the last 10 years, there have been 61 undefeated top seeds with 32 eventually claiming the crown for a winning percentage of .525. However, some of those brackets had multiple undefeated wrestlers involved. Six times an undefeated top seed was beaten by another undefeated wrestler. In another case, Hunter Stieber (Ohio State) lost to a wrestler who was not undefeated, but that bracket was claimed by Kendrick Maple (Oklahoma) who was without a loss. If you pull the first six out of the sample, given that there are no other undefeated wrestlers to challenge our top seeds this year, the winning percentage rises to .582. This suggests that an average performance by our 2017 top seeds should result in six national titles with four grapplers suffering their first loss of the season this weekend.
Six undefeated champions would be tied for third most in one season all-time, though last time it happened, in 2013, two of those were two seeds. The record is eight undefeated champions in 1969, a group that included Dan Gable when there were 11 weights, followed by seven in 1954 when there were 10. Six has happened 11 times. The all-time record could be in jeopardy with many of the top seeds looking incredibly strong, but there are enough cautionary tales out there to give us pause.
Perhaps the most shocking performance by an undefeated number one seed in the past 10 years came from Mack Lewnes (Cornell), who entered the 2009 tournament 35-0 and found himself as the top seed after finishing fourth as a freshman in 2008. Lewnes would go 0-2 that year, leaving a gaping hole in an otherwise stellar career. He would finish second and fourth in his final two seasons leaving that 2009 tournament as an inexplicable testament to how weird wrestling results can get. Lewnes is one of two undefeated top seeds to miss the podium in the past 10 years with the other being Darrion Caldwell (NC State) in 2011. Unlike with Lewnes, Caldwell’s struggles are easy to figure out as he re-injured the shoulder that plagued him all season, forcing an injury default in round two and his subsequent medical forfeit in the consolations.
Whether it be the impossible happening or an injury sustained at the wrong time, it is nearly certain that some of the 10 undefeated top seeds will lose in St. Louis. Figuring out who they will be before it happens is the hard part. We all have our own ideas of who might be vulnerable, but each of these 10 scrappers has earned his top seed and haven’t lost yet for a reason. They all have a chance to stay undefeated individually. Collectively, their odds aren’t nearly as good.