Outside photos by Richard Immel, USA Wrestling, center photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we’ve got brackets! The 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships is rapidly approaching and we now know what everyone’s path to the title looks like. Before we head for Cleveland, we’re breaking down every weight class in depth. We’ll start with some facts for reference, break down who can win the weight, who will contend for All-American honors, who needs to be on upset alert in the first two rounds, how this weight will affect the team race, and end with a little analysis for those of you participating in fantasy wrestling contests. We’ll start with 125 pounds and move up through each and every weight class. Enjoy and check back later for much more!
ACC – Sean Fausz (NC State)
Big Ten – Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State)
Big 12 – Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State)
EIWA – Darian Cruz (Lehigh)
EWL – Sean Russell (Edinboro)
MAC – Michael McGee (Old Dominion)
Pac-12 – Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State)
SoCon – Alonzo Allen (Chattanooga)
Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)
1: 10 AAs, 5 finalists, 4 champions
2: 9 AAs, 5 finalists, 2 champions
3: 6 AAs, 2 finalists, 2 champions
4: 9 AAs, 4 finalists, 2 champions
5: 7 AAs, 1 finalist
6: 5 AAs, 1 finalist
7: 3 AAs
8: 5 AAs
9: 2 AAs
10: 5 AAs, 1 finalist
11: 2 AAs
12: 3 AAs
13: 0 AAs
14: 0 AAs
15: 1 AA
16: 2 AAs
US: 11 AAs, 1 finalist
Darian Cruz (Lehigh) – Champion in 2017, 7th in 2014
Ethan Lizak (Minnesota) – 2nd in 2017
Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) – 3rd in 2017 at 133, 3rd in 2016, 1st in 2015
Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) – 4th in 2017
Sean Russell (Edinboro) – 7th in 2017
Ryan Millhof (Arizona State) – 7th in 2016
Zeke Moisey (West Virginia) – 2nd in 2015
Who can win?
The top seed at 125 pounds is defending national champion Darian Cruz (Lehigh). The senior comes in undefeated, though he did lose an unofficial bout at the All-Star Classic to Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State) back in November. Though he did win the title in 2017, many will be picking against Cruz with the influx of talent at 125 that did not compete in last year’s national tournament and the lack of wins over other title contenders for the Mountain Hawk this season. The senior hasn’t beaten any of the other top 10 seeds this season which raises the question of just where he stacks up. Critics will point to his 7-0 loss to Nick Suriano (Rutgers) last December, but it should also be pointed out that Cruz also lost to Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), 8-0, at the Southern Scuffle before avenging that loss in the NCAA finals. All that suggests that the title-winning Cruz was at a different level by the time he climbed to the top step of the podium. He will be a factor in deciding who prevails in Cleveland.
The second, third, and fourth seeds are all wrestlers who, for one reason or another, did not compete at 125 pounds in St. Louis a year ago. Two seed Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) was up at 133, Spencer Lee (Iowa), seeded third, was a high school senior, and Suriano, number four, never took the mat due to an injury. Each of those wrestlers will expect to win it all this time around and they each have a legitimate chance to do so. Tomasello is now a senior, has three All-American finishes to his credit, won a national title at this weight class in 2015, and just became the 15th four-time Big Ten champion ever. The Buckeye owns a career record of 95-7 and has never finished worse than third. However, he has lost to an Iowa wrestler in the semifinals in each of the past two seasons. This year, he is slated to face Lee in the semis if seeds hold. Those two have split close matches this season with Tomasello getting the win in the Big Ten tournament. Lee lost a controversial match at Midlands to Bresser but had been flawless since then, taking down Piccininni, Tomasello, and Lizak among others before the Buckeye ended his winning streak. If that match happens, it may determine the national champion.
Suriano missed time late in the season, then defaulted out of the Big Ten tournament after reaching the semifinals, leaving him with just one result since a February 2nd win over Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern). Still, he is undefeated and had lost just once last season, to Thomas Gilman (Iowa), before sustaining the injury that ended his year. There is no question Suriano is good enough to win a national title in 2018, but we don’t know what sort of form he’ll be in. We didn’t see enough of him in East Lansing to draw many conclusions and this weight class will see him tested many times. One of these four should win it and if you wrestled it 10 times you’d likely see several of them do so.
The seeds at this weight, especially the top 12, are so strong we may not see much chaos in the opening round. However, Drew Mattin (Michigan) spent most of the year in the top-20 and looked like he would earn a seed before a disastrous Big Ten tournament. He is good enough to upend Jacob Schwarm (Northern Iowa) if he wrestles up to his ability. Connor Brown (South Dakota State) has come on strong late and could knock off Luke Welch (Purdue) as well. The second round might be more interesting as Suriano will need to be on form or Zeke Moisey (West Virginia) could send him to the consolations. Piccininni lost to Sean Russell (Edinboro) twice last season before beating him at NCAAs. The Cowboy beat Russell again this season, but the matches have been close. That will be a tight, low scoring 6/11 clash. In a mini-upset, I like Rivera to take out LaMont in the 7/10. LaMont is another wrestler who missed time late and he was knocked off by Moisey in the Big 12 tournament.
The race for the top eight
The top four should take up half the podium, but the other four spots are much harder to predict. As mentioned previously, the top 12 seeds are all strong while wrestlers such as Moisey, Millhof, and Mattin are capable of getting hot and turning the bracket on its ear. Lizak looked like he might be on his way out of the top eight this season after his run to the NCAA finals a year ago. However, the Gopher rebounded nicely at the Big Ten tournament, taking out Rivera and looking like an All-American in a 10-7 loss to Tomasello in the finals. He did benefit from a Suriano medical forfeit, just as he did at the 2017 NCAA tournament, but Ethan seems to be wrestling his best at the right time. He and Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State) are scheduled to do battle in round two which will tell us a lot about both. Bresser got that win over Lee at Midlands and is incredibly tough to take down. That can mean upsets when the Beaver finds a way to score, but Lizak doesn’t need a takedown to do his damage if he takes top. The loser there will have a long road through the back side, but both could stand on the podium.
Piccininni will wrestle from the six seed and his draw looks very different depending on how optimistic you might be. On the one hand, he has beaten Russell the last two times they’ve met and he came back nicely against Lee in their dual showdown after the Hawkeye put him in a big hole. If he can top the Edinboro rep again and stay off his back against Lee, it isn’t impossible to think we could see him against Tomasello in the semis. Conversely, Russell could absolutely beat the Cowboy and Lee still beat him 10-5 despite giving up two takedowns. Last year, Nick lost in the quarters and had to win two tough matches to reach the consolation semis before receiving a forfeit from Jack Mueller (Virginia) and finishing fourth. That seems his likely path here as well and I have him in a make or break scrap with Bresser in the round of 12. Rivera is another that could go either way in this tournament as he still hasn’t beaten any of the top contenders at the weight and has to survive LaMont just to reach the quarters. I see the Wildcat freshman wrestling Moisey, who he crushed, 15-2, at the Midlands, in the round of 12.
Fausz and LaMont spent time in the top five at times this season and are seeded to earn All-American honors for the first time. However, there are questions for both. Fausz is a massive 125 pounder who hasn’t made wrestled on consecutive days all season and only went twice in three days once, losing the back end of that stretch to Tomasello, 12-6. I’m not sure if he can withstand the grind. LaMont looked just a hair off at the Big 12 tournament, but could 10 more days be just what he needed to come back? The redshirt freshman is 25-3 this season. In the end, I have those two squaring off in the round of 12. The good news for Fausz is that it will be Friday night a long time after weigh-ins. The bad news is he’ll have had to make weight for the second day in a row and will likely be coming off a loss to Suriano. This is one of the hardest matches to call, but I’ll take LaMont who has experience and poise well beyond his years.
Team race implications
Tomasello has gone 1-3-3 in his career and even in this difficult field, I expect him to finish in the top three again. Still, there is a six and a half point difference between first and third when factoring in placement and advancement points. The Buckeyes will need every point they can get and one of their senior leaders, who is making this cut knowing that it could lead to a team title, will be pressing for bonus as much as possible. If he makes the finals, that will be a huge step in the right direction for Tom Ryan’s team. Penn State did not qualify a wrestler at this weight. In the race for third, Iowa will be looking for Lee to beat Tomasello and reach the finals while racking up bonus. Piccininni wrestling at least to seed will be a key for Oklahoma State and the Cowboys probably need some guys to overachieve to be the best of the rest. Mattin, as mentioned, has some big wins this season and could do wonders for the Wolverines chances if he can find the top eight. That seems like a longshot, though.
If you’re in a salary cap contest tied to seeds, Cruz is someone to avoid. He is simply too risky a pick compared to other top seeds as he could finish anywhere in the top four without wrestling poorly. However, if you’re doing a draft, keep an eye out for him. If he drops too far, you might be able to snag him after Suriano, Tomasello, and Lee who will be more popular picks. Suriano is the risk/reward play of the title contenders because if he is right, he could roll to a title from the four seed with some bonus points sprinkled in. However, the risk is that we just don’t know what he is going to look like after all that time off during which he clearly had some sort of medical problem. That quarterfinal against Fausz could go the wrong way if Nick isn’t 100%. Lee is a bonus point monster who can put just about anyone in the field on their back. He won’t be phased by the big stage, owning a pair of Junior world titles, and he is probably close to 50/50 with Tomasello in the semis. That makes Spencer a better play than Tomasello, but it is close. If you need to go deeper, pick the winner of the eight/nine clash between Lizak and Bresser, then go with that wrestler. Lizak will earn more bonus, especially if he makes a run through the backside, but Bresser has a better chance to make a crazy top side run. If you think Suriano isn’t right, Moisey is the super sleeper sitting at 13.
1st – Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State)
2nd – Nick Suriano (Rutgers)
3rd – Spencer Lee (Iowa)
4th – Darian Cruz (Lehigh)
5th – Ethan Lizak (Minnesota)
6th – Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State)
7th – Taylor LaMont (Utah Valley)
8th – Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern)
Round of 12 – Sean Fausz (NC State), Sean Russell (Edinboro), Zeke Moisey (West Virginia), Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State)