Left and center pictures by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com, right picture by Mark Lundy, LutteLens.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. Enjoy and check back later for much more!
ACC – Brent Moore (Virginia Tech)
Big Ten – Joey McKenna (Ohio State)
Big 12 – Bryce Meredith (Wyoming)
EIWA – Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell)
EWL – Evan Cheek (Cleveland State)
MAC – Jaydin Eierman (Missouri)
Pac-12 – Colt Schilling (Cal Poly)
SoCon – Irvin Enriquez (Appalachian State)
Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)
1: 10 AAs, 7 finalists, 6 champions
2: 9 AAs, 3 finalists, 2 champions
3: 6 AAs, 3 finalists, 1 champion
4: 9 AAs, 2 finalists
5: 6 AAs
6: 6 AAs, 3 finalists, 1 champion
7: 3 AAs
8: 6 AAs, 1 finalist
9: 2 AAs
10: 4 AAs
11: 4 AAs
12: 3 AAs
13: 1 AA
14: 3 AAs, 1 finalist
15: 0 AAs
16: 1 AA
US: 7 AAs
Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) – Champion in 2017, Champion in 2016, 4th in 2015
Kevin Jack (NC State) – 3rd in 2017, 5th in 2015
Bryce Meredith (Wyoming) – 4th in 2017, 2nd in 2016
Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) – 5th in 2017
Tommy Thorn (Minnesota) – 8th in 2017
Joey McKenna (Ohio State) – 3rd in 2016
Who can win?
This is something you just don’t see very often. We have six legitimate title threats at 141 pounds and the sixth one, in seed and maybe in likelihood to win the title, is the two-time defending champion. Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) rolled into his senior season after NCAA finishes of 4-1-1 on a 41-match winning streak, having posted a 64-1 mark during his two championship seasons. The winning streak ended on the road at Wyoming when Bryce Meredith (Wyoming) finally beat his nemesis after four prior losses. Kevin Jack (NC State) compounded Heil’s misery, earning a late takedown to beat the Cowboy in Italy. A rough weekend in late January saw Jaydin Eierman (Missouri) pin Dean, then Ian Parker (Iowa State) stunned him, 3-1. When Meredith took a 6-5 win in the Big 12 finals, it kept Heil from his fourth conference crown. However, five losses is not unheard of for an NCAA champion, each of those he lost to, save Parker, is a fellow title contender, and Heil looked more like what we’ve seen the past two years in that 6-5 scrap with Meredith at Big 12s. Still, there are five wrestlers ahead of him in this wide-open race for the championship.
The top three have all beaten each other with Meredith dropping a match to true freshman Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) in Vegas, taking out Eierman in Reno two weeks later, then watching the Missouri sophomore stun the EIWA champion at the South Beach Duals two weeks after that. Wyoming’s senior earned the top seed on the strength of having the best wins which slotted in Eierman as the two and Yianni as the three, though all of them will head to Cleveland expecting to win. Joey McKenna (Ohio State) finished third as a freshman for Stanford and after his storied high school career, there are probably some fans who thought he’d have a title by now. However, Eierman and Tommy Thorn (Minnesota) knocked him off in St. Louis a year ago, keeping him off the podium altogether. Another loss to Thorn this season, 13-3, raised questions about McKenna as a title threat, but Joey hasn’t lost since, defeating Jack, 6-2, and topping Nick Lee (Penn State) twice. Suddenly, McKenna is right back where we expect him to be, in contention for top honors.
When Jack beat Heil, having previously lost to Meredith this season, it seemed to be a statement that the Wolfpack senior was ready to take the next step and wrestle his final college match on the Saturday night stage. However, the loss to McKenna and then a shocking upset at the hands of Brent Moore (Virginia Tech) in the ACC finals has put Kevin in the group along with Heil of wrestlers who have the resumes suggesting they have a chance, but they would need to find better form to do so. Still, if he can flip the McKenna result in their probable 4/5 meeting, it should set up a showdown with Meredith, a former college teammate, an opponent that Jack has beaten before, including in an 8-7 match at the All-Star Classic this season. Meredith has three wins in that series. The best bet for the finals is Meredith against the Eierman/Diakomihalis winner, but the other contenders are close behind the top three.
The top six are incredibly tough, but seven seed Brock Zacherl (Clarion) will have to be at his best to avoid a first-round loss to Chad Red (Nebraska). The junior owns an NCAA tournament record of 2-4 despite being 76-5 in all other competitions. His schedule isn’t the strongest which leaves him vulnerable. Brent Moore (Virginia Tech) is coming off an ACC title at the expense of Jack so expect him to be a trendy pick to knock off Tyler Smith (Bucknell). However, Smith is a battle-hardened veteran looking to become an All-American in his senior season. I don’t see him falling there. Mason Smith (Central Michigan) is the 10-seed, but he faces returning All-American Thorn in round one after the Gopher struggled badly down the stretch. If Thorn turns his season around between conference and nationals, that will be a test, but that seems unlikely.
In the second round, Heil has a fast-improving Michael Carr (Illinois) which could be an issue if the senior is off at all. However, given how Heil looked at Big 12s, I think he’ll pull through. Mason Smith (Central Michigan) is probably a favorite over Zacherl if they both make it through their tricky openers even though he is seeded lower.
The race for the top eight
With six title contenders, the podium is looking pretty crowded at 141 pounds. While I don’t expect Zacherl to contend, the eight and nine, Lee and Josh Alber (Northern Iowa) are both strong All-American contenders and could well be the final two wrestlers in the top eight. They will meet in round two which will be a rematch of their thrilling battle at the Southern Scuffle. In that match, Lee held a one-point advantage late then, with Alber charging forward trying to score, the true freshman Nittany Lion threw the Panther to his back and got the fall in 6:51. Alber was 2-2 in St. Louis at 133 and lost 2-0 to Heil before finishing third in the Big 12. Lee is not happy wrestling low scoring matches and will keep attacking regardless. He lost only to Carr en route to a third-place finish in the Big Ten. Nick is well suited to a long run in the consolations and could score more points there with the greater opportunity for bonus. While it wouldn’t be ideal, Penn State fans shouldn’t panic if he loses early.
Mason Smith, Carr, Tyler Smith, Luke Karam (Lehigh), and Nic Gil (Navy) are the four most likely wrestlers to swipe a podium finish from Lee or Alber. Outside of Thorn who seems to be having trouble with something, there aren’t many unseeded wrestlers that appear to have the potential for a big run. Red could and I’m picking him to reach the round of 12. However, his penchant for close matches against just about everyone who will be in this field makes me nervous. Still, the Cornhusker is a tough freshman who likes the bright lights. We could see him surprise. If he and Thorn end up being non-factors while other matches largely go to seed, the Lee/Alber winner should end up facing Carr in the round of 12 while the loser could be stuck against Heil. Mason Smith needs to reach the quarters as the loser of the 7/10 match is probably getting stuck against Jack or McKenna in the blood round. The winner should see Tyler Smith or Karam which, while not easy, is a much more winnable match. If Gil falls to Diakomihalis as expected, he is probably going to have to beat Carr, then Lee or Alber to finish on the podium.
Team race implications
This could be a swing weight in the title race as both McKenna and Lee have a wide range of reasonable point totals heading to Cleveland. McKenna could put the Buckeyes in the driver’s seat with a title and he might score more bonus than in the past if his season results are any indication. He only had one major last year but majored Carr, the 11 seed here, at the Big Ten tournament. Joey isn’t going to be hammering people in the semis, but two or three bonus isn’t out of the question. However, if he earns decisions and loses the 4/5 bout to Jack, he’ll struggle to reach the top four. That path, assuming Lee beats Alber, could set up a crucial clash between the top two teams with the winner staying alive for third while the loser heads to the seventh-place match. As referenced above, Lee could make the podium in a lot of different ways so an early loss isn’t all doom and gloom. However, going to the back side is always playing with fire as you never know when a stud is going to drop down a little angry after a loss and go on a rampage. If Lee can get to 10 team points, in any manner, it will be good for Cael Sanderson’s team.
Heil was supposed to be Oklahoma State’s trump card this year on his way to a third title. The Cowboys need him to over-perform if they are to finish third as he is one of the few who have finals potential in that lineup. It isn’t impossible, but even a top-four finish would be a positive. Eierman should put up a fair amount of bonus early and he doesn’t have one of the other title contenders in his quarter which is helpful. He, too, could win a title boosting Missouri’s chances. That semifinal, against Diakomihalis, or maybe even Heil, is going to be crucial. When he beat Yianni, Jaydin was trailing until a late six-point move. Michigan did not qualify at 141. Iowa looked like they might not either for much of the year, but Vince Turk has looked better as of late and made the field unseeded. Any points from him are bonus, but with a pigtail and then the 16-seed, he has a decent chance to contribute a point or two. If Jack can navigate his uphill path and win a title, North Carolina State isn’t that far back of the four teams expected to battle for third. Keep an eye on that too.
When you have a wide-open weight that many different guys could win, find a guy who scores bonus and, if more than one competitor seems to have about the same likelihood of winning it all, take the one seeded worse. This applies in both draft and salary cap formats, though in a draft you also have to factor in if both options will be gone before your next pick comes up. That makes Eierman and Diakomihalis, Yianni by virtue of being the three seed, the best bets on the board near the top. You could argue Meredith’s case, but his semifinal may be just as difficult and he won’t score the same amount of bonus as the other two. If you feel strongly about Jack or McKenna knock yourself out, but that is playing with fire. It isn’t often you can get a two-time NCAA champion as a six-seed, but picking Heil is risky. Sure, he could suddenly figure it out and win the title, but he doesn’t score bonus against this level of competition and that quarterfinal with Yianni is brutal.
Lee is the best bet outside the top six and provides a lot of value with his bonus point potential. He isn’t going to run out of steam in the consolation rounds and could beat some guys he shouldn’t late in the tournament. I don’t see him downing one of the top six, but if the bracket breaks the right way, he will score plenty. If you need a double-digit seed, my picks have Mason and Tyler Smith against each other in the round of 12. Pick the winner and roll with it.
1st – Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell)
2nd – Joey McKenna (Ohio State)
3rd – Bryce Meredith (Wyoming)
4th – Jaydin Eierman (Missouri)
5th – Kevin Jack (NC State)
6th – Dean Heil (Oklahoma State)
7th – Nick Lee (Penn State)
8th – Mason Smith (Central Michigan)
Round of 12 – Chad Red (Nebraska), Nic Gil (Navy), Luke Karam (Lehigh), Josh Alber (Northern Iowa)