Left and right photos 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. Enjoy and check back later for much more!
ACC – Hayden Hidlay (NC State)
Big Ten – Alec Pantaleo (Michigan)
Big 12 – Archie Colgan (Wyoming)
EIWA – Markus Scheidel (Columbia)
EWL – Alex Klucker (Lock Haven)
MAC – Joey Lavallee (Missouri)
Pac-12 – Josh Shields (Arizona State)
SoCon – Tyler Marinelli (Gardner-Webb)
Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)
1: 10 AAs, 7 finalists, 6 champions
2: 10 AAs, 5 finalists, 1 champion
3: 8 AAs, 4 finalists, 1 champion
4: 10 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion
5: 6 AAs
6: 5 AAs
7: 8 AAs, 1 finalist
8: 3 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion
9: 1 AA, 1 finalist
10: 1 AA
11: 4 AAs
12: 4 AAs
13: 0 AAs
14: 1 AA
15: 1 AA
16: 0 AAs
US: 8 AAs
Jason Nolf (Penn State) – Champion in 2017, 2nd in 2016
Joey Lavallee (Missouri) – 2nd in 2017
Michael Kemerer (Iowa) – 3rd in 2017
Tyler Berger (Nebraska) – 5th in 2017
Paul Fox (Stanford) – 7th in 2017
Micah Jordan (Ohio State) – 4th at 149 in 2017
Alec Pantaleo (Michigan) – 6th at 149 in 2016
Who can win?
Jason Nolf (Penn State), the defending champion, ruled this weight with an iron fist right up until a knee injury in a late January dual against Rutgers. That raised questions and though he did return to win a pair of matches at the Big Ten tournament before defaulting to sixth place, we don’t know how close to full strength the Nittany Lion will be in Cleveland. His results in East Lansing look strong on paper, pinning Jake Tucker (Michigan State), then beating Jake Short (Minnesota) 15-2. However, skeptics will point out that the match against Short was scoreless after the first period and during one scramble, the Gopher tried to do a leg pass on Nolf’s bad knee which caused the Penn State junior to freeze. That Jason scored 15 points over the next four minutes should not be overlooked, though, and Short wrestled him to a 19-5 major decision pre-injury. While the uncertainty will persist, a couple of things are clear. The first is that Nolf will be limited to some extent. The second is that he is still a title contender, even at less than 100%. How much that knee impacts him and whether any of his foes can take advantage remains to be seen.
While Nolf has been dominant this season, he was tested once in a 6-4 win over Alec Pantaleo (Michigan). The Wolverine secured a pair of takedowns in that one before being ridden out in the third period. Pantaleo is the five and will have to work his way through a path that could include Josh Shields (Arizona State) and top seed Hayden Hidlay (NC State) among others. Still, he is capable of winning any given match against this field. Hidlay is an undefeated redshirt freshman with wins over Lavallee and Micah Jordan (Ohio State) this season. Before Nolf’s injury, the question was being asked how high could Hayden climb? The answer now seems to be the top-step. Michael Kemerer (Iowa) was expected to be next in line if something happened to Nolf and despite a nagging injury, he headed to the Big Ten tournament undefeated before Jordan pinned him in the semis in what had been a close match. That one loss combined with the decision to default to sixth place pushed the Hawkeye all the way to the six seed, which sets up a potential clash with the Nittany Lion in the quarters. That match, assuming it materializes, will be wrestled under a microscope as we all try to figure out just how healthy these two are.
The winner of that one may see returning NCAA finalist Joey Lavallee (Missouri) in the semis. The senior is often the forgotten man in this weight class as he doesn’t often cross paths with the other contenders. However, he has lost just three matches over the past two seasons and pushed Hidlay into overtime in Reno before falling, 3-1. I expect him to reach the semis and be another test for whoever comes out of the 3/6 quarter. In the end, if Nolf is back close to where he was before the injury, he’ll win. If he isn’t, this weight opens up considerably with six or seven wrestlers heading to Ohio with legitimate title aspirations.
Pantaleo’s inconsistency has made him a nightmare to rank this season and one of those wrestlers who unexpectedly knocked him off this season will be his opponent in round one. Ian Brown (Lehigh) has lost five of his last seven, though, and wouldn’t be expected to be overly competitive for any other reason. Still, knowing you’ve beaten an opponent can do wonders for your confidence. Keep an eye on that one early. Andrew Crone (Wisconsin) has some outstanding wins, but he is the 14 seed because he also has a lot of losses, some to not so great opponents. He’ll face a wrestler coming off a pigtail win and will need to be at his best to take care of Larry Early (Old Dominion) or Tyler Marinelli (Gardner-Webb). Paul Fox (Stanford) upset Clay Ream (North Dakota State) in the opening round of last year’s national tournament en route to a stunning seventh place finish. The two go at it again right off the bat in a match that looks like Ream should be a strong favorite, just as it did last year. Keep an eye on Andrew Shomers (Edinboro) who is tough as nails in the top position. If he gets the first takedown against Markus Scheidel (Columbia) or any other opponent he faces, an upset could be in the making.
It seems like every match is a potential upset when Pantaleo is the favorite, given his history. Mitch Finesilver (Duke) is one of four brothers all wrestling for the Blue Devils here, two sets of twins, and he could push the Wolverine. Finesilver’s only losses this season are to Hidlay (twice), Nolf, and a tie-breaker decision against Big 12 champion Archie Colgan (Wyoming). Outside of that, I expect the higher seeds to handle their business in round two.
The race for the top eight
One man we haven’t mentioned yet, even though a title run isn’t out of the question, is fourth-seeded Josh Shields (Arizona State). With a potential 4/5 match against Pantaleo, then a likely semi with Hidlay, he won’t be picked by many. However, Shields beat Pantaleo back in November and his two losses on the year came to Kemerer and Jordan in competitive bouts. He is right there with the rest of the top guys. This bracket could go a lot of different ways considering how many guys are inconsistent or dealing with injuries. That makes someone like Shields, who is consistent and seems healthy, a potential surprise to those who have forgotten about him.
All the uncertainty makes this weight difficult to predict as a few early upsets can throw all the expected paths into chaos. If the seeds hold, the quarter-final round will be incredible with Pantaleo/Shields, Nolf/Kemerer, and Jordan/Lavallee in addition to Hidlay against Berger or Colgan. All year, the top eight looked like they were a step ahead of the rest of the pack at 157, though with Berger’s stumbles it was fair to wonder if it was really just the top seven. Because of that, it is no surprise that I’ve got all of the quarterfinal losers winning in the round of 12. That would be an oddity, usually quarterfinal losers win a little over 60% of the time in the blood round, though not unheard of. The fascinating part about those matches, though, is how little we’ve seen some of the likely opponents, Scheidel and Finesilver, for example, against the lower end of the top tier. It seems like they are underdogs, but Friday night pressure plus a little bit of the unknown could cause some wild results.
The loser of the 8/9 match should face the loser of Nolf/Kemerer in the round of 12, an unappetizing prospect to be sure. The winner is probably going to get Ream, Crone, or Jake Short (Minnesota), a marked difference. Circle that one. Scheidel can improve his path greatly as well if he can upend Jordan in the second round. The winner of that one should see Finesilver or Zilverberg, but the loser is almost certainly getting Shields or Pantaleo to be an All-American. One other thing to watch for is how Pantaleo handles it if he takes a loss. Two years ago, the last time we saw him at the NCAA tournament, he reached the semis, then lost three straight to finish sixth.
Team race implications
With Nolf as the number one at 157, Penn State held a two-point margin over Ohio State in our final team rankings of the season which proved to be very accurate last season. We still haven’t seen the junior take a loss that wasn’t by injury default and he didn’t look bad at the Big Ten tournament. He could win a title and the Nittany Lions need him to. It will be interesting to see if the injury limits his bonus point potential, though it didn’t seem to in his two matches back. For reference, he majored Lavallee, 14-6, in the 2017 finals. Jordan seems to be seeded near the bottom of his probable finish range. His wins over Kemerer and Shields prove he is capable of beating those in front of him, though he is just 2-6 against the top six. He should at least be an All-American and if the bracket breaks his way, he could gobble up several additional points to help Ohio State challenge for the team title.
Pantaleo could win the title or not make the podium, though I suspect he’ll be locked in, suggesting a finish closer to the former. If he finishes in the top-four, the Wolverines move closer to a third-place finish. Most Hawkeye fans expected a second-place finish out of Kemerer and they were ranked third on the tournament side when he was the national number two. The quarterfinal clash with Nolf casts doubt on a finals appearance, but third is still manageable even if he doesn’t take down the Nittany Lion. If he is healthy, he’ll get a lot of bonus on his way there. Lavallee doesn’t get much bonus against the level of competition he’ll see here, but he is one of those that could take advantage if Nolf falters. Even the finals are off limits this year, Joey needs to stay in the top-four to keep Missouri in the thick of the third-place fight. Oklahoma State did not qualify at this weight. If Hidlay stands atop the podium and other things go well for the Wolfpack, they could find themselves near a team trophy as well.
With Nolf as a three seed, you can safely look past the top two as I still believe he is the most likely to win it and his bonus potential is still strong. Even in a draft format, he’d be at the top of my list for 157. The early clash with Kemerer is dangerous but aside from possibly Hidlay, every contender is facing a tough test that round. It is regrettable that Kemerer ended up so close to Nolf as that pin by Jordan doesn’t concern me and I expect the Hawkeye to do well. He might still be the second best wrestler in the bracket and a third-place finish with plenty of bonus is reasonable. Those two are well ahead of everyone else in a salary cap format, but keep an eye on Hidlay and Lavallee in drafts as they could slide further than necessary. Any of the top seven can make a case to do well which may lead many fans to wait at this weight class once Nolf and perhaps Kemerer is off the board. Hidlay still has a great shot at making the finals and Lavallee the semis. This is not the weight to take a double-digit seed as there just aren’t good options there. Jordan at seven is the lowest you want to go because Berger isn’t trustworthy and the rest haven’t shown enough to expect much. There has simply been too much chaos from 9 through 20 in the rankings to trust any one of them.
1st – Jason Nolf (Penn State)
2nd – Hayden Hidlay (NC State)
3rd – Michael Kemerer (Iowa)
4th – Alec Pantaleo (Michigan)
5th – Joey Lavallee (Missouri)
6th – Josh Shields (Arizona State)
7th – Micah Jordan (Ohio State)
8th – Tyler Berger (Nebraska)
Round of 12 – Markus Scheidel (Columbia), Clay Ream (North Dakota State), Mitch Finesilver (Duke), Archie Colgan (Wyoming)