Left photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com. right photo by Richard Immel
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 – David McFadden (Virginia Tech)
Big Ten – Isaiah Martinez (Illinois)
Big 12 – Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State)
EIWA – Jon Jay Chavez (Cornell)
EWL – Chad Walsh (Rider)
MAC – Connor Flynn (Missouri)
Pac-12 – Anthony Valencia (Arizona State)
SoCon – Nate Higgins (SIUE)
Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)
1: 9 AAs, 9 finalists, 7 champions
2: 8 AAs, 5 finalists, 1 champion
3: 8 AAs, 2 finalists, 1 champion
4: 9 AAs
5: 5 AAs
6: 6 AAs, 2 finalists
7: 6 AAs
8: 4 AAs
9: 4 AAs
10: 3 AAs
11: 3 AAs, 1 finalist
12: 1 AA, 1 finalist, 1 champion
13: 1 AA
14: 1 AA
15: 2 AAs
16: 0 AAs
US: 10 AAs
Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) – Champion in 2017
Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) – 2nd in 2017, Champion in 2016, Champion in 2015
Logan Massa (Michigan) – 3rd in 2017
Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State) – 5th in 2017
Chad Walsh (Rider) – 7th in 2017, 5th at 157 in 2016
Who can win?
Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) is the top seed in his weight class for the fourth consecutive year, something that had not been done since Cael Sanderson. The senior has had one of the greatest careers in college wrestling history, carrying a career record of 112-2 into his final NCAA competition. His first loss came to Jason Nolf (Penn State), was twice avenged, and the Nittany Lion has not suffered a non-injury default loss to anyone else during his nearly three years in the lineup so far. The second loss came in last year’s NCAA final when Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State) pinned Martinez to end Isaiah’s chances at winning four titles. IMar had beaten Joseph twice prior to that match and avenged the loss in the Big Ten final this season, 4-1. If he runs the table here, it will cap an incredible career. He is the favorite.
Obviously Joseph, as the defending champion and the only man in this field that owns a win over Martinez is on the list of those who could claim the title. However, he is now 1-3 against the Illini senior and after looking solid for most of the season, his old habit of putting himself in danger has surfaced. This was the issue that caused him to lose, 18-12, to Keaton Subjeck (Stanford) early last season. Seeing the Nittany Lion fighting off his back has become an all too frequent occurrence as he has given up nearfall in three of his last six bouts. He won two of those matches and is 20-2. The big move is what makes Joseph dangerous so it is difficult for him to tighten up, but the specter of giving up points at the wrong time will hang over his run.
David McFadden (Virginia Tech) was a 14-seed with nine losses entering the 2016 NCAA tournament before finishing sixth. After redshirting a year ago, he has put together a 31-0 campaign so far, though his best wins are over the eight seed, Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State), and the 10 seed, Evan Wick (Wisconsin). His quarterfinal with Logan Massa (Michigan) will tell us more about whether the Hokie is a title threat. Alex Marinelli (Iowa) was undefeated at the end of the regular season, then dropped three matches at the Big Ten tournament. He is a long shot to win the title, but his ability to stay in good position, score takedowns against some of the best in the weight, and tough defense give him a shot in every match.
Te’Shan Campbell (Ohio State) has won just three of his last 11 matches and one of those was a medical forfeit. His body of work still got him the 13 seed, but don’t be surprised if DaWaylon Barnes (Oklahoma) makes a bid for the upset. Branson Ashworth (Wyoming) will also need to open his tournament wrestling well if he wants to beat Connor Flynn (Missouri) again. The Cowboy topped the Tiger 6-1 in Reno, but the MAC champion has improved as the season has gone along. Demetrius Romero (Utah Valley) had a disastrous Big 12 tournament, needing to win a true-sixth place match to ensure qualification. However, if he can bounce back, Isaiah White (Nebraska) tends to wrestle close matches. The Cornhusker should survive, but the match will be there for the taking late if Romero can find a way.
In round two, White, if he navigates his opener, will go from the hunted to the hunter. He and Richie Lewis (Rutgers) battled into tie-breakers before the Rutgers man took a 2-1 win in late January. That match should be decided by one takedown or in tie-breakers again. Both wrestlers have had championship success, though neither at the DI level. White won a DII title for Notre Dame College a year ago while Lewis won the Under 23 world title in November. Evan Wick (Wisconsin) has beaten Mass the last two times they’ve met after the Wolverine drew first blood on the opening weekend of the season. That 7/10 upset wouldn’t really be one if it happens.
The race for the top eight
While it remains to be seen if McFadden is a true title contender, he has a great chance to be an All-American again. Chad Walsh (Rider) is already a two-time podium finisher and can become his school’s first ever three-time Division I All-American if he can make the top eight in Cleveland. His only loss of the season was to Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven), which he avenged in the EWL finals, 2-1. Walsh has finishes of fifth and seventh in his career. Considering his schedule, it is fair to wonder if he can match his number four seed. However, Walsh has plenty of offense which gives him a puncher’s chance against anyone. Marinelli might be a bad match-up for him in the quarters, though, which could leave the senior in the round of 12 against the loser of the Massa/Wick battle.
Any of those seeded six through 10 could finish in the top six without causing much of a stir. Lewis just beat Wick and Marinelli at the Big Ten tournament with his only losses this season coming to the Hawkeye (twice), Joseph, and Martinez. Massa was expected to be right with the top two at this weight, but injuries took him out of the lineup for a while and he has struggled to get back to the level we’re accustomed to seeing from him. The conference tournament for him was a mixed bag with two wins over Marinelli, but another loss to Wick and a loss to Joseph, both one point matches. If he gets it going like we know he can, Massa could reach the top four. If he falls to McFadden in the quarters, he should face Campbell or Nick Wanzek (Minnesota) in the round of 12. If Wick knocks him off again, it will likely be the Walsh/Marinelli loser, a much tougher match on paper.
The 8/9 clash, if seeds hold, between former teammates Rogers and Marsteller could be wildly entertaining as neither is afraid to let it fly. Marsteller, after cutting too much weight and off the mat issues, is finally making his NCAA tournament debut. He is 40-2, though much of that schedule couldn’t do much to threaten him. If he can get by Rogers, the Lock Haven junior should run into Martinez. Those two have had some fun scraps in freestyle in recent years. While Chance hasn’t come out on top, he has shown he can take the two-time national champion down. The Marsteller/Rogers winner should see White, Ashworth, or Flynn in the round of 12 while the loser is probably across the mat from Lewis.
White and Wick both have plenty of potential, but they’re going to have to pull upsets, according to seed, to get where they want to go. The Wick/Massa match should determine the Badger’s fate while White could win or lose against just about anyone he is likely to see. Expect a lot of late drama in his matches.
Team race implications
Joseph may have been the most surprising of Penn State’s five consecutive national champions last season, but he has done enough to establish himself as one of the best in this weight again this season. He won’t be favored over Martinez, but despite his seed, he will be expected to make it to the finals once again. Anything less than that will hurt the Nittany Lions’ title chances. Many Buckeye fans thought Campbell would be an All-American when he transferred in from Pitt, giving Ohio State a legitimate shot at putting every starter in the top eight. However, those hopes have faded and it would take a remarkable turn around for that to happen. Anything more than a point or two would be a bonus.
Iowa, Oklahoma State, and Michigan will all be looking for their representatives to outperform their seed at 165. Marinelli looked like a top-four guy before that rough weekend in East Lansing. Beating Walsh in the quarters is an important step for him as it ensures a top-six finish and should produce a consolation semi where he is the better seed. Tom Brands crew needs some extra points to grab third so Marinelli needs to be in the top four. Rogers was fifth from the nine seed a year ago and has bonus point potential. If the Cowboys are going to have a big tournament, he will need to do something similar. He and Walsh may reprise their showdown from last year’s round of 8 which ended in a 12-11 victory for the Cowboy. I have them slated to meet at that spot again a year later. That Michigan is projecting third with Massa struggling the way he has gives the Wolverines a chance to separate themselves from this group. If he can survive Wick and knock off McFadden, suddenly he’ll be in the NCAA semis against Joseph, a scenario that seemed plausible coming into this season. Any top-six finish would help, but Massa is capable of much more. Missouri has Connor Flynn at this weight. It is difficult to project much from an unseeded wrestler, but Flynn has upset potential. If the consolations break his way and he wrestles well, he could be alive Friday night.
Though IMar is the favorite, Joseph is the best value at the weight. Despite the risks he takes, I expect he’ll advance to the finals and score a few bonus points along the way. Martinez is certainly the guy to have in draft formats, but he’ll be off the board early. Because of the threat posed by Massa and the fact he hasn’t seen many of the other top guys, McFadden isn’t worth it as the two seed. However, if you miss out on Martinez and Joseph in your draft, McFadden might slide further than he needs to. As much as the Michigan man intrigues me, I’d absolutely take the Hokie in front of him. With a salary cap, Joseph is a good choice, but depending on how much a three seed costs, you may be better off looking deeper. The trouble with that at 165 is no one has an easy road. Massa has a chance to pay off big time, but Wick has beaten him the last two times they’ve met. Lewis has to survive White, then deal with Joseph and won’t score much bonus. Picking the winner in Marinelli/Walsh or Rogers/Marsteller is tough. The losers have a difficult road to overperform. You’re going to have to take a shot here, either spending the money on Joseph or rolling the dice if you feel strongly about one of those early matches. Maybe that is a good argument to grab Martinez. This weight will decide a few contests this year.
1st – Isaiah Martinez (Illinois)
2nd – Vincenzo Joseph (Penn State)
3rd – David McFadden (Virginia Tech)
4th – Logan Massa (Michigan)
5th – Alex Marinelli (Iowa)
6th – Chad Walsh (Rider)
7th – Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State)
8th – Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven)
Round of 12 – Evan Wick (Wisconsin), Isaiah White (Nebraska), Nick Wanzek (Minnesota), Richie Lewis (Rutgers)