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2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships Preview: 184 Pounds

Ryan Preisch, Bo Nickal, Myles Martin

Left photo by Lehigh Athletics, middle, right 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. Enjoy and check back later for much more!

Other weights: 125133141149157165174197, 285

184

Conference Champions

ACC – Pete Renda (NC State)

Big Ten – Bo Nickal (Penn State)

Big 12 – Drew Foster (Northern Iowa)

EIWA – Ryan Preisch (Lehigh)

EWL – Corey Hazel (Lock Haven)

MAC – Kayne MacCallum (Eastern Michigan)

Pac-12 – Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State)

SoCon – Bryce Carr (Chattanooga)

Performance by Seed, Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014)

1: 10 AAs, 8 finalists, 4 champions

2: 9 AAs, 4 finalists, 3 champions

3: 9 AAs, 2 finalists

4: 6 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion

5: 3 AAs

6: 8 AAs, 2 finalists, 1 champion

7: 9 AAs, 2 finalists

8: 2 AAs

9: 6 AAs, 1 finalist, 1 champion

10: 2 AAs

11: 3 AAs

12: 6 AAs

13: 3 AAs

14: 1 AA

15: 0 AAs

16: 1 AA

US: 2 AAs

Returning All-Americans

Bo Nickal (Penn State) – Champion in 2017, 2nd at 174 in 2016

Myles Martin (Ohio State) – 5th in 2017, Champion at 174 in 2016

Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) – 7th in 2017

Pete Renda (NC State) – 3rd in 2016

Who can win?

Bo Nickal (Penn State) is the defending champion, undefeated on the season, and, perhaps most importantly, has extended his advantage against second-seeded Myles Martin (Ohio State) to 6-2 in college after taking both matches this year. For a guy who’s wide-open style and willingness to wrestle through any position had many predicting he’d fall victim to upsets more often than other dominant wrestlers, the Texan doesn’t lose much. He is now 85-3 for his career and has won 33 matches in a row. It isn’t as if Bo has tightened up his style and is grinding out decisions either. The junior has 21 bonus point wins this season including 15 falls. Nickal was the one seed as a freshman when he ultimately lost to Martin in the finals, then was the two behind Gabe Dean (Cornell) a year ago when he won his first national title by upending the Big Red senior. He is on the top line and will be expected to win his second consecutive national title.

Martin is the obvious number two having only lost to Nickal this season and owning those two prior victories over the Nittany Lion. The Buckeye struggled last year, his first up at 184, losing nine matches in all before finishing fifth. This season Myles has stepped up, splattering opponents more often than not and looking like the wrestler we expected him to become after winning the title as a true freshman. While his 10-2 dual loss to Nickal was ugly, Martin had lost to Bo three times, including by fall, when he beat him in 2016, then lost 8-2 last season in the dual before winning in the Big Ten tournament. The point is, while Nickal is the favorite, Martin has proven that any given day he can jump up and take down the Nittany Lion.

Before that, though, he’ll have to reach the finals, which likely means a clash with Ryan Preisch (Lehigh) in the semifinals. The Mountain Hawk wrestled Nickal to a 3-2 decision which is his only loss other than an injury default that cost him the middle part of his season. Since returning, Preisch hasn’t faced the toughest competition, but he hasn’t let anyone stay close either. He pinned Max Dean (Cornell), the nine seed here, in the EIWA tournament and could be a darkhorse to steal the title from the Big Ten favorites. Ryan’s expected quarterfinal against Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech) will tell us more about his form. If he handles the Hokie with relative ease, watch out.

Upset special

The first round clash between Pete Renda (NC State) and Keegan Moore (Oklahoma State) is a rematch of the 3-0 decision Renda took from the Cowboy in Italy earlier this season. With Moore wrestling better late in the season, that bout could be close again. However, Renda has picked it up a bit as well and I expect him to advance. Zavatsky has missed the podium twice now wrestling from the five seed, but it hasn’t been first-round upsets that have cost him. Michael Coleman (Navy) is one of the toughest unseeded wrestlers in this bracket which could test the Hokie’s nerve. Chip Ness (North Carolina) was a 2016 national qualifier before redshirting last season. He has some solid wins and keeps a lot of matches against strong opposition close. Emery Parker (Illinois) wrestles a lot of close matches as well which makes that opener a likely spot for drama. Keep an eye on that one.

Wrestling is a sport where mentality can make a big difference. A confident wrestler who believes he will win can do amazing things. The flip side of that is how difficult it can be when doubt creeps in, especially if that doubt is compounded by a slow start in a match. Two wrestlers in this bracket, Dom Abounader (Michigan) and Zavatsky, have had high profile misses at the NCAA tournament. For Abounader, this is his last shot and while he has been wrestling well, it will be interesting to see how he reacts if he falls behind against Bryce Carr (Chattanooga). Even if he is fully convinced this time will be different, wanting it a little too much can lead to forcing the issue which, against the wrestlers he’ll see here, can be just as destructive. Ricky Robertson (Wisconsin) is the type of opponent Zavatsky should handle more often than not, but just like Abounader, he needs to get off to a clean start or suddenly those prior tournament losses could come flooding back.

The race for the top eight

With a shallow pool of potential champions unless something wild happens, the race for the top eight is a little more open at 184. Preisch is a solid top eight guy, proving as much before and after the injury, but whether that means a third-place finish or something lower on the podium remains to be seen. Renda wrestles a lot of tight matches and some forget he was the 13-seed two years ago when he made his magical run to finish third. Still, the Wolfpack senior rarely loses and avenged his loss to Zavatsky at the ACC tournament. One mark in Pete’s favor is that he is good in every position. The NCAA tournament has a tendency to expose wrestlers who struggle in certain positions, especially those who cannot get away from the best in the weight. Otherwise, excellent grapplers get upset every year or see a chance at an upset go by the wayside when they get ridden out. Renda has that sort of capability on top, can hang on his feet, and is good on bottom. He may stay too close for the comfort of some of his fans, but he has the toolset to keep winning that type of battle.

Renda’s showdown with Abounader in the 4/5 quarter should be a good one, though both will finish on the podium if they wrestle to their potential. As highlighted above, that match is likely more important for Abounader because a loss would put him in a do or die round of 12 match which would ratchet up the pressure. The loser is likely to face Parker or Canten Marriott (Missouri) there. In a mid-season dual, you’re taking Abounader to win every time. With it having the potential to be the last match of his college career and leave the Wolverine without an All-American award in college? It’s a little more complicated.

Dean and Drew Foster (Northern Iowa) should meet in the 8/9 match and both are capable of making a nice run to finish above their seed. Foster’s length makes him a difficult match-up for most anyone outside of the top two and he was an All-American last year which always helps the mental side. If that match happens, it will be the rubber match more than three months after the second meeting between the two. Dean beat Foster, 9-7, in a mid-November dual before the Panther got his revenge in Vegas two weeks later, 9-5. The man who takes that clash should see Robertson or Nick Gravina (Rutgers) in the blood round while the loser is probably facing Zavatsky.

With freshman Taylor Venz (Nebraska) earning the seven seed, he is well positioned to complete a season that started with a bang by climbing the podium in Cleveland. The Cornhusker ended his first five college matches early and finished third in Vegas, losing only to Martin. A dangerous pinner early in the season, Venz hasn’t gotten a fall since early December, but he is still winning. He and Parker met in early January with the Illini 184 taking a 9-7 win. However, Taylor secured a 9-4 decision in the rematch at the Big Ten tournament. The winner of that one is likely to see Bryce Carr (Chattanooga) or Steven Schneider (Binghamton), a couple of veterans who won’t be pushovers but are preferable to what the loser will face. If seeds hold, the 7/10 loser will have to survive a test from Marriott, then see Renda or Abounader.

Outside of the top-10, Gravina has some big wins including Venz and Robertson, but he did not have a good Big Ten tournament, losing to Mitch Bowman (Iowa). Coleman beat Schneider at the EIWA tournament and battled Dean, 8-7. His early season performance kept him from being seeded, but he is wrestling like a top-16 guy now. If he takes down Zavatsky in round one, he could reach the quarters and wrestle for All-American honors.

Team race implications

Penn State will be expecting a title with a lot of bonus from Nickal. Look for him to do exactly that, though earning bonus in the semis will be tough. With Martin expected to do similar things on his side of the bracket, the race to score the most points at 184 is on. Nickal should have the edge as the better pinner and is favored if they meet in the finals, but this is a spot where the Buckeyes could take points directly away from their rivals. If either falls short of the final while the other makes it, that will be a big edge for the team that holds serve.

Abounader is a microcosm of Michigan in general. He has looked strong and has the resume that points toward a good finish. However, he has been here before and ended up missing the podium. There is a fair amount of distrust of a strong Wolverine team. While that is understandable, Michigan has overperformed according to our metrics four years in a row with two strong performances and two that were right around where they should have been. Considering none of these guys were a part of the teams prior to that who didn’t quite live up to their seeds, I’m not sure how much those performances mean. We know Abounader has struggled though. If he can come through, it will be a huge step toward changing the program’s reputation. Iowa and Oklahoma State send unseeded wrestlers to Cleveland at 184 while Missouri has the 15 seed. None are expected to do much which means an extended run by any of the three would be a nice bonus. Lehigh and NC State are two teams who could jump into the group battling for third if everything goes well. This weight will be big for them as well. If Renda or Preisch fall out of the top-four and especially if they fall out of the top-six, it will be tough for their teams to stay close.

Fantasy analysis

Other than Retherford, Nickal may be the biggest favorite in any weight class depending on how you feel about the Seth Gross (South Dakota State)/Stevan Micic (Michigan) possibilities at 133. With the bonus Bo is likely to score, he is a great pick in draft formats and warrants consideration in salary cap games as well. Martin, for many of the same reasons, is a strong number two, though I wouldn’t count on another upset of Nickal. Preisch is a risky pick at three, though he has shown the ability to pin solid opponents. Renda won’t score much bonus and faces Abounader in the quarters which limits his upside. Dom and Zavatsky both have a history of underperforming at the national tournament which would keep me away, though in a draft, keep an eye on how far they fall because everyone will know that about them and that might push them down far enough to get good value.

Venz is strong, though his pins have disappeared which is odd. Still, if I’m looking for help down that far, I’m probably going with Dean or Foster. I’m high on Foster and he hasn’t lost since the Scuffle. Neither of those two has had the toughest schedule down the stretch which makes it a little difficult to figure out where they stand exactly. However, Foster beat Zavatsky and Michael Macchiavello (NC State) to finish seventh last year as the 12 seed. A run to the top six is impossible to rule out.

Predictions

1st – Bo Nickal (Penn State)

2nd – Myles Martin (Ohio State)

3rd – Ryan Preisch (Lehigh)

4th – Dom Abounader (Michigan)

5th – Pete Renda (NC State)

6th – Taylor Venz (Nebraska)

7th – Drew Foster (Northern Iowa)

8th – Max Dean (Cornell)

Round of 12 – Emery Parker (Illinois), Ricky Robertson (Wisconsin), Steven Schneider (Binghamton), Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech)

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