photo courtesy Missouri athletics
The 2021 NCAA Championships are rapidly approaching and since brackets have been released, we now know everyone’s path to an NCAA title. Before the action gets underway from St. Louis, we will break down each bracket in detail. We’ll start with some historical facts for reference, break down who can win each weight class, who will contend for All-American honors, who are scary matchups for potential upsets, and how this bracket will affect the team race. Let’s move on to the 165 lbers!
ACC: Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh)
Big 12: Luke Weber (North Dakota State)
Big Ten: Alex Marinelli (Iowa)
EIWA: Zach Hartman (Bucknell)
MAC: Keegan O’Toole (Missouri)
Pac-12: Anthony Valencia (Arizona State)
SoCon: Drew Nicholson (Chattanooga)
Other Automatic Qualifiers:
ACC: Jake Keating (Virginia), Thomas Bullard (NC State)
Big 12: Cole Moody (Wyoming), Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State), Peyton Hall (West Virginia), Austin Yant (Northern Iowa)
Big Ten: Ethan Smith (Ohio State), Cameron Amine (Michigan), Peyton Robb (Nebraska), Gerrit Nijenhuis (Purdue), Jake Tucker (Michigan State), David Ferrante (Northwestern), Joe Lee (Penn State)
EIWA: Tanner Skidgel (Navy), Brian Meyer (Lehigh), Evan Barczak (Drexel), Ricky Stamm (Hofstra)
MAC: Izzak Olejnik (Northern Illinois)
Pac-12: Shane Griffith (Stanford)
ACC: Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech), Kennedy Monday (North Carolina)
Big Ten: Danny Braunagel (Illinois), Andrew Sparks (Minnesota)
MAC: Alex Cramer (Central Michigan)
SoCon: Will Formato (Appalachian State), Rodrick Mosley (Gardner-Webb)
Jake Silverstein (Rider) in for Alex Cramer (Central Michigan)
Performance by Seed; Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014–2020 excluded)
1: 10 AA’s, 9 finalists, 7 champions
2: 8 AA’s, 4 finalists
3: 8 AA’s, 3 finalists, 2 champions
4: 8 AA’s
5: 5 AA’s
6: 5 AA’s, 2 finalists
7: 7 AA’s
8: 4 AA’s, 1 finalist, 1 champion
9: 5 AA’s
10: 3 AA’s
11: 4 AA’s, 1 finalist
12: 0 AA’s
13: 1 AA’s
14: 1 AA’s
15: 2 AA’s
16: 1 AA’s
US: 8 AA’s
Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) 2019 NCAA champion
Alex Marinelli (Iowa) 2020 1st Team, 2019 7th place, 2018 6th Place
Anthony Valencia (Arizona State) 2020 1st Team
Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh) 2020 2nd Team
Ethan Smith (Ohio State) 2020 2nd Team
Shane Griffith (Stanford) 2020 1st Team
Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State) 2020 1st Team
Tanner Skidgel (Navy) 2020 2nd Team
Who Can Win?
A huge group of contenders could come away with the title here at 165 lbs. First and foremost, the top-seed Alex Marinelli (Iowa). This will be the third time that Marinelli has received the number one seed at the NCAA Championships. We remember how his first opportunity went, falling to Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) in the quarterfinals in 2019. For the second time in his career, Marinelli will enter the national tournament without a loss on his record. This year he has been limited to only five matches. While he has yet to record a bonus-point win, Marinelli hasn’t been in serious danger in any of those bouts. Despite holding the top-seed, Marinelli’s path to the finals is anything but ideal. A possible quarterfinal match for the Hawkeye is with eighth-seeded Shane Griffith (Stanford). Shane did not lose in 2019-20, as a freshman, and was named a first-team All-American. Griffith and Stanford got off to a late start this year, and he most likely was not in top-form, losing to Anthony Valencia (Arizona State) in the Pac-12 finals. If closer to 100%, he’ll be an incredibly tough out for Marinelli. If Marinelli gets by Griffith, he could be in for a rematch with Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech). Lewis, the 2019 champion, suffered an upper-body injury, which forced him to default out of the Hokies final dual meet. That caused him to immediately default out of the ACC’s too. Once again, if anything near his peak, Lewis can replicate his 2019 win over Marinelli.
The two wrestlers that helped the chaos in these brackets were the second and third seeds, Anthony Valencia (Arizona State), and Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh), respectively. Valencia came to Tempe as one of the top recruits in the Class of 2015, but has yet to step on the NCAA podium. He recently won his fourth Pac-12 crown and has been seeded top-eight at the NCAA Championships on two occasions. Valencia was just a match shy of placing as a freshman and didn’t have the opportunity to compete last year. Now down a weight, Valencia looks better than ever. Not only did Valencia defeat Griffith, but he was also able to notch a win over Big 12 runner-up, Cole Moody (Wyoming), during this truncated season. Wentzel had a breakout year in 2019-20, winning the conference title while Lewis redshirted, and earning the 11th seed at nationals. This year he has been even better. His skills from the top position are probably better than anyone at this weight. Wentzel held four of his ten opponents scoreless in 2021.
An ex-factor at this weight is the top recruit from the Class of 2020, Keegan O’Toole (Missouri). O’Toole learned under Mizzou legend Ben Askren and could have the same impact as the four-time national finalist. He is 13-0 with bonus points in more than 76% of his matches and has tallied five pins in his true freshman season. As the sixth-seed, O’Toole will not have to deal with anyone in that brutal top-half of the bracket until a potential NCAA final. An upset in the Big 12 semifinals forced Travis Wittlake to plummet down to the tenth seed. Whether that’s warranted or not is an entirely different discussion. Wittlake is 44-3 in two years at Oklahoma State and received the fourth seed at the 2020 tournament. Him making the finals may look odd, being the tenth seed, but he’s much better than the ranking indicates.
An eighth-place showing at the Big Ten Championships relegated redshirt freshman Joe Lee (Penn State) to the 23rd seed. That sets him up for a match with Wittlake right off the bat. The two are no strangers, as Lee fell to Wittlake 8-4 at the 2020 Southern Scuffle, while redshirting. At that same tournament, Lee had a 10-3 win over the third-seed, Wentzel. While Lee hasn’t matched his preseason rankings, he is mega-talented and will make life hard for Wittlake and could be a force in the wrestlebacks.
Just one seed up from Lee is #22 Kennedy Monday (North Carolina). Monday announced himself to the college wrestling world in 2018 when he knocked off #2 Joey Lavallee in the opening round in Cleveland. For the majority of his career, Monday has been ranked in the 10-16 range, so that 22nd seed is certainly deceiving. With such a deep weight, there’s a handful of others that could be capable of a big win or two.
The race for the top-eight
The highest seed that we haven’t mentioned yet is the EIWA Champion, #5 Zach Hartman (Bucknell). Zach won the first conference title for Bucknell since 2014 and it was only the third EIWA crown in school history. He impressively disposed of 2020 2nd team All-American #13 Tanner Skidgel (Navy) in the conference final. We’d be remiss not to mention the Big Ten runner-up #7 Ethan Smith (Ohio State), either. Smith fell in his first bout of the year but put together 11 straight wins before losing to Marinelli in the conference finals. Due to the unrest at the remainder of the weight, Smith is left with a challenging match, possibly against Wittlake in the second round. Another wrestler that upset the balance of this weight class is #9 Luke Weber (North Dakota State). Weber is responsible for the Wittlake loss and went on to capture a Big 12 championship. He’ll roll into St. Louis after winning his last 12 matches.
A strong performance at the Big Ten Championships led to an #11th seed for Cameron Amine (Michigan). Amine downed third national qualifiers on his way to third place. The Wolverine freshman’s only loss of the tournament was 2-0 to the eventual champion, Marinelli. He has the look of a freshman that is experiencing everything clicking at the right time. Down one spot at #12 is Jake Keating (Virginia), who is also making his first appearance at the national tournament. Keating has grown each year with the Virginia program and has only lost to the top-four seeds in 2021. Skidgel is a veteran that picked up a win in 2019 during his first trip to nationals.
Team Race Implications
Most of the models that show Iowa winning the 2021 team title handily are predicated on the fact that Alex Marinelli wins a national championship. Of course, with his draw, making the finals could be difficult. If Marinelli falls in the quarters or semis, that could certainly put the championship in flux. Conversely, for Penn State to threaten the Hawks, they’ll need Joe Lee to find a way onto the podium.
Other trophy contenders like Virginia Tech, Missouri, and Arizona State have title threats at this weight. For Virginia Tech, it would be difficult to get to the top-four without Mekhi in the finals. Missouri would be fine with O’Toole outwrestling his seed. Arizona State has some other big guns, but Valencia in the finals would be huge.
Round of 12: Jake Keating (Virginia), Peyton Robb (Nebraska), Zach Hartman (Bucknell), Luke Weber (North Dakota State)
Semifinals: Alex Marinelli (Iowa) vs. Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech); Keegan O’Toole (Missouri) vs. Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State)
1st – Keegan O’Toole (Missouri)
2nd – Alex Marinelli (Iowa)
3rd – Shane Griffith (Stanford)
4th – Jake Wentzel (Pittsburgh)
5th – Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech)
6th – Travis Wittlake (Oklahoma State)
7th – Anthony Valencia (Arizona State)
8th – Ethan Smith (Ohio State)