photo courtesy of OSU 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 197 lbers.
ACC: Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh)
Big 12: AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State)
Big Ten: Myles Amine (Michigan)
EIWA: Jake Jakobsen (Lehigh)
MAC: Rocky Elam (Missouri)
Pac-12: Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State)
SoCon: Chris Kober (Campbell)
Other Automatic Qualifiers:
ACC: Jay Aiello (Virginia), Max Shaw (North Carolina)
Big 12: Stephen Buchanan (Wisconsin), Noah Adams (West Virginia), Marcus Coleman (Iowa State), Jake Woodley (Oklahoma)
Big Ten: Eric Schultz (Nebraska), Jacob Warner (Iowa), Cameron Caffey (Michigan State), Lucas Davison (Northwestern), Michael Beard (Penn State)
EIWA: JT Brown (Army West Point), Jake Koser (Navy), Bryan McLaughlin (Drexel), Trey Rogers (Hofstra)
MAC: Ben Smith (Cleveland State), Greg Bulsak (Clarion)
Pac-12: JJ Dixon (Oregon State), Nick Stemmet (Stanford)
ACC: Nick Reenan (NC State)
Big 12: Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State), Owen Pentz (North Dakota State)
Big Ten: Billy Janzer (Rutgers), Thomas Penola (Purdue)
MAC: Colin McCracken (Kent State)
SoCon: Logan Andrew (Chattanooga)
Performance by Seed; Last 10 Years (13-16 seed started in 2014–2020 excluded)
1: 10 AA’s, 7 finalists, 4 champions
2: 10 AA’s, 8 finalists, 3 champions
3: 10 AA’s, 2 finalists, 1 champion
4: 9 AA’s, 3 finalists, 2 champions
5: 9 AA’s
6: 7 AA’s
7: 2 AA’s
8: 4 AA’s
9: 3 AA’s
10: 4 AA’s
11: 3 AA’s
12: 2 AA’s
13: 0 AA’s
14: 1 AA
15: 0 AA’s
16: 1 AA
US: 5 AA’s
Myles Amine (Michigan) 2019 3rd Place, 2018 3rd Place, 2017 4th Place
Eric Schultz (Nebraska) 2020 1st Team
Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State) 2020 2nd Team
Jacob Warner (Iowa) 2020 1st Team, 2019 7th Place
Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh) 2020 2nd Team
Noah Adams (West Virginia) 2020 1st Team
Cameron Caffey (Michigan State) 2020 1st Team
Jay Aiello (Virginia) 2020 1st Team
Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State) 2020 2nd Team
Greg Bulsak (Clarion) 2020 2nd Team
Who Can Win?
Maybe the most wide-open of any bracket this season is 197 lbs. The top-seed is the most decorated wrestler in the group, three-time All-American Myles Amine (Michigan). Amine has been near the top of the mountain for his entire collegiate career and is focused on making his first national final and winning that elusive title. Myles has done his previous damage at 174 lbs, but moved up to 197 to align with his international aspirations at 86 kg. Amine already crossed one item off his “to-do” list when he captured his first Big Ten title earlier this month. Despite getting taken to sudden victory in his first two bouts, Amine cruised in the finals against #2 Eric Schultz (Nebraska). That was the second appearance in the conference final for the Husker big man. Schultz was seeded third at last year’s tournament and is now a four-time qualifier. He’ll get the second seed over an undefeated #3 Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State). Norfleet has made a considerable jump between years two and three in Tempe. His bonus point rate almost doubled from 41% a year ago, to 77% in 2021. Some of Norfleet’s marquee wins include Big 12 runner-up #8 Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming) and three-time national qualifier #26 Jake Woodley (Oklahoma).
One of the top recruits in the Class of 2020 has shown that he’s ready to compete for a national title in year one. #4 AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State) emerged victorious in an extremely deep Big 12 field. He needed to overcome three past national qualifiers to win the title. Ferrari is now 15-1 on the year, with his only loss coming to #9 Noah Adams (West Virginia). Adams is an unusual case as he was 32-0 last season and the second seed at nationals. This year he is 13-3 and all three of those losses came to Buchanan. As luck would have it, they would be slated to hit in the second round. If Adams can channel his 2019-20 self and down Buchanan, he’ll be in the hunt for the title, too.
A third consecutive Big Ten third-place finish has netted Jacob Warner (Iowa) the fifth-seed. That’s also his seed for his previous trips to nationals. Aside from Amine, Warner is the only competitor in this weight that has stood on the podium at the NCAA Tournament. One of the contenders that moved up from 184 lbs last season is #6 Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh). The move up to 197 has proven to be a sound decision as Bonaccorsi won his first ACC title by downing the conference’s returning champion, #11 Jay Aiello (Virginia). Bonaccorsi’s only defeat on the year came to an opponent that is not in the field of 33.
A loss at the MAC Championships dropped Greg Bulsak (Clarion) down to the #14 seed and set him up for a first-round meeting with #19 Thomas Penola (Purdue). Penola was an NCAA qualifier last year up at 285 lbs. This year, Penola won his first five matches and was a mainstay in the rankings. He just missed out on automatic qualifier status since 197 had the smallest allocation in the conference after losing to Micheal Beard (Penn State). Aside from Beard, Penola’s only losses came to Warner and #10 Cameron Caffey (Michigan State). The Boilermaker has one of the best gas tanks at this weight, so his opponents should be ready to scrap for seven minutes.
Another tough out in the first round is Woodley at #26. The depth of the Big 12 at 197 makes his 9-7 record look worse than it actually is. Three of them came to Ferrari, two were to Adams, and another was the Norfleet. The only opponent outside of the top-nine that has defeated Woodley was #13 Tanner Sloan (South Dakota State), who came into the postseason unbeaten. Woodley’s first-round opponent on Thursday, #7 Rocky Elam (Missouri), is also unbeaten.
The race for the top-eight
We mentioned that Elam will have a difficult first-round matchup with Woodley and, frankly, it doesn’t get any easier in the second round with #10 Cameron Caffey (Michigan State). Elam was one of the centerpieces of an excellent recruiting Class of 2020 for Mizzou head coach Brian Smith. He knocked off returning national qualifiers in his first two collegiate bouts and won the spot from a 2020 qualifier. Caffey was a Big Ten runner-up in 2020 at 184 and has made the move up to 197. Caffey hasn’t seen quite the level of success this year at 197, but is still capable of making the podium. Aiello, the 2020 ACC champion, has qualified for nationals three times and was seeded seventh in each of the previous two seasons. The only losses on his resume came via Bonaccorsi, his second-round opponent. Second-round familiarity will be the theme in the 5/12 matchup as Lucas Davison (Northwestern) could see Warner again. The Junior World silver medalist was blanked by the Hawkeye in the Big Ten consi’s this year and fell to him in 2020 at the conference meet, as well.
Team Race Implications
The top-six seeded wrestlers at this weight all attend schools that figure to be in the trophy hunt of some sort. With this weight class being much more wide-open than others, it could be responsible for the fortunes of these schools, positively or negatively. For teams like Michigan and Nebraska, 197 represents their best shot at an individual national champion, so they must take advantage. While Oklahoma State may have faltered a bit at the Big 12 Championships, if AJ Ferrari can outwrestle his seed, the Cowboys could be a factor in the title hunt. Penn State has another talented freshman at this weight in #15 Michael Beard (Penn State). It sounds like a broken record, but for the Nittany Lions to hold off Iowa, they’ll need a podium showing from Beard.
Round of 12: Cameron Caffey (Michigan State), Jay Aiello (Virginia), Lucas Davison (Northwestern), Noah Adams (West Virginia)
Semifinals: Myles Amine (Michigan) vs. AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State); Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh) vs. Eric Schultz (Nebraska)
1st – AJ Ferrari (Oklahoma State)
2nd – Nino Bonaccorsi (Pittsburgh)
3rd – Myles Amine (Michigan)
4th – Eric Schultz (Nebraska)
5th – Kordell Norfleet (Arizona State)
6th – Jacob Warner (Iowa)
7th – Zach Elam (Missouri)
8th – Stephen Buchanan (Wyoming)