Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
Every year at the NCAA tournament some teams overachieve while others simply don’t live up to their potential. All season and especially when the brackets come out, fans love to extrapolate team scores based on what the seeds look like. However, as we’ve discussed many times, some teams do a better job out-performing their seed than others. Even knowing that history, there is an element of chance each March as no team is perfectly consistent in this regard. In that spirit, we can now look at which teams came up big and which ones left Cleveland feeling like they missed an opportunity to do more.
As a refresher, for our purposes here we use the average performance of each seed at the NCAA tournament since 1999, the first full season after the weight changes, to establish an expected value for each wrestler. A top seed, for example, becomes an All-American 96.5% of the time, with an average placement of 2.0207. That means that a school that enters the tournament with a number one projects to have .965 All-Americans and those that place second or better outperform their peers. When we run those numbers across all the entrants for each team, we get a good idea of how they performed overall. We also total the placement differentials of each All-American and then divide it by eight, because there are eight All-American spots. Outperform the average placement by eight spots and you’ve overachieved by the equivalent of one All-American. Adding the All-American differential and placement differential together gives us a final number to compare across teams. Positive is good, negative is bad.
Today we’re going to count down the five best and five worst performances, when compared to seeds, at the 2018 Division I NCAA tournament. Before we do, we should note that this tournament featured no performances that were close to the all-time best performances or the all-time worst performances, though the extremes were further from zero than last year when few teams strayed much outside the plus or minus one range. Every team was still between +1.875 and -1.976 All-Americans. Considering we’ve seen scores as high as +3.984 and as low as -2.900 in the past, we didn’t see any truly heroic or abysmal performances this time around. Now let’s get started with the five best performances at this year’s championship.
#5 Kent State +1.291
Entering the tournament with four unseeded wrestlers, the Golden Flashes weren’t supposed to sniff the podium. Unseeded athletes become All-Americans just over four percent of the time and when they do make the stand their average finish is 6.6235. Kyle Conel’s magical run at 197 pounds included two wins over top seed Kollin Moore (Ohio State) and saw the junior stand on the third step of the podium. That not only put him in the four percent but far exceeded the average finish, effectively boosting Kent State’s score by more than one All-American by himself. When I noticed that, I was a bit concerned that this measure might skew positive overall. However, the overall placement differential for this year’s 80 All-Americans was negative. Conel’s run was truly something remarkable, pushing a team who had not sniffed the top 25 this season to a 23rd place finish. It should be noted that Stephen Suglio, who expected to be wrestling at 197 for Kent State, moved up to 285 when he was displaced by Conel and wrestled in Cleveland as well.
#4 Cornell +1.293
After seeing their streak of EIWA tournament titles snapped at 11 by Lehigh, the Big Red put the hammer down in Cleveland with their biggest over-performance since 2013. True freshman Yianni Diakomihalis (141) was the headliner, finishing first from the three seed. Rob Koll’s team also got All-American finishes from 16-seed Jon Jay Chavez (165), nine-seed Max Dean (184), and two-seed Ben Darmstadt (197). Only Darmstadt was unable to exceed his expected finish, but snagging sixth-place kept from hurting the team too much. Had he reached the finals as well, Cornell would have been right with the top three teams on this list. Still, they finished seventh overall, their 11th consecutive top-10 finish, and, perhaps most importantly to Big Red fans, were eight spots in front of their EIWA rivals.
#3 Lock Haven +1.812
The Bald Eagles headed to Cleveland without a wrestler seeded in the top eight but left with a pair earning their way to the top four. Ronnie Perry (149) had an astounding tournament, upsetting four-time All-American Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) in the second round, Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State), a three-time All-American with a national title on his resume, in the quarters and Matt Kolodzik (Princeton), who earned his second All-American honor in his sophomore season, in the semifinals. The senior became the first 15-seed to reach the NCAA finals in the process. That miraculous turn of events overshadowed some heroics from Chance Marsteller (165), who was making his NCAA tournament debut at long last. After falling to top-seed Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) in the quarters, Chance pulled three upsets of his own, taking out six-seed Richie Lewis (Rutgers), eight-seed Chandler Rogers (Oklahoma State), and two-seed David McFadden (Virginia Tech) en route to a fourth-place finish. Based on their seeds, Lock Haven should have had 0.812 All-Americans finishing in the lower half of the top eight. Instead, they finished 16th.
#2 Penn State +1.841
It happened again. If you’ve been following along with us since we started using this statistic, you know Penn State has had phenomenal success out doing their seeds which has helped them win seven national titles in eight years. They needed it this year with Ohio State holding the advantage in score by seed and the Nittany Lions’ bonus point edge failing to help them separate from the Buckeyes. Penn State finished in positive numbers for the 14th consecutive year and produced their second highest score in the Cael Sanderson era. Nick Lee’s fifth-place finish at 141 from the eight seed, which came after an opening round loss, was key. Every seed placing was as well. Remember that because the average number one seed does not win the title, Zain Retherford (149) and Bo Nickal (184) help this score. Mark Hall (174) does as well, finishing second from the two. Jason Nolf (157) and Vincenzo Joseph (165) producing titles as three seeds is an even bigger boost, building enough of an edge that Nick Nevills’ (285) under-performance can be absorbed. Shakur Rasheed’s (197) seventh-place finish from the five seed is pretty much a push. In the end, Penn State needed almost every point they could get. This performance was clutch.
#1 Nebraska +1.875
Though they’ve had some strong performances since 1999, the Cornhuskers had never over-performed by this much. Unseeded Chad Red (141) lost in the opening round, but then won four straight, including a pin over two-time national champion Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) in the blood round to finish seventh. The freshman was not alone, though. Tyler Berger (157), seeded eight, had his best performance of the season as well, falling to top-seed Hayden Hidlay (NC State) in the quarters, then winning his last four bouts to take third. Taylor Venz (184) was an upset victim in round two when Chip Ness (North Carolina) got him, but five wins in a row in the consolations saw another freshman Cornhusker finishing strong. Venz earned fourth place from the seven seed. After entering the tournament projected to earn 1.6065 All-American honors, Mark Manning’s squad left Cleveland with three and out-placed their expected finishes in those classes by nearly four spots. All of that was enough to push them into the top-10, finishing ninth with 47 points, on the strength of the largest over-performance in this year’s tournament.
Unfortunately, for every over-performance, there must be a team that suffers. Last year, we didn’t see too many contenders struggle, but this season two team trophy hopefuls crashed while the EIWA champions, who were hoping for a surprise top five finish, limped home.
#5 Oklahoma State -0.782
The Cowboys snapped a string of five consecutive positive performances, with the worst being a +0.984, by laying an egg in Cleveland. This was the first tournament since 2009 to see no Oklahoma State representative reach the semifinals and when their seven round of 12 representatives couldn’t mount a comeback, it became the second worst finish at the NCAA tournament in school history (excluding the tournament Oklahoma State was barred from due to sanctions). 2017 All-American Nick Piccininni (125), two-time defending champion Dean Heil (141), and nine-seed Derek White (285) all came up a match short of the podium after nine-seed Preston Weigel (197) was injured in his opener then defaulted out. Only Jacobe Smith (174) exceeded expectations, finishing eighth from the 13-seed, while both Boo Lewallen (149) and Chandler Rogers (165) hit their seeds exactly with eighth place finishes. Kaid Brock (133) was fifth from the four-seed.
#4 Stanford -1.077
The Cardinal weren’t expected to do a lot in Cleveland, but they had two solid All-American contenders in nine-seed Keaton Subjeck (174) and seven-seed Nathan Butler (285). For a brief time after 2017 All-American Paul Fox (157), who came in unseeded, upset 11 seed Clay Ream (North Dakota State) for the second year in a row, there may have been some California dreaming going on among Stanford fans, but it was not to be. First Subjeck fell in the second-round and could not win a bout in the consolations. Butler reached the quarters and Fox made his way through the back side to give Jason Borelli’s team two in the blood round. Unfortunately, neither could punch through this year, leaving Stanford without an All-American. This measure only sees the top eight as a success which is a little unfair to the Cardinal in this case. Butler was one match short and Fox got farther than he should have. Only Subjeck really underperformed. Still, Stanford fans would have expected at least one of those guys to get the job done.
#3 Central Michigan -1.2715
The Chippewas are the only team to be in the bottom five for the second year in a row after turning in the worst performance in 2017. They went further negative this time around, but two other programs outdid them. None of Central Michigan’s longshot All-American candidates, unseeded Colin Heffernan (157), 16-seed Christian Brucki (174), 16-seed Jordan Ellingwood (184), unseeded Jordan Atienza (197), and unseeded Matt Stencel (285) were able to pull off a big run. That left six-seed Justin Oliver (149), a 2016 All-American, and 10-seed Mason Smith (141) to carry the flag. Oliver suffered through an injury late in the season, but gamely battled to the round of 12 before finishing a match short. Smith couldn’t pull the mini-upset in his 7/10 clash with Brock Zacherl (Clarion), then ran into Nick Lee (Penn State) in his first consolation bout. With Oliver hurt, maybe it was unfair to expect an All-American from the Chippewas, but much like last year, they had a large group of guys who headed to nationals expecting to get there. Unfortunately for them, they came up empty again.
#2 Lehigh -1.828
After their first EIWA crown in more than a decade, the Mountain Hawks were flying high. In Cleveland, they crashed back to earth hard. None of their athletes were able to so much as match their seed with Scott Parker (133), seeded sixth, finished seventh, and Jordan Kutler (174), seeded fourth, finished sixth, coming closest. The big blows were third-seeded Ryan Preisch (184) suffering the quarter-final slide and 10-seed Jordan Wood (285) sustaining an injury early in his round of 12 clash with Youssif Hemida (Maryland). With defending national champion Darian Cruz (125) finishing fifth from the one seed and none of Lehigh’s representatives who entered outside the top-10 able to put together a podium run, points were much harder to come by than expected for Pat Santoro’s crew. A 15th place finish isn’t the end of the world, but this is not what Lehigh fans had in mind. This was a missed opportunity and the school’s biggest under-performance since we began tracking the data in 1999.
#1 Missouri -1.976
After last year’s NCAA tournament saw the Tigers produce the biggest over-performance of anyone in the field with their best performance since at least 1999, Missouri fans must have been cautiously optimistic that the big misses we’ve seen in recent years were a thing of the past. They won’t feel that way after Cleveland. The schedule that Brian Smith put together had his wrestlers seeded well, but many wondered whether they had been tested enough. Whatever the root cause, Missouri struggled from the opening whistle, watching second-seeded Joey Lavallee (157), a returning NCAA finalist, go down in his opener and miss the podium altogether. Five seed John Erneste (133) was the first victim of Tariq Wilson’s (NC State) magical run and though Erneste would scrap his way back to the round of 12, a loss there to Montorie Bridges (Wyoming) kept him out of the top eight as well. No Missouri wrestler matched or exceeded their seed with two-seed Jaydin Eierman (141) finishing fourth, three-seed Grant Leeth (149) earning sixth, three-seed Daniel Lewis (174) finishing fourth, and six-seed Willie Miklus (197) securing eighth. None of those performances hurts much, if at all, but with the two big guns falling early, the Tigers needed someone to pick up the slack. No one could and the team slipped to sixth after coming in hoping for a team trophy.