Photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
While we work hard at TOM to be objective and as unbiased as possible, we all were fans before we started writing about wrestling professionally. With that, we have our favorite teams that we pull for and, especially this time of year, want to see do well. In that spirit, we thought it would be fun to let our hair down a little at the most exciting time of the college wrestling season to enter the Fan Zone. We’ll have fans of Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Iowa getting a little partisan over the next few days as they take a look at their team’s outlook as we head for Cleveland. For these pieces, at least, we’re going back to our roots as fans of the greatest sport in the world! Today Eric Bush points out that his Nittany Lions may be undervalued, a scary thought considering where they stand.
As the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championships approach, the buzz around the race for the team championship has amplified. So what are Penn State’s chances and what do they need to do in order to bring home their seventh title in eight years?
Looking at the tournament seeding, we can get an idea of what the top teams would score if seeds would hold true by adding together placement points and the advancement points it would take to reach those points. Based on seeds, Penn State would score 112 points and Ohio State, Penn State’s most likely competitor for the title, would score 125 points, but this doesn’t include bonus points. One of my favorite wrestling traditions is bringing up Penn State’s high rate of scoring bonus points, only to be scoffed at by opposing fan bases and assured that bonus points aren’t that big of a deal. Spoiler alert: that makes it more fun for us.
Last year, Penn State scored 32.5 bonus points at the NCAA tournament compared to Ohio State’s 20. With graduation, transfers, injuries etc., Penn State returns wrestlers that accounted for 30 of those bonus points (including the transfer of Corey Keener from Central Michigan), compared to Ohio State’s 20.5 (including the transfers of Joey McKenna and Te’Shan Campbell). While Ohio State adds Ke-Shawn Hayes into the lineup, who scores bonus around 50% of the time, Penn State also adds Nick Lee and Shakur Rasheed, who each hold bonus rates around 70-75%. Consistently outscoring our top competition when it comes to bonus points by 10-13 points is the equivalent of having an additional high-placing All-American.
Now let’s take a look at the road ahead for each individual:
133– This will be Corey Keener’s third straight year hitting Pitt’s Dom Forys at the NCAA tournament. Keener fell 12-6 to Forys in the consolation bracket in 2016 and lost 10-2 in round one at last year’s tournament. We’ve seen flashes of greatness from Keener this season and he’s shown that he can compete with many of the guys at this weight. His drive and the intensity of his style make him fun to watch and I’ve been saying all season that I think Keener is the type that could make something happen at NCAAs. He wouldn’t be favored to go far in the championship bracket, but don’t be shocked if Keener pulls an upset or two. His path through the quarterfinal is a difficult one with Forys, Scott Parker (Lehigh), and Luke Pletcher (Ohio State) to go through, but looking at those three, it’s tough to argue that he could never beat them.
141– Nick Lee, much like his predecessor Jimmy Gulibon, has been giving us thrills and head scratchers this season. His hand fighting and high attack rate are intense and good enough to get through most guys at the weight, but he’s also demonstrated some issues on bottom. First round, Nick will see Ryan Diehl (Maryland) who he majored 22-10 in the dual. Nick needs to look for some big bonus points here. He will likely see Josh Alber (Northern Iowa) second round, who he pinned in the Southern Scuffle after leading late in the match. Beating Alber is crucial since the loser would likely face the loser of Yianni Diakomihalis (Cornell) vs. Dean Heil (Oklahoma State) in the blood round. I expect Nick to score some bonus points on his way to Bryce Meredith (Wyoming). If Meredith’s skill on top is too much, look for Nick to have battles on the backside, including a potential consolation quarter with McKenna and an opportunity to steal some points from the Buckeyes.
149– Zain’s toughest opponent at the weight holds an 0-6 career record against him. We should see Zain repeat with dominance and break the PSU all-time pins record along the way. Penn State fans should be rooting for Troy Heilman of UNC to make the semis over Ke-Shawn Hayes. Hayes has felt out a few ways to keep Zain at bay and Heilman hasn’t wrestled Zain since 2015, plus Hayes would likely have a difficult road to AA, needing to beat the loser of Jason Tsirtsis (Arizona State) and Ryan Deakin (Northwestern).
157– Don’t try to wrap your head around the seeding at this weight because it will just hurt your brain. Nolf’s injury throws an interesting wrinkle into the weight, but even if he wasn’t wrestling fully like himself at Big Tens, he still proved he can wrestle just fine. He’ll likely see Michael Kemerer (Iowa), probably the second-best guy at the weight, in the quarters. Kemerer is likely not 100% either, which could help Nolf get through the tough early matchup. Joey Lavallee (Missouri) in the semis is no walk in the park either, even if Nolf made it look like that in last year’s finals. Nolf’s first few matches will be telling of how much his injury was able to heal over the past few weeks and also how well he’s been able to adapt and find new ways to score despite limited mobility. If he can make it through Kemerer and Lavallee comfortably, I think most of us should feel fairly confident that he’s capable enough to handle himself just fine in the finals.
165– Vincenzo did not wrestle his best tournament at Big Tens, but Penn State fans should not be overly concerned. He’s still had a much better season than last year and no coach in the country get his wrestlers to peak at the right time more than Cael. 165 doesn’t have an easy road for anybody. Cenzo likely bonuses in his first two matches, after which he’ll see Richie Lewis (Rutgers) or Isaiah White (Nebraska), which should be a controlled decision. Logan Massa (Michigan) has been wrestling better than he has all season, so don’t be surprised by a rematch in the semis. As for Isaiah Martinez (Illinois), Vincenzo’s biggest issue in their Big Ten finals match was allowing IMAR to drive him out of bounds every time he got to his feet from bottom. Once IMAR built the riding time, it forced Vincenzo to chase him down late in the match. That’s the kind of mistake you don’t make twice. I think we see more offense out of Vincenzo in the first and second period this time around. Joseph has demonstrated his strength from the overhook and his ability to keep IMAR from scoring takedowns, not to mention Vincenzo had the only deep leg attack of their previous match. A match where everything is played close to the vest until late favors IMAR, a match where Vincenzo attacks favors him.
174– Mark Hall is locked in and ready to go. With Bo Jordan (Ohio State) and Daniel Lewis (Missouri) on his side of the bracket, he certainly won’t have an easy semi, but one that he should control soundly. Hall and Zahid Valencia (Arizona State) have been the clear #1 and #2 all year. Zahid is one of the most skilled and athletic wrestlers in the country at any weight, and as such has been winning the battle of public opinion, but no one in college wrestling is more calm, cool, and collected when the pressure is on than Mark Hall. As for the team race implications of 174, we could see Jordan take multiple losses at the NCAA tournament for the first time in his career to the likes of Lewis, Jordan Kutler (Lehigh), Hall, or Myles Amine (Michigan). If so, it would cause the Buckeyes to miss out on some team points they desperately need from one of their seniors.
184– Bo will continue to do what Bo has done all year. He should go untested until his semifinal against Domenic Abounader (Michigan) or Pete Renda (NC State). Neither will be an easy match, but both would highly favor Nickal. His likely finals opponent is Myles Martin (Ohio State), the only guy in the field who has ever beaten Bo, despite his 2-6 career record against him. Martin will have to make it to the finals first, which he failed to do last year, falling to Emery Parker (Illinois) in round 2. Martin could see Parker or Taylor Venz (Nebraska) in the quarters, over whom he would be heavily favored, but a semifinal against Zack Zavatsky (Virginia Tech) or Ryan Preisch (Lehigh) could see the Buckeye going down before the finals. I like Bo to win a dominant decision over Martin or Preisch in the finals.
197– Shakur “Sugar” Rasheed. As the #5 seed, Shak’s path to an AA finish is a great one. His toughest opponent on the way to the podium is likely #4 Michael Macchiavello (NC State) in the quarters. Macchiavello is one big dude, so I hope Rasheed has continued with his diet of eating whole rotisserie chickens. I think the key to a win over Macchiavello for Shak is getting the angle on his low single quickly, as well as establishing a controlling ride from the top position. If he drops that one, he’ll likely see #7 Frank Mattiace (Penn) or #10 Scottie Boykin (Chattanooga) in the blood round, which Penn State fans should feel confident about. Although Kollin Moore (Ohio State) dominated their match in the Big Ten finals, Rasheed also did not wrestle his best tournament, failing to earn bonus points for one of the only times this season against a winless Jake Kleimola (Indiana). Expect to watch a very different match should Moore and Rasheed meet again in the NCAA semis.
285– Nick Nevills is wrestling the best he ever has in his collegiate career. Nevills had a couple mid-season hiccups at the Southern Scuffle but quickly returned to form, demonstrating that in multiple strong wins over the likes of Youssef Hemida (Maryland) and Sam Stoll (Iowa). He should avenge his loss to Michael Boykin (NC State) in the round of 16 and likely make the semis. Though Nevills wasn’t close to beating Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) or Adam Coon (Michigan), Nick probably got the better style matchup being on the same side of the bracket as Coon. Coon is huge and highly skilled, but Nevills low single and ability to scramble as a big man give him a unique opportunity with Coon, who lost to Snyder at Big Tens off the low single of Snyder. If he falls to Coon, he also could have tough tests in Tanner Hall (Arizona State), who he beat at the All-Star Classic, or Jacob Kasper (Duke), who he beat at the Keystone Classic. Nevills may score some bonus points early in the tournament, but he wins a lot of close matches by escaping, gaining riding time, and maybe snagging a takedown if he can get it. Wrestling so many close matches means he could drop one before the semis, but he’s also good enough to run the table and come back for third if he does.
My advice for fellow Penn State fans is this- don’t panic. When last year’s seeds projected Oklahoma State beating Penn State, without Nick Suriano, for the title, many fans thought Penn State was unlikely to win without the injured 125 in our lineup. Then we outscored Oklahoma State by 43.5 points. When the tournament comes, mayhem ensues and anything can happen. As fun as it was last year to blow out every other team in dramatic fashion, I’m pumped for the chance to watch a hotly contested team race between teams that will likely go down as all-time greats.