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Measuring the Matness: Investigating Upset Trends at the NCAA DI Championships (Part Two)

Tariq Wilson, Kyle Conel

Photos by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com

Yesterday, we began taking a look at how the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships stacked up to other recent national tournaments in terms of upsets.  Looking at seeded wrestlers getting knocked off in the first couple of full rounds suggested that Cleveland did not, in fact, rock, especially compared to the early years of the 16-seed era.  However, that is far from the only way to measure the matness.  Thursday upsets are fun, but the business end of the tournament often renders them largely irrelevant.  A good example this year was Nick Lee (Penn State) getting pinned in the first round by Ryan Diehl (Maryland).  That was surprising, but Lee would go on to better his seed, finishing fifth, while Diehl lost his next two matches.  So, perhaps, we should be looking at deep topside runs by athletes who weren’t seeded to advance that far or All-Americans seeded outside the top 10.  Today we’ll look at both.

We’ll begin by looking at wrestlers who advanced to the semifinals, securing a top-six finish in the process.  The table below lists the number of semifinalists who were seeded seventh or worse, 11th or worse, and the number of those who were unseeded.

Year >6 >10 US
2009 10 4 1
2010 6 3 3
2011 6 2 1
2012 6 2 1
2013 2 2 2
2014 7 4 0
2015 12 8 3
2016 10 9 1
2017 10 9 1
2018 5 4 2

The first thing I noticed about these results was that they didn’t always correlate with our results from yesterday.  2014 was consistently one of the craziest tournaments using the metrics from yesterday, but it gets dwarfed by 2015, 2016, and 2017 here.  Conversely, 2017 didn’t feature much insanity in the first two rounds, but it sits as one of the wildest tournaments looking at the semifinalists.  Having nine of the last 40 wrestlers left in the title chase seeded 11th or worse, potentially having had to face two top six seeds already, is remarkable.  That we saw a spike in such occurrences the three years before Cleveland, after not seeing more than four in one season from 2009 through 2014, would suggest a rise in chaos for some reason.  However, the 2018 edition reverted to what we saw most often before that span.  It can be difficult to draw too many conclusions looking at one measure so let’s look at finalists to see if it looks similar.

Year >4 >8 >12 US
2009 4 1 0 0
2010 5 0 0 0
2011 2 1 0 0
2012 4 2 0 0
2013 1 0 0 0
2014 4 2 0 0
2015 6 2 2 1
2016 3 2 1 0
2017 3 2 1 0
2018 1 1 1 0

This table lists the number of finalists that were seeded fifth or worse, ninth or worse, 13th or worse (those seeds were introduced in 2014), or were unseeded.  Zeke Moisey (West Virginia) remains the only unseeded wrestler over the past 10 years to reach the Saturday night stage, though five athletes who would have been unseeded before 2014 have made it over the last four years including 15-seed Ronnie Perry (Lock Haven) this year.  Despite all the lower seeds that got through to the semifinals in recent years, there weren’t all that many that won their next match.  Top seeds have had a lot of success in this span making it tough for anyone on that side of the bracket.  Down low, any of the seeds that would factor in to one of these categories would be scheduled to go through the two and three seeds on their way to the finals if seeds hold.  2018 was a historic low for cinderellas making the finals with 19 of the 20 wrestling for gold being seeded in the top four.  Perry was the only exception, again suggesting that 2018, while highly entertaining, was not that wild overall, especially compared to many of the other years in the 16 seed era.  2013 was the only other year to see that kind of dominance from the top four, while at least two wrestlers seeded ninth or worse had gotten through every year since 2014.

In the introduction, we mentioned how early round upsets can be rendered irrelevant by later action, but these first two measures rely on unexpected athletes winning all of their matches early in the tournament.  What if we looked at every All-American to see how many that aren’t seeded in the top-10 make the podium each year?

Year >10 US
2009 17 9
2010 16 13
2011 13 6
2012 13 7
2013 15 8
2014 22 6
2015 20 8
2016 18 5
2017 9 3
2018 16 7

Looking at those who were seeded 11th or worse that made the top eight suddenly shows what we saw a lot of yesterday.  2014-2016 again look like spikes in chaos while 2017 doesn’t feature much wildness.  2018 rebounded to be in line with what we came to expect from the 12 seed era.  Unseeded athletes becoming All-Americans was a more common occurrence before the change to 16 seeds, which makes sense considering the four grapplers expected to be the biggest threats in that regard are now seeded.  In that regard, 2018 was impressive, notching the second most unseeded All-Americans since the change and staying close to what we saw before that save for 2010.  The high profile runs of Tariq Wilson (NC State) and Kyle Conel (Kent State), who both finished third after entering unseeded, were two of the best stories of this tournament.  Perhaps we should look further into that to check only those who finished in the top four.

Year >6 >10 US
2009 8 2 0
2010 4 2 2
2011 6 3 1
2012 10 2 1
2013 1 1 1
2014 7 3 0
2015 9 5 2
2016 9 5 1
2017 5 0 0
2018 10 4 2

Looking at only top four finishers who were seeded seventh or worse over the years, we finally find what may have made the 2018 tournament seem so insane.  Only once in the past 10 years have so many outside the top six finished inside the top four.  Only twice have more of those seeded 11th or worse reached the first or third place matches, both times only producing one more than we saw in Cleveland.  Wilson and Conel tied the high water mark over the past 10 years for unseeded wrestlers in the top four.  Considering how few of these types managed to punch into the finals, this shows much of the madness came on the backside or was a combination of upsets through the quarters and success in the late consolation rounds.  2018 stands alongside 2015 and 2016 in this regard, suggesting that this could be the new normal, even though those two tournaments had much more anarchy when we looked at other measures.

There are so many things that make a tournament memorable, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what we’re seeing.  None of these measures addresses epic clashes between top seeds such as Kyle Snyder (Ohio State) and Adam Coon (Michigan).  They also don’t address the amount of action involved in the matches themselves, which we may look at in future articles.  Still, every year we wonder, how crazy was that?  Hopefully, this will give you some idea just where this year’s competition stands in that regard.

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