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Big Ten Wrestling Tournament Preview: The Lower Weights

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The beginning of March Matness is here, as the best conference in collegiate wrestling goes to East Lansing to crown its champions and determine who moves on to Cleveland. Up first in our three-part preview: weights 125 through 157.

2016 U.S. Olympic Team Wrestling Trials - Day 2
This photo just makes me giggle for some reason. And we can only have so much Zain.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last year at the Big Ten Wrestling Tournament, so many things that could go wrong for Penn State did go wrong, and the Nittany Lions ended up second to a better-than-their-seed Ohio State squad. Cael got his squad turned around for the most important tournament, though, and crowned five national champs in the process.

This year, the Big Tens are at host Michigan State, and the Lions look, so far, to have fewer BYEs than last year in the first round, thus more opportunities for bonus. And with some weights up in the air, even with four number one seeds and those aforementioned national titlists, Penn State is no sure lock with Ohio State’s stockpiling of previously-not-B1G wrestlers of the ranked persuasion.

The lower weights are, as has been the case in many a recent year for PSU, not the strong point of this lineup. The first five weights hold two number one seeds for the Lions (though returning champ Jason Nolf is sharing his seed with his Hawkeye foe due to an injury that’s taken him out of competition for a month), one two seed in true freshman Nick Lee, and two grad transfers with the same initials - one of whom has only seen action two times this season, the other of whom can make it to Cleveland if he wrestles to seed.

Then there’s Zain Retherford, defending Hodge Trophy candidate, a senior who’ll end his collegiate career never having lost a match in a dual meet. Will he make it three Big Ten titles in a row? Would you bet against him? If so, just don’t tell Zain that...he’ll make you regret it, even if he has to hold off a bit on starting his action with a first round BYE.

This preview is the first of three that we’ll be bringing you at BSD, so make sure you stick around for the next couple of days and through the weekend, where we hope to have more coverage live from East Lansing. In this preview, we’ll go weight by weight, 125 through 157, with our picks and more. Tell us what we’ve whiffed on and what we’ve got right (*cough* 149 *cough*) in the comments.

It’s the best time of year - wrestling postseason! —CG


How To Watch

What: The Big Ten Wrestling Tournament

Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, MI

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 3: Session 1: R1 / Championship Qtrs / Consi R16

6 p.m. Saturday, March 3: Session 2: Champ Semis / Consi R12 / Consi Qtrs

12 p.m. Sunday, March 4: Session 3: Consi Semis / 3rd / 5th / 7th Place

3 p.m. Sunday March 4: Session 4: Championship Finals

Audio: Free, Jeff “Ironhead” Byers; all sessions free via GoPSUsports

Video: BTN+ ($$) for Sessions 1/2/3; Free Big Ten Network for Session 4

LiveBlog: BSD, for all sessions, pbp scorekeeper volunteers welcome & deeply appreciated.


125

Nationals Automatic Qualifier Spots: 10

Bracket Spots Seeded: All 14

Bracket Placements Randomly Selected: 0

Minimum Number of Wins to Qualify for Nationals: 2

Pick to win

Bscaff: Nathan Tomasello, Ohio State.

Cari: Spencer Lee, Iowa. The Iowa freshman has been pretty darn impressive after having his redshirt pulled, and oh what I wouldn’t give to see Lee and Nick Suriano go at it in the finals. But the rumors are that Cruiseliner Nick is injured again this postseason, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he forfeits out – or if Rutgers true frosh Shane Metzler goes instead (though the former would be less surprising than the latter).

Clay: Lee.

JP: Spencer Lee. That Semifinal with NaTo is gonna be hot fire. It’s not going to be a single-TD affair. Unless Spencer gets that takedown. NaTo’s not going to take down when it’s his choice, and he’s a bear to take down himself, but if Spencer pulls a Carson Kuhn (below), he’s an even bigger bear on top. Spencer’s hands are so busy and he’s so experienced—like, at the world-level—that there really is no experience gap between the true freshman and the redshirt senior. Then for the final, although we can’t believe much of anything that emanates out of the Dirty Jerz Fight Club of Rutgers, if Suriano’s there, let’s look for him to stubbornly choose bottom and also succumb to this new era: Pennsylvania Hawkeye Spencer Lee.

Our guy: Carson Kuhn (pre-seeded 14)

Carson Kuhn announcing he’s ready for the post-season by destroying Rec Hall property with the body of 3x All-American Nathan Tomasello, February 3, 2018
Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

Bscaff: 483-year old Carson Kuhn actually has a not-horrible chance to qualify for NCAAs. I’ll guess that he gets it done.

Cari: Kuhn took NaTo to the mat to start off their match at the Ohio State dual, but still lost by bonus. And that’s his first round matchup. He’ll be bounced to the consos, and will need to win 2 matches in order to make the tournament – not completely out of the realm of possibility, especially if he wrestles like we think he can, but not something to expect. I’d like to see him go out in glory, especially because he has an adorable kid.

Clay: Carson didn’t qualify out of the Pac-12 in his time at Boise State, but having 10 spots at least gives him a puncher’s chance. He’ll likely have to knock off Elijah Oliver of Indiana to do so, though, and I’m not too confident in that happening.

JP: Kuhn’s Youtube video claims “victories over three NCAA Champions”, and BSD Wrestle Research has identified one to be former Sooner Champ Cody Brewer (further research from our dear readers is hereby explicitly solicited, effort reimbursement guaranteed in the form of standard blog currency: brew of choice). Can he add to that with the scalp of 2015 Champ Tomasello? It’s tough to say ;)

But say we do say that NaTo continues to move past the memory of Kuhn’s two (2!) first period takedowns and mat-wipes Kuhn the rest of the way, perhaps even doing a bit of team wrestling and sending an extra 1 Bonus Point to the buckeyes for the effort in a Major Decision. Kuhn would drop down to the consis and face somebody like the loser of Maginnis (Nebraska) vs Welch (Purdue). Maginnis is 16-13 and only has two conference wins. Boom, required win #1 for qualification. After that, if pre-seeds hold, he’d get the loser of the Lizak-Rivera quarterfinal. Kinda ugly. My bracketology gets a little fuzzy after that, but another win is not beyond the reasonable hope of, say, a loyal BSD Wrestle reader. And let’s face it, two weeks of bland takes on the title prospects of Penn State’s returning National Champs, could be totally spiced up with talks of the Mystery Mormon and his many potential national consolation victims. Go the rare PSU underdog!

Sleeper Pick

Bscaff: Freshman RayVon Foley (MSU) finishes 5th, ahead of last year’s national runner-up Ethan Lizak (Minnesota).

Cari: Nathan Tomasello. He’s a returning national champ for a reason, though sucking a ton of weight can reduce a guy’s endurance, he hasn’t won a title in a few years (and was up a weight last year). If Suriano truly isn’t 100%, NaTo may be the closest Lee’ll come to not winning, and if Nick’s not a go, then that semifinal is the defacto championship.

Clay: I’ll flip the script on BScaff and go with 5th-seeded Lizak. The backpack struggled in the regular season, but we still know what he’s capable of. If Lizak can bring it all together and Suriano isn’t 100 percent after missing a month due to a supposed illness, Lizak could be a surprise finalist.

JP: Nick Suriano. I don’t really claim to understand how the sport of professional MMA works, but I’d have to guess that, in the marketing business, a college National Championship might get that kid some more coin somewhere along the way. For whatever baggage you ascribe to Suriano, lack of motivation has never been a problem. Prior to February, he hung out, did his thing on the college mats, stayed academically eligible and squeezed in whatever fight club training he’d negotiated with the Rutgers head coach on the side. If he’s now successfully fought off flu or staph or whatever and is fully healthy, he’s earned his 1-seed by staying undefeated from November through January. He’s bested his likely semifinals opponent, NW’s Sebastian Rivera, twice (7-6 & 4-1) and boasts a so-far-this-year impenetrable defense. Has he even been taken down? (Genuinely asking, please hook me up in the comments; @obrats, you out there?)

133

Nationals Automatic Qualifier Spots: 7

Bracket Spots Seeded: 1-8

Bracket Placements Randomly Selected: 6

Minimum Number of Wins to Qualify for Nationals: 3

Pick to win

Bscaff: Stevan Micic, Michigan.

Cari: Luke Pletcher, Ohio State. Yeah, I know that Micic almost majored Pletcher just a few weeks ago. But the last few years there always seems to be a few Buckeyes who peak at the Big Ten tournament, and I’m betting Pletcher’s that guy this year - plus it’s super hard to beat a guy three times in a season unless your name is Zain Retherford or Jason Nolf, especially if you lost to them earlier in the season.

Clay: Micic.

JP: Micic. Luke Pletcher’s win in the massive and wholly consequential Dual Meet between Penn State & Ohio State was so uninspiring and lacking in any sense of team wrestling that I was inspired to tweet that in his next dual, Micic would teach him and the Youth of America that defense is not a style. Micic of course delivered, to the tune of an 11-4 Decision that he’s quite capable of improving on Sunday afternoon.

Our guy: Corey Keener (pre-seeded 7)

Corey Keener prepares for Luke Pletcher on February 3, 2018
Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

Bscaff: I’m hoping for 2nd/3rd/4th, but thinking 5th/6th/7th.

Cari: Keener has an outside shot at an NCAA tournament bid in his final year of collegiate wrestling, though with only seven bids for the conference at this weight, that may be more of a pipe dream than we thought a few weeks ago--though if he wrestles to seed, he’ll get it. If he pulls an upset, it’ll be even easier.

Clay: Keener’s shown me nothing to make me think he can outdo his seeding. I’ll honestly be pretty pleased if he wrestles to seed and gets an auto-bid.

JP: Corey “Chalky” Keener all year has done just about what he’s “supposed to do.” And subjunctives are the most abominable of all the tenses in our beautiful English language—especially in the beautiful sport of wrestling! No wrestler wants to do merely what he’s “supposed to do.” No wrestler wants to consider his “Coulds” or his “Shoulds”. They focus solely on the “Wills”! Wrestlers operate in a world of mental gymnastics that’s impractical and imaginary to we mere mortals. Plus, it’s the postseason! This is where Cael Magic (tm @bloodround) permeates tournaments.

Tournaments are also where heavy weight-cutters can get got. In the January dual, Minnesota Coach Brandon Eggum opted for the draw in hopes he could protect the massively-cutting McKee from the danger gassing early from the one-hour weigh-in. The previous year, over-matched George Carpenter rode the hell out of McKee, who narrowly escaped with a 2-1 victory. What kind of shape will McKee be in early on Saturday, knowing during post-weigh-in hydration & nutrition that he’ll have to make weight again on Sunday?

I say it’s time! Time to sweat-up that chalk, beat McKee, meet Pletcher in the Semis and take him out too, dangit.

It’s time, Corey. Bring it!

Sleeper Pick

Bscaff: Mitch McKee, Minnesota. McKee’s wrestled Micic three times and been pinned twice - but the other time was a 9-7 sudden victory loss. McKee will hit Pletcher (semis) and Micic (finals) with plenty of time to recover from the scale. He’s weird and wild, and could conceivably pull one out of nowhere.

Cari: I dunno, Keener maybe? No one but Micic or Pletcher is gonna win this weight.

Clay: BScaff is onto something here with McKee. He brings far more offense to the table than Pletcher and I think that gives him a big upset chance in the semis. Add that to the fact that the tournament weigh-in procedures favor him and I think the Minnesota native is a finalist.

JP: I’ll go with Nebraska’s stud frosh, Jason Renteria, who got his redshirt ripped off in January and is a on a nice 0-1 streak heading into this weekend’s tourney. If he gets by Fight Club’s Delvecchio again (he beat him 14-11 in January), he’s set to face Micic again, in the Semifinals. Last time they met ...... oh.

Well, it was only a 14-3 Micic Major. Renteria is certain to have improved since February 2! He’s an Illinois native who trained at the famed Izzy Style club and competed for powerhouse Oak Park River Forest in High School and he scores a lot of points. Except when he’s lost. Which .... maybe lean on the other pundits’ picks for sleeper here...

141

Nationals Automatic Qualifier Spots: 8

Bracket Spots Seeded: 1-8

Bracket Placements Randomly Selected: 6

Minimum Number of Wins to Qualify for Nationals: 3

Pick to win

Bscaff: Joey McKenna, Ohio State (the Michelangelo of Stalling).

Cari: McKenna. The Stanford transfer has really turned it up of late, as evidenced by his upset of Lee. I think it’ll be a close fought battle in the finals, and who will win? I think Ohio State wrestles to seed here, but Nick takes him in the wrestlebacks in Cleveland (neither will get by Bryce Meredith, IMHO)

Clay: Nick Lee, Penn State.

JP: Nick Lee.

Our guy: Nick Lee (pre-seeded 2)

Nick Lee gets set to try to escape Joey McKenna’s tight waist on February 3, 2018
Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

Bscaff: Nick’s young, can get ridden at times, doesn’t have the best leg defense, and occasionally makes true freshman mistakes - because he’s a true freshman. But he also has the best neutral offense in this field, which gives me hope.

Cari: Nick’s shirt was pulled for a reason, and he’ll get us more points than Cortez, whose short PSU career has been hampered by injuries. He has the ability to go big and he really wouldn’t surprise me if he won, as he was dominating McKenna for much of their matchup in Rec Hall, before the Buckeye pulled it out.

Clay: Listen. At some point constant pressure is going to pay off for Lee and I think that’s the case again McKenna. If he wrestles a smart match last time around, Lee gets the win. I think Cody Sanderson has the 141-pound freshman well prepared and Lee wins a B1G title.

JP: Here’s the dumb takedown Nick Lee gave up to McKenna late in p2 that ended up costing him the match:

Joey McKenna gets the deciding takedown in his 7-6 win over Nick Lee on February 3, 2018
Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

You can tell McKenna’s been training with J Jaggers, the buckeye assistant coach who knew how to turn it up in March. He’s the only guy on this Open Mat piece about the last six wrestlers to win a title after having taken six or more losses during the regular season. What does that mean? He’s veteran-savvy. McKenna’s developed some serious veteran savvy. Jim Gibbons quipped about his mat wrestling on top that it was an “old-man ride.” Scaff called him a Michelangelo of stalling as a compliment! Dude works angles and mat presence and the time clock like a savvy veteran.

Meanwhile, heretofore, Nick Lee has not. But that’s about to change. Guaranteed Casey showed him his lack of focus and too-early wind-down in that critical p2 takedown during film review and I’d guess that lesson’s been learned. I’d further guess that Casey’s also put Lee through some serious tight-waist paces in prep for McKenna, because that thing is nasty. But the call here is that Nick Lee gets out. And he doesn’t burn clock or McKenna riding time in the rematch, instead using that time to wear out the heavily-cutting McKenna with his trademark pace. And that thing is nasty.

Sleeper Pick

Bscaff: Tommy Thorn (Minnesota) won this weight last year, and he’s currently the 6-seed. That’s a pretty decent sleeper.

Cari: I’d put Nick Lee here, but it wouldn’t be a sleeper pick, really, as I could easily see him get McKenna in the finals. I’d say Thorn if Nick hadn’t destroyed him already this year. Sal Profaci (Michigan) can take almost anybody in the conference on a good day, but could lose to anyone on a bad day. Mike Carr (Illinois), I guess, since he already beat Chad Red during the regular season.

Clay: Chad Red, Nebraska. Red’s final high school match of his career was a barn burner of a win over Nick Lee in the Indiana state finals. While the Husker redshirt freshman has struggled thus far in his debut season, I wouldn’t be shocked if he reached the semis in East Lansing.

JP: Clay’s right. He’s young, but that can be cured, and he’ll be right more and more as he oldens up and learns to trust his original takery more ;) Just like Chad Red and Nick Lee!

149

Nationals Automatic Qualifier Spots: 9

Bracket Spots Seeded: All 14

Bracket Placements Randomly Selected: 0

Minimum Number of Wins to Qualify for Nationals: 2

Pick to win

Bscaff: Zain Retherford, Penn State.

Cari: Zain. I miss him already.

Clay: Zain.

JP: ZtothemfPAIN

Our guy: Zain Retherford (pre-seeded 1)

Zain Retherford trots out to face Ke-Shawn Hayes for the first time in their careers on February 3, 2018
Richard Immel, USA Wrestling

Bscaff: Zain is the best collegiate wrestler in the country, and it isn’t particularly close, in my opinion.

Cari: It’s Zain. He’s going to win, and rival anyone else for bonus points despite the first round bye. I’d be surprised if even Snorenson doesn’t give up bonus this time.

Clay: What BScaff said. Sorry, not sorry.

JP: I truly, deeply appreciate that Kyle Snyder has blessed college wrestling with his unique and personal brand of using Freestyle to wrestle Folkstyle, with whatever amount of part-time availability he’s managed to carve out for us. Sincerely, and with zero snark. A quick nod to Isaiah Martinez, who may yet finish his full-time Folkstyle career with one fewer loss and an equal number of titles, but ...

Zain is the best.

Again this year.

Sleeper Pick

Bscaff: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Also, freshman Ryan Deakin (JNW) over Brandon Sorensen (Iowa) in the semifinals

Cari: lol

Clay: I think this one pretty much holds to seed 1-4.

JP: Pain.

Can I pick Pain? As a sleeper?

Like, can Pain metamorphose into human wrestler form and straddle the Big Ten podium? Because it’s still too early for Zain’s apotheosis and ascension into the halls of Wrestling Valhalla (he has some earthly work still to do in Cleveland). But as a legit stop on his journey there, he could still transpose! Zain & Pain could continue their 5-year courtship and take it to the next level, one where they begin to meld into one and the same being like Brangelina. Then, when this new fully-formed entity of zPain climbs atop the Breslin Center podium, those in attendance would feel the unceasing agony of all of zPain’s vanquished foes, like a million demons fluttering through our temporal corpi.

Yeah, don’t sleep on Pain. It’s got a story yet to tell.

157

Nationals Automatic Qualifier Spots: 8

Bracket Spots Seeded: 1-8

Bracket Placements Randomly Selected: 6

Minimum Number of Wins to Qualify for Nationals: 3

Pick to win

Bscaff: Michael Kemerer, Iowa.

Cari: Kemerer. Because I’m putting the Gulibon curse on this weight until I see where Nolf is at.

Clay: Jason Nolf, Penn State.

JP: Kemerer.

Our guy: Jason Nolf (pre-seeded 1b)

(above: Jason Nolf dancing on crutches on February 3, 2018, video of the BTN TV broadcast captured by twitter user Ethan Brown).

Bscaff: I expect Jason to default, take the rest, and give it a go at NCAAs in two weeks.

Cari: There are rumors abound that not only is he good to go for the Big Tens, he could have gone against Buffalo, except it was Buffalo (and Bo Pipher made the most of that match). At 100%, this wouldn’t be close; Nolf would level the field, and bonus Kemerer. But is he at 100%?

Clay: We’re going to hide this article from my podcast co-host Garrett Carr because as many of you know I’ve been, like BScaff, adamant that Nolf will and should just take the extra rest. But it sounds like the Nolfin was ahead of schedule and wanted to wrestle the Buffalo dual. If he’s really feeling 100 percent or close to it, I imagine the coaches let him go.

JP: I’ve been suggesting for a few weeks that this injury situation is way different than Suriano’s was last year, for a bunch of reasons. So I’ll go ahead and smoke up what Clay is passing: that Nolf is gonna go. The metaphor being that where there’s smoke (rumors of Nolf going) there’s fire (Nolf actually going). This will probably be confirmed or denied to the public in the form of the actual seeds, after Cael is compelled by the seeding conference call to offer up something a bit less cagey and more closely resembling “truth” in the How Is Jason Nolf’s Recovery Department.

So I’ll say he goes legit, but only for a few rounds. Take the easy W in the rematch with Van Brill on Saturday morning. Give an honest, Bonus Point, go vs. Crone on Saturday night. Watch Sunday morning as Ohio State scrambles to get within striking distance of Penn State on Sunday morning. Then forfeit to Kemerer in the Final on Sunday afternoon....

Nah, that doesn’t make any sense. He’d be 20-2 and would risk getting the 3-seed at Nationals, behind undefeated B1G Champ Kemerer and likely undefeated ACC Champ Hidlay. And if he’s good enough to go Saturday night, he’ll be good enough to go Sunday afternoon. But he’ll still probably lose to Kemerer because that’s my pick. You say waffle, I say hedge. Go State!

Sleeper Pick

Bscaff: Alec Pantaleo, Michigan. The least consistent wrestler in this field is also the most capable of knocking off Mikey Kemerer.

Cari: Pantaleo. Micah Jordan has been not impressive despite his sixth seed; likewise, I kind of expected more out of Nebraska’s Tyler Berger this year. Pantaleo was Nolf’s closest win (save the MF), and he can hang with anyone now that Wiscy’s Crone has crashed back down to earth.

Clay: Tyler Berger, Nebraska. Somewhere in there is the guy who went 35-6 last season and was an All-American. Berger could absolutely upset the apple cart here at 157, particularly if he can knock of Micah Jordan in the quarterfinals which he’s more than capable of doing.

JP: Is Alec Pantaleo actually Eric Grajales? Whoever he is, he’s got to be the sleeper pick. Even if he’d probably quibble with you on social media about being considered a sleeper.


Come back tomorrow, when we’ll preview the rest of the weights, and Friday, for a roundtable on some of our burning questions headed into this tourney!