In 2017, Penn State narrowly lost the Big Ten tournament title to Ohio State after going undefeated on the dual season; the Nittany Lions proceeded to clean up at the NCAA tournament, crowning five individual champions as the Buckeyes had a, frankly, bad tournament in St. Louis. This weekend, we’ll see how much 2017-2018 mirrors last season.
The Lions come into Cleveland with some question marks; this year, though, they look to have nine wrestlers actually don their shoes and take to the mat. Some of the questions we’ll be watching are whether Jason Nolf is even close to 100% - if so, the field better watch out, because Nolf will destroy everyone again. Odds are, though, that the injury that cause him to default at Rutgers will still plague him at least a little bit - but will it be enough for someone else to sneak to the top of the podium?
If PSU wants to have five repeat champs, he’ll have to be ready to go - but even with those five defending titlists, Penn State only has two top-ranked guys, as Nolf (3), Vincenzo Joseph (3), and Mark Hall (2) are all actually underdogs this weekend, despite having a combined three losses between them (one of which is an injury default). Heavyweight Nick Nevills also is seeded third at this tourney, but that’s in the later preview.
Up first for us today is the lower weights, aka where Penn State struggles a little bit. The Lions are without an entrant at 125 since transfer Carson Kuhn narrowly missed an auto bid to the dance. The Lions have some opportunities to gain extra points in these weights, though, not just due to the always-expected bonus points (which usually amount to an entire additional wrestler for Cael-coached teams) but also the potential for outwrestling their seeds that Corey Keener, Nick Lee, and yes, even Nolf, have shown.
Bring on the field, and thoughts and prayers to anyone who thinks they’re gonna get in the way of Zain’s third straight title. —CG
How To Watch
What: The NCAA Division I Wrestling Tournament
Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
When: 12 pm Thursday, March 15: Session 1: Pigtails / Champ R1
7 pm Thursday, March 15: Session 2: Preliminaries / Consi R1 / Champ R2
11 am Friday, March 16: Session 3: Champ Qtrs / Consi R2 & Consi R3
8 pm Friday, March 16: Session 4: Champ Semis / Consi R4 & Consi R5
11 am Saturday, March 17: Session 5: Consi Semis / 3rd, 5th, 7th Place Bouts
8 pm Saturday, March 17: Session 6: Champ finals
Audio: Free, Jeff “Ironhead” Byers; all sessions free via GoPSUsports
Video: ESPN (for Sessions 2 & 4), ESPN 2 (for Session 6), ESPN U for all other sessions
LiveBlog: BSD, for all sessions, pbp scorekeeper volunteers welcome & deeply appreciated.
Pick to win
Bscaff: There are good arguments for each of the top 4 seeds. I’ll take angry, revenge-oriented Spencer Lee (Iowa).
Cari: Lee. I’m a firm believer that in cases where the wrestlers are very close in talent and training, it’s a coin flip on ho will win, and it’s understandable, if not likely, that the last person to lose will prevail at the NCAA tournament. Such is the case with the likely semifinal matchup of Lee and Ohio State’s Nate Tomasello; I also believe that whomever wins that matchup will beat the winner of the other semi, and Darian Cruz won’t repeat as a title winner.
Clay: Nick Suriano, Rutgers. If he’s healthy, I think Suriano is the best wrestler in the country and we’ll see that this weekend. He just doesn’t have any holes in his game. I can’t see him being upset prone considering how solid he is. I have a hard time seeing Cruz reversing the butt whoopin’ Suriano put on him last year, and I think we get a Suriano-Lee final that may even given us some awesome sudden victory action.
JP: I had the pleasure of sitting with some serious wrestle-heads last weekend, and Tommy B of @bloodround pointed out to us in that spectacular Tomasello - Spencer Lee semifinal that the first point of contact every time was Spencer’s left hand on NaTo’s right shoulder. The idea being defend against NaTo’s superior lefty high-crotch. Man, was it working! But guess what the deciding factor was in that thrilling 2-1 Ohio State victory? A successful Tomasello lefty high-crotch. Spencer Lee’s gonna thrill national audiences for years going forward, but Nathan Tomasello’s gonna break Nittany Lion spirits and go out like the National Champ he came in as.
Our guy: n/a
Bscaff: As rock solid certified as the top 4 are at this weight, seeds 5 - 8 are no safe bet to make the podium. Give me two lower seeds to displace two of the 5 - 8 on the podium.
Cari: Rutgers’ Nick Suriano will not make the final, and it won’t be particularly close.
Clay: Well, Cari and I are clearly on the same page here. Give me the winner of Bresser/Lizak over Cruz in the quarters.
JP: Darian Cruz, sweet as he is, will be reviled by the Quicken Loans Arena by the time the tourney ends, and Lehigh will overtake Oklahoma State as the most back-pedalist reputation in D1 College Wrestling.
Pick to win
Bscaff: Seth Gross, SDSU. This looks like a two-man race to me, and I like Gross just a little bit better than Michigan’s Micic.
Cari: Gross. Gross’s one loss on the season was when he bumped up a weight in South Dakota’s dual against Wyoming, and took on Bryce Meredith. The one-time Iowa wrestler who hails from Mark Hall’s hometown was the NCAA runner up at this weight last year, when he lost to Hawkeye Corey Clark, and he’s unlikely to be challenged too much until the finals, when his odds-on opponent is Michigan’s white-hot Stevan Micic.
Clay: Gross. He’s just too good in every position. He pushed Meredith to the absolute limit in the aforementioned dual and is an absolute hammer on top, and that may be an understatement. I think it’s Gross, Micic and then everybody else at this weight class with Kaid Brock being the closest.
JP: Stevan Micic, Michigan. Because, Michigan’s on the rise, and this upset will set the tone for Coon to retake the crown from Snyder at the end of the night.
Our guy: Corey Keener (unseeded)
Bscaff: I’m hoping for more, but I’m expecting a 1-2 record. Daggone this is a tough sport, ain’t it?
Cari: I picked immediately after the Big Ten tournament that Corey would make the podium. I’m sticking with that; his draw is tough, but if he wrestles the way he finished the tournament in East Lansing, he can do it. As I said on twitter, he does his best James English impression in Cleveland.
Clay: Corey’s draw is better than it could’ve been. Forys is beatable, but I’m not picking it. I think Keener goes 1-2 after winning his first match on the back side.
JP: Keener’s gonna do exactly what he’s always done. He’s a textbook case study for the self-improvement books. If you don’t change who you are, you’ll always do what you’ve always done.
L - W - L, career. Hopefully that lone W will be a 2.5pt Team Score variety.
Bscaff: If 5-seed John Erneste could not wrestle top, he would not qualify. How he got the 5-seed is an unsolvable mystery, but you can rest assured that he won’t be on the podium Saturday night.
Cari: Is the above not hot enough for you? Ok, Gross and Bryce Meredith won’t both win, though I’m picking both to win in this forum...
Clay: Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher loses in the second round to Scott Delvecchio of Rutgera and then has to get through Forys in the bloodround in order to AA.
JP: NC State’s Tariq Wilson upsets Missouri’s John Erneste in R1.
Pick to win
Bscaff: Yianni Diakomihalis, Cornell. The true freshman’s better than the field, and he’s no stranger to big stages.
Cari: Bryce Meredith, Wyoming. Meredith’s had a special place in my heart ever since his out-of-nowhere finals run at Madison Square Garden in 2016. He didn’t fare so well last season, finishing fourth, but since Rutgers’ Anthony Ashnault has lost the season due to injury, this title is Meredith’s to lose. His only loss this year is to second-seeded Jordan Eierman of Missouri, and he’ll avenge it this tournament.
Clay: Joey McKenna, Ohio State. Come onnnnn reverse jinx. I’m not sure I think McKenna is the best wrestler in this bracket, but he’s wrestling well and has an extremely friendly draw. The bottom half of the bracket is an absolute meat grinder and McKenna will use his positional savvy to move through the bracket.
JP: Diakomihalis. He’s Rob Koll’s 2018 Steve Bosak, who’ll come out on top of a sick, deep talented weight.
Our guy: Nick Lee (seeded 8)
Bscaff: Nick is Cael’s third true freshman to wrestle 141 at NCAAs in the last seven years. Andrew Alton narrowly missed the podium in 2011. Zain finished 5th in 2013. Nick’s path to the podium won’t be easy, but I think he gets it done.
Cari: Lee’s shown so many flashes of brilliance this season, and it’s quite apparent why, especially in light of Cortez’s injury, his redshirt was pulled. He has the talent to go quite far, but drawing Meredith in the quarters isn’t ideal; he’ll battle back from his two losses to McKenna on the year, and will have a strong freshman campaign.
Clay: Nick has to beat Alber to be an AA, it absolutely has to happen. Thankfully, I think he will, which gives him a really good draw on the backside where he’ll likely have to beat either Nick Gil of Navy or avenge his loss to Mike Carr of Illinois in order to become an AA.
JP: Everytime I think I have this frosh figgered out, I don’t. Mike Carr dominated him in all three positions in the B1G semis last weekend, so much so that it had me going “hmmm, maybe Carr’ll have something for McKenna”.
McKenna mauled him 13-0.
I love Doug Schwab and the UNI cover bros from IAWrestle, but the panther train was really pretty yawn at the Scuffle this year. I’ve got Nick Lee bonusing Ryan Diehl and Josh Alber again. Against Meredith... that Carr performance is too much of a blocker to pick an upset, right? But I don’t really see this dude losing twice in the same day. So, he’ll get us to our feet on Friday night, but let’s set him at 1-1 on Saturday morning, for a 7th Place All-American finish. Quite an acceptable true freshman season, at a ridiculously deep weight.
Bscaff: Unseeded Tommy Thorn’s been absolutely miserable on the mat for at least the last 5 weeks. There’s no logical reason to invest in him at NCAAs. But my goodness, his bracket pod surely looks inviting.
Cari: Nick Lee and Joey McKenna will not face each other. As stated above, Lee will lose to Meredith; however, he’ll get far in the wrestlebacks, and wrestle for either fifth or third. McKenna won’t make it that far.
Clay: Seriously, Cari and I aren’t doing this on purpose I promise. I think this bracket blows up pretty early on the front side, with no fewer than four seeded wrestlers losing.
JP: Dean Heil will finish 3rd.
Pick to win
Bscaff: In this field, Zain Retherford is the best on top, the best on bottom, and the best on his feet. He’s also a singularly focused, remorseless killing machine once he toes the line. I’m picking Zain. You should do the same.
Clay: It’s Zain.
Our guy: Zain Retherford (seeded 1)
Bscaff: Zain wins all.
Cari: A bigger question than whether he’ll win his third straight title is whether he’ll win Most Dominant for the third time, the Hodge for the second, or outscore all of his teammates (especially Bo Nickal) throughout the tournament. I’m thinking yes, though he will still wrestle longer overall than Nickal or Mark Hall.
Clay: See above.
JP: Zain’s got new challenges. They might look the same as the old challenges (tedium, hands-to-face stalls, blocking, zero opponent attacks), but they’re new, because of compounding interest. They build on each other. Eventually, Sorenson’s 0-6 record turns and puts pressure on Zain, right? Most recently, J’Den Cox and Alex Dieringer successfully added title #3 to their career resumes. I won’t speak (yet) for IMar and Snyder, but Zain is about to join them.
Bscaff: In the bottom pod you get a past national champion (10-Jason Tsirtsis), a guy who’s finished 4-2-3 in his 3 previous trips (2-Brandon Sorensen), the current Junior World Silver medalist (7-Ryan Deakin), a perennial R12 kid (15-Ronnie Perry), and two sneaky-tough but unseeded outs. Directly above that pod, you get the MAC 4th place finisher (6-Justin Oliver), a JuCo punk with a .500 record (UN-Eli Deluca), and a Duke transfer who wears a neck brace (3-Grant Leeth). Congrats, 11-seed Matt Kolodzik on getting an awful pod.
Cari: Zain will once again win the title by bonus. If it’s Zain vs. Sorensen version like a hundred, that’s almost assured. Even if the Hawkeye finally learns from his mistakes and doesn’t choose down.
Clay: Matt Kolodzik of Princeton, seeded 11th, makes it all the way to the third-place match after losing in the semifinals to Sorensen.
JP: Grant Leeth’s Neck Brace has become more famous than Leeth’s actual wrestling, and Eleazer Deluca of The Dirty Jerz Fight Club of Rutgers will upset the wearer of the brace in R1.
Pick to win
Bscaff: Jason Nolf, Penn State.
Cari: Nolf. The returning champ proves the doubters wrong and shows that even an injury won’t slow him down.
JP: Pantaleo would be a sexy pick, but how the hell can you trust that guy? He’d have to get through two Pennsylvania guys just to make the finals (Josh Shields and Hayden Hidlay). For Nolf to repeat, he only has to win (not bonus!) twice on Thursday and twice again on Friday. None of those guys on Thursday have anything for him, and Kemerer on Thursday morning, after a night’s rest? And the worst he’d face on Friday in the semis is the dude he majored 14-6 after an all-day rest on Saturday night last year (Lavallee). I’m trying to find another dude to pick here. Let’s call it a healthy Hidlay, over a too-sore Nolf on Saturday night.
Our guy: Jason Nolf (seeded 3)
Bscaff: Forget about the knee, the stupid draw. It’s championship belt time, and Nolf’s a killer.
Cari: Nolf looked pretty good in two rounds of action at the conference tournament, between forfeiting out the rest of the tourney and placing sixth. Still, it’s a surprise he’s only third here; NC State’s Hidlay is undefeated, sure, but I could see him get taken out early by Tyler Berger of Nebraska, if not upset in the semis. Another rematch with Iowa’s Michael Kemerer is on the horizon for Nolf for the quarters, and that could be his toughest match of the tournament - when not unexpectedly getting himself into a bad situation and getting thrown to his back, the Hawkeye’s legit. His seed on this one is also pretty perplexing, but this is a Penn State blog, so we won’t go into more detail on that one.
Also, I doubt Nolf scores as many points as the last two years, despite making it as far in the tournament.
Clay: Nolf’s draw as the three is pretty garbage. Lavallee of Mizzou went 22-1 to grab the two seed but he has one quality win, that being over Colgan of Wyoming who is seeded ninth. He sees quality opponents in Heffernan and Crone in rounds one and two (probably) before (probably) a banged up Kemerer in the quarters. Not sure his bonus point output will be the same as we hopes, but he’s just got too many tools not to get it done.
JP: Kudos to Tom Ryan for this draw. And believe me, I’m as pissed at Kemerer as I am at Ryan for this shite. Kemerer, great as he is, has now been decked in the postseason by Green Toe Palacio (who had two pins the year he decked Kemerer) and Micah Freakin Jordan. Nolf loses a tight one in the finals, 5-6 to NC State’s Hidlay.
Bscaff: For the good of the sport, we must get rid of the coaches from decision making. Look at this bracket. Behold it’s stupidity. This is the product of a couple of coaches choosing to ignore guidelines and “make a statement”. We’ve heard the statement, fellas - you’re incapable of wisdom. So remove the coaches from ranking, from schedule-making, from seeding, and particularly from all big picture decision making. Please, and thank you.
Cari: Ohio State’s Micah Jordan, seeded seventh, won’t make the podium. Originally I thought he’d wrestle to seed and barely make it, but I’m not as bullish on his chances now.
Clay: Okay, now she’s just trying to have differing takes. Micah has an extremely easy path to quarters where he’ll probably see Lavallee. He’ll be the first real tough Lavallee has all year and I’m not sure that coming in the NCAA quarters is a good thing. I think Micah makes his way to the semis before falling to Nolf in a stressful match for Penn State fans.
JP: 7-seed Micah Jordan over 2-seed Joey LaVallee in the Quarters.
Join us later today for our picks at the upper weights!