Making a Big Ten Wrestling Tournament debut in hostile confines, hundreds of miles away from home in a weight class loaded with elite talent — the four men seeded ahead all owning wins against him on the season — would be a daunting task for any sophomore wrestler.
For Penn State 174-pounder Matt Brown? Eh, no big deal.
After midseason losses to the top four conference foes in his weight class, Brown began his postseason in blistering form to win the Big Ten title on Sunday in Champaign. In the process, Brown’s stock rose to a season-high, higher than when he began this, his first full year as a starter for the Nittany Lions with hype swirling around him.
That hype was well deserved, but it tapered off after Brown dropped bouts to Minnesota’s Logan Storley, Iowa’s Mike Evans, Nebraska’s Robert Kokesh and Ohio State’s Nick Heflin during regular season matches. Now that Brown is the Big Ten’s top qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, the hype will undoubtedly return.
And deservedly so.
Brown is the real deal and will most definitely threaten for an NCAA crown. This is why he followed Penn State coach Cael Sanderson — who last year said Brown had the potential to be a three-time NCAA champion — to Happy Valley.
He wanted to wrestle the best and beat the best opponents.
During the regular season, that didn’t happen. Brown was pinned by Storley in the Southern Scuffle semifinals and lost 4-3, 10-7 and 3-2 decisions to Evans, Kokesh and Heflin in dual meets, respectively.
Not once did he hang his head.
“I didn’t really stay too down after those losses,” Brown said. “I think of them as learning experiences and they’re part of the road, I guess.”
Brown is certainly not the most talkative wrestler of Penn State’s starting 10. He’s reserved, quiet and borderline shy. But when he speaks he’s to the point.
His calm demeanor is like that of someone who has been around the block a time or two. Well, Brown has been. He’s is not your ordinary sophomore.
Really, he could be a senior right now. He redshirted a year at Iowa State before embarking on a two-year religious mission to Africa, where he had only a dusty, shanty floor on which to do pushups and sit-ups.
He returned two summers ago and occasionally hopped into Penn State’s lineup after transferring, including twice wrestling at 197 pounds where he battered wrestlers that outweighed him by nearly 30 pounds.
But something looked amiss during Brown’s regular-season matches to some of his 174-pound class’ more vaunted opponents. Storley pinned him. Kokesh nearly did. Heflin won a close bout 3-2, and Evans came from behind to beat him 4-3 on a late takedown in a crushing defeat against the Hawkeyes.
Sanderson never once seemed concerned that Brown had slipped in any way. Instead, he exuded confidence in the Army ROTC student from West Valley City, Utah.
Brown repaid his coach with a dominant Big Ten Tournament run. In addition to beating Indiana’s Cheney Dale by fall and Michigan’s Dan Yates 5-1, Brown got some revenge on Heflin and Evans.
He handled Heflin easily 7-1, then gave up a penalty point to Evans on a bizarre sequence in which the referee determined Brown pulled on one of Evans’ socks. That didn’t deter him. He ripped off a five-point move shortly after and coasted to a 7-3 win.
The NCAA Tournament field will undoubtedly be tougher to navigate. Oklahoma’s No. 2 Chris Perry and Maryland’s No. 5 Josh Asper will join the already deep Big Ten contingent of opponents.
“You look at the depth, depthwise it’s a great weight, 174,” Sanderson said.
And Brown’s path could very well be the determining one for Penn State’s national title hopes. After all, the Nittany Lions got big team points from four wrestlers — David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Quentin Wright and Frank Molinaro — last season.
Now, Molinaro is gone and Penn State will need another big point-getter to step up.
“With such a heavy weight class, they’re all so good, it just means every match is going to be tough,” Brown said. “I look forward to that. It’s something that I don’t shy away from.”
Count on Matt Brown to be there when his team needs him.