No sooner had Penn State wrapped up its first Big Ten wrestling team title when coach Cael Sanderson started talking about the next task at hand — going to Pittsburgh and bringing home team and individual NCAA titles.
“It’s the conference meet, so we’re not going to get too excited about it,” Sanderson said. “We’re grateful for the success we had this weekend, but nationals is what we’re looking at — that’s the big picture. So hopefully we can get ready to go and be ready to go in Pittsburgh.”
The national tournament is still two weeks away and seeds won’t be released until Wednesday, but it’s never to early to start thinking about the pinnacle of the NCAA wrestling season.
Here’s what we learned about Penn State from the conference tournament, and how its performance could affect NCAAs:
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The Hodge Trophy race is far from wrapped up
After Bo Nickal pinned the second-ranked guy in his weight class in Ohio State’s Kollin Moore in his February “Hodge moment,” where he also helped his opponent up off the mat, and with his current lead in the NCAA Most Dominant Wrestler standings, he has made a strong case for his name to be etched on the trophy as this year’s top college wrestler.
Any other year, that might be enough to have the contest wrapped up before nationals. However, as proven by the “co-Big Ten Wrestler of the Year” honor that he and teammate Jason Nolf were given after the tournament wrapped up Sunday, choosing between the two for any accolade this season is not an easy task.
The criteria used to determine the top collegiate wrestler each year are record, number of pins, dominance, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship and heart — as well as the fan vote. Pins and dominance are the most important of the criteria.
During the Big Ten tournament, Nolf picked up another pin, to bring his total on the season up to 14, just one shy of Nickal’s.
At this point, there isn’t anyone outside of Nolf and Nickal who’s a realistic contender, as long as those two do what they’re expected to and sail through the NCAA tournament and claim their third individual national titles.
Which one of those two comes away as this year’s Hodge Trophy winner come down to who has the most dominant NCAA tournament. With the numbers as close as they are, the trophy is still very much in play for either one of them.
Lee didn’t win, but shouldn’t be counted out as an NCAA finalist contender
Sophomore Nick Lee was one of only three of his fellow Nittany Lion NCAA qualifiers not to make the Big Ten finals last weekend.
Penn State wrestlers, however, are known to compete at a different level when it comes to NCAAs — and Lee, who placed three spots higher than his seed last year, isn’t an exception.
Lee had a tough semifinal matchup against Ohio State’s Joey McKenna, who won similarly to how he did in the pair’s first meeting last season at Rec Hall — with a late-in-the-period takedown. As Sanderson said after Lee’s loss, giving up a takedown at the end of a period is essentially like giving up two.
Lee got in on some good shots, particularly one near the end of the first, in which the two went off the mat, but was never able to convert. However, Lee’s biggest weapon is his motor, which was on display against 2017 Junior World silver medalist Mitch McKee, of Minnesota, in the third-place bout. Lee came back from a 3-2 first-period deficit with a strong second period, which included two takedowns and four near-fall points, en route to a 12-4 major decision.
Lee said after his dual season loss to Wisconsin’s Tristan Moran that, while he doesn’t necessarily like to lose, he embraces losing as an opportunity to expose his weaknesses and get better. He corrected the issue he and his coach identified as holding him back in that match — finishing shots — and rolled to an 11-2 major of Moran in the Big Ten consolation semifinals.
Depending on how the brackets shake out, Lee could find himself facing McKenna in the semifinals again in a couple weeks. It was Lee’s motor that made the difference in his lone win over McKenna, and it’s not out of the question that it can prove to be the difference again — and that he can make up for that one takedown.
Injuries are still a question for Penn State
Despite ensuring reporters prior to Big Tens that they were healthy and ready to go, both Shakur Rasheed and Brady Berge medically defaulted out of the tournament.
Sanderson classified both forfeits as “precautionary,” and said that if it were the NCAA tournament, they’d both be wrestling.
“We need him in Pittsburgh,” Sanderson said about Rasheed. “Myles Martin is just an unbelievable wrestler and a senior, so I feel bad about that, being live on the Big Ten Network but it was the suggestion of our medical staff to not take a risk there.”
Sanderson pointed out, before Big Tens, that it’s rare for a team to go into the postseason completely healthy. He pointed to Nolf “being on one leg” last year, and former Nittany Lion Nick Suriano’s ankle injury the year prior.
However, there’s not many who can go out and do what Nolf did last year and win an NCAA championship on what Sanderson has indicated was a pretty serious injury.
True freshman Roman Bravo-Young, whose health was also in question after an apparent knee injury on Jan. 25, wrestled all five of his matches last weekend before his fifth-place bout, during which he received a medical forfeit form Michigan’s Stevan Micic.
Despite giving up the late takedown, Rasheed’s win over Nebraska’s Taylor Venz and his dismantling of NCAA qualifier Cameron Caffey, of Michigan State, should be encouraging to fans. As should Berge’s hard-fought win over Iowa’s Pat Lugo.
Although those two injuries don’t pose as big of threats to Penn State’s chance at winning the NCAA team title as Nolf’s did last year, it could make things a bit tighter and impact those wrestlers’ abilities to achieve their postseason goals.
Marinelli is a real threat to Joseph’s hopes for a 3rd NCAA title
Iowa’s Alex Marinelli bested Vincenzo Joseph at the Bryce Jordan Center last season as an undefeated true freshman but then went on to place sixth at Big Tens and NCAAs while Vincenzo Joseph won his second consecutive national title. So, last year, it was easy for some to write off Joseph’s loss as a “fluke” or “getting caught.”
Marinelli has since shown that obviously wasn’t the case.
The sophomore opened up a big lead against the defending national champ the same way he did last time — turning Joseph’s inside-trip attempt into a six-point scoring combination for himself.
The double overhook position has been one of the more dominant positions for Joseph, helping him to win his two national titles. But as confident as Joseph is in that position, Marinelli told FloWrestling, he’s even more confident. That confidence lead him to his 9-3 Big Ten title win over Joseph on Sunday
The Hawkeye has jumped levels this season. After losing to Wisconsin’s Evan Wick by major decision in last year’s NCAA championships, he has since beaten the Badger three times.
And after his good friend and future brother-in-law, Wisconsin wrestler Eli Stickley, was killed in a car crash during the offseason, Marinelli has made clear that it’s not just himself he’s wrestling for this season.
No matter how much stat-crunching and analyzing anyone does, the postseason is always full of surprises
As Penn State’s Anthony Cassar showed with his Big Ten finals win over previously undefeated freshman phenom Gable Steveson, nothing is ever a sure thing in wrestling.
While some may say that wasn’t an upset at all, others had already penciled the Golden Gopher in as an undefeated four-time national champ.
From Cassar’s victory, to yet another strong tournament run by Nebraska’s Chad Red, to unseeded Maryland heavyweight Youssiff Hemida battling to finish third and stealing an automatic bid, to Marinelli’s toppling of Joseph, there’s bracket-busters and upsets lurking behind every corner.
Every wrestler’s sights are set on the postseason, where, regardless of any losses they may have taken during the regular season, they still have a shot to stand on the top of the podium at the end of the weekend.
There’s no team any wrestler wants to upset more than Penn State. When Marinelli took out Joseph, Williams Arena was louder than it had been all weekend.
But Penn State doesn’t have to just be on the receiving end of upsets — there’s plenty of opportunities for Nittany Lions to get some upsets of their own.
Bravo-Young still remains a little bit of a mystery after Big Tens. After initially wrestling reserved and trying to feel things out against Iowa sophomore Austin DeSanto, Bravo-Young got things going in the third period with two takedowns. But it was a too little too late. Although he took a few losses, he has the ability, and now some more experience, to shake things up.
No matter what happens, there’s little doubt that March 21-23 will be full of surprises, exciting new storylines, and a lot of great wrestling.