Big Ten wrestling. The 14 teams that make up the most dominant wrestling conference in the country this year have congregated in Minneapolis for a showdown of powerhouse programs. Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan and more. It’s the intense, emotional, fiery battle college wrestling fans have been itching for since the season began. And all the action will continue on Sunday morning and into the evening.
STANDINGS AND STATISTICS: Division I wrestling championship records | Wrestling teams ranked
Nine of the ten weight classes on Saturday will feature No. 1 nationally ranked wrestlers, and this star-studded group will also feature six previous NCAA champions, eight former Big Ten champions and one undefeated true freshman phenom. It’s the clash of the titans, and though the Penn State Nittany Lions are expected to clean up, nothing is given in March.
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Here are the questions we had going into Saturday’s bouts:
Big question: Will Spencer Lee find the magic he needs in March to take down Sebastian Rivera and build his momentum heading into the national tournament?
Brands, Stoll, DeSanto, Lee and Marinelli on the upcoming 2019 Big Ten Wrestling Championships in Minneapolis. pic.twitter.com/oS4pEZqrI1
— Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) March 6, 2019
The young Iowa star dropped to Rivera at Midlands in December and then missed his dual against the Northwestern sophomore in early February, so the two haven’t met since that famous battle in Chicago. Since then, Rivera’s only loss came against 133-pound Stevan Micic in a super-match during the Northwestern-Michigan dual. He’s undefeated this year at 125, whereas Lee has two losses on the year, the one to Rivera and another recent fall against Nick Piccininni of Oklahoma State. Lee’s most recent loss in Stillwater caused concern among Iowa fans, but a Big Ten title would help silence the critics. Lee shut out Rivera 12-0 in last year’s Big Ten tournament before finishing third and earning Freshman of the Year honors.
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Will Rivera reverse the outcome of last year’s match against Lee and wrestle his way to his first Big Ten title? Maybe, but even outside of Lee, the competition is stiff. Minnesota’s Sean Russell, a 2017 All-American, holds the No. 3 seed in the bracket and a No. 6 seed nationally. Lee beat Russell 4-0 in January, but other than that loss, Russell has not lost to a Big Ten opponent. He should have a shot at the bronze, and maybe higher, and he shouldn’t be ignored. The 125-pound weight has one more top-10 nationally ranked opponent in Michigan State’s RayVon Foley, and he’s on Rivera’s side of the bracket, which means the two could face off in the quarterfinals. This is a without a doubt a wild weight with some big stars, setting the stage for an intense weekend of high-level wrestling.
Williams Arena looking GOOD in its transformation for the Big Ten Championships 👌 pic.twitter.com/OYouD7geFS
— Minnesota Wrestling (@GopherWrestling) March 7, 2019
Big question: Can anyone challenge Michigan’s Stevan Micic?
Little workout with @Kellenrussell41 and @StevanMicic. pic.twitter.com/ADFq7wABK5
— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 8, 2019
When 2018 NCAA Champion Seth Gross dropped out of the season after his chronic back injury, a weight class that once seemed locked up suddenly opened again. The 133-pound weight was stacked nationally from All-Americans Nick Suriano, Tariq Wilson, Luke Pletcher and Ethan Lizak to the two young stars Daton Fix and Austin DeSanto all in the top eight. But one athlete, and one athlete only, survived his gauntlet of ranked matches this year to emerge from the regular season with a flawless record: the defending Big Ten champion Stevan Micic. The Michigan junior has 13 wins on the year with notable victories over Pletcher and Suriano, and he’ll be the one to watch this weekend.
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In the Big Ten, DeSanto holds the No. 2 spot with Rutgers’ Nick Suriano at No. 3. Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young and Ohio State’s Pletcher round out the top five with Lizak sitting in seventh. Micic is the only athlete in this weight class to have won a Big Ten title at 133 pounds, creating added suspense for the other ranked wrestlers competing for their first Big Ten crown. And if that isn’t enough, another interesting element to this weight class is the “A beat B, B beat C and C beat A” element to the seeds. DeSanto most recently took a loss to Daton Fix, and Suriano suffered a loss to the same opponent, but previously Fix lost to No. 5 Micky Phillippi who also lost to Korbin Myers and Suriano. Fix will be wrestling in the Big 12 this same weekend, so Big Ten wrestlers will likely face him again in the NCAA tournament, but for now, they are free from the young Cowboy. Nine NCAA bids and one conference title will be on the line this weekend, not to mention NCAA seeds, creating even more intensity at 133.
The boys have made it to Minnesota ✈️#B1GWrestle | #RelentlessPursuit pic.twitter.com/CWboGOer88
— Rutgers Wrestling (@RUWrestling) March 8, 2019
Big question: Will Ohio State’s Joey McKenna defend his title?
The only weight class without a national No. 1 seed in the bracket, 141 will be a dog fight between Ohio State’s Joey McKenna, Penn State’s Nick Lee and the top-seeded Mike Carr from Illinois. Carr earned the No. 1 nod as a result of his undefeated conference record, though he enters the tournament with one more loss than Lee and five fewer wins than McKenna. The young Fighting Illini will chase his first Big Ten title after finishing runner-up last year, but he’ll face a veteran fighter in defending Big Ten champion McKenna. In his 18 matches, the Ohio State Buckeye has lost just twice, once against No. 1 Yianni Diakomihalis and once against No. 2 Nick Lee. He’ll bring this experience and success to the mat in Minneapolis and aim to defend his title, but the road won’t be easy.
As the No. 3 seed, McKenna will face a harder road to the finals than Lee or Carr, but he beat Carr last year and could do the same this weekend. Carr will also have to get past former All-American Chad Red to advance to the finals, which, if he wrestles to seed, shouldn’t be a problem. Postseason wrestling, however, is all about upsets. This will be a weight to focus on, and a potential Penn State-Ohio State rematch between McKenna and Lee adds to the excitement at 141 for the top of the podium.
Big Question: Is this the year Micah Jordan finally wins a Big Ten title?
🎦 B1G CHAMPIONSHIPS PREVIEW | MICAH JORDANhttps://t.co/DiDvUNMvcX#GoBucks
— Ohio State Wrestling (@wrestlingbucks) March 7, 2019
Micah Jordan has been a dependable leader for Ohio State and wrestled with success in four different weight classes during his career as a Buckeye. Back down at 149 and ready to rumble, Jordan comes into the tournament with the No. 2 conference seed, a 22-1 record and a 13-match win streak. His only loss came against No. 1-seeded Anthony Ashnault at the Cliff Keen tournament in a high-scoring 14-10 battle. Ashnault is looking to become the first Rutgers wrestler to win a national title later this month, but first, he’ll aim to win his third Big Ten title (the first two titles coming at 141 pounds in 2016 and 2017). A sixth-year senior, Ashnault has held the No. 1 ranking in the Big Ten and in the nation since February 3 when he took down then No. 1 Matthew Kolodzik of Princeton in a major decision.
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This weight class will be a battle of the veterans with Jordan and Ashnault holding the top two spots, but the remainder of the tough 149-pound cast should not be discounted. Pat Lugo, Thomas Thorn, Cole Martin and Brady Berge also hold top-20 national rankings and will be hoping to at least wrestle to seed and earn one of the six coveted tickets to the Big Stage in Pittsburgh.
Big question: How many bonus points will Jason Nolf rack up?
The 157-pound weight class at the Big Ten tournament is tough, filled with seven of the nation’s top eight wrestlers. However, the top-ranked wrestler, Jason Nolf, is undefeated and the clear favorite in a weight that will send nine automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten tournament will likely be just one part of senior year postseason victory lap for Nolf, the 157-pound defending national champion who has hit bonus points in over 85 percent of his matches. Nolf has been untouchable this year, and the Big Ten should be no exception. Already this year, he’s taken down Tyler Berger, Ryan Deakin and Alec Pantaleo, the other top-four seeded athletes in the weight class.
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If (and this is a big if), someone were to unseat the champ, the best contenders would be one of those three wrestlers. Berger or Pantaleo both took medical forfeit wins over Nolf at last year’s Big Ten tournament but both also suffered losses to the Nittany Lion earlier this year. Outside of those two matches, Nolf’s only other losses in his entire career came in the form of an injury loss to John Van Brill and two losses against Isaiah Martinez. This is Jason’s Nolf’s year, and he’s shown no reason why he shouldn’t be the favorite to win this weight class once again.
Big question: Will two-time national champion Vincenzo Joseph finally win his first Big Ten title?
Vincenzo Joseph ⤵️
📽️: https://t.co/4NqqBgmBR3 pic.twitter.com/cWKsdg1rWY
— Penn State WRESTLING (@pennstateWREST) March 6, 2019
The first Penn State wrestler to win national titles as a freshman and a sophomore, Vincenzo Joseph is just missing one thing on his resume as he heads into his third Big Ten Championship: an individual conference title. The 165-pound star is undefeated on the year with 21 wins, and he ranks third in the nation in the Most Dominant Wrestler Standings, but he still lacks a Big Ten title, twice falling to now-graduated Isaiah Martinez from Illinois. Joseph beat Martinez twice in the national tournament, but he couldn’t take down the Fighting Illini in early March. Now, with Martinez out of his way, this could be Joseph’s year, but the road still won’t be easy. His biggest threat will come from Alex Marinelli from Iowa, another undefeated wrestler who is coming off a pin against Oklahoma State’s Jonce Blaylock after 2:44 of wrestling. He also beat Wisconsin’s Evan Wick, Nebraska’s Isaiah White and Shields. Marinelli is tough, and he’s on a hot streak with the two recent wins over Blaylock and Wick.
Blood. Sweat. Tears. This is what we’ve worked for all year long. Now it’s our time to shine. #B1GWrestle #ToughTogether 💪🌽 pic.twitter.com/j6wRDmy78X
— Husker Wrestling (@HuskerWrestling) March 7, 2019
Joseph has a similarly impressive set of wins, including victories over Michigan’s Logan Massa, Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller and Arizona State’s Josh Shields. This weight class will take nine automatic qualifiers to the NCAA tournament, and the top five ranked wrestlers have all either faced Joseph, Marinelli or both already this year. Wisconsin’s Wick holds the third seed in the tournament, followed by White and Massa. Top-seeded Joseph has an exceptional 80.95 percent bonus rate, compared to Marinelli’s also outstanding 70 percent rate. The 165-pound final could be a battle between two undefeated wrestlers, but Marinelli and Joseph will both have to make it that far if they want a shot at each other.
Big Question: How dominant will defending Big Ten champion Mark Hall be?
The 174-pound weight class will be fun at NCAA Championship, and there is certainly some excitement at the conference tournament; however, like the 157 pounds, this weight is solidly controlled by an athlete in a Penn State singlet. Mark Hall has cruised through his wrestling schedule this year to amass a 23-0 perfect record with wins over ranked opponents including No. 3 Zahid Valencia, No. 4 Myles Amine, No. 5 Jordan Kutler, No. 9 Mikey Labriola and No. 10 Dylan Lydy. He also picked up a Southern Scuffle title and is the clear favorite to add another Big Ten title to his resume. Aiming to challenge Hall will be returning All-American Myles Amine from Michigan, an 15-2 junior whose only losses have come against Hall and Valencia. Amine kept Hall within a point during their last battle, and if he pulls off the upset, he’ll notch major team points in what should be a close team race for second place.
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Hall and Amine should be set to pick up two of the eight automatic qualifying bids to the NCAA tournament in this weight as the clear top two in this weight. Outside of these two returning All-Americans, five of the next six pre-seeded wrestlers hold national rankings, including Labriola at No. 9, Lydy at No. 10, Ryan Christiansen at No. 11, Devin Skatzka at No. 12 and Ethan Smith at No. 15. Christiansen earned a No. 7 seed for the Big Ten tournament, behind Skatzka and Smith, and he’s a bit of a wild card having only wrestled three times since Midlands in December. Yet, the Big Ten tournament is all about the wild. Christensen’s last win was a 13-0 major decision win against Cameron Kelly of Southern Illinois Edwardsville on Febrary 24, and he did pin Labriola earlier this season. Is he healthy and ready to go or will he be taken down by one of the other six top-10 ranked guys in his weight? This depth in the middle of the seeds creates some interest, but look for Hall and Amine to take over the top two spots on the podium at the end.
Big Question: Can Shakur Rasheed fight for a spot on top of the podium?
Check out some of @pennstateWREST’s highlight reel moments from this season! 📽️🎞️#WeAre https://t.co/492n9xq1ys
— Penn State Athletics (@GoPSUsports) March 7, 2019
The 184-pound bracket is built for Myles Martin. The 2016 NCAA champion has finished third, second and second in his three Big Ten appearances as a Buckeye, but this year, the road looks clear for Martin to leave a legacy in the conference with a tournament win. Ranked No. 1 at 184 all year, Martin will enter the tournament undefeated, but his biggest competition will come from the No. 2 seed, Penn State’s Shakur Rasheed. The Nittany Lion has been in and out of the Penn State lineup this year due to injury, but he comes into the tournament at 17-0. Rasheed hasn’t been tested against the best of athletes in the weight, especially when compared to some of his other opponents Taylor Venz and Emery Parker. He’ll be a question mark for the Nittany Lions, but if he wrestles to seed, his team points will only help separate Penn State from the rest of the field in team rankings.
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Martin should cruise to a shot at the championship, but the question will be whom he will compete with under the big lights on Sunday night in Minnesota. With a slew of returning All-Americans at this weight, 184 is deep, but the weight is top-heavy. Ohio State needs Martin to pick up a win here and ideally some bonus points. Penn State, on the other hand, shouldn’t need Rasheed to win in order to clinch the team title, but Rasheed is still a competitor. He’ll want to take down every opponent he can, including Martin, but the big question is whether he’s healthy and capable of doing so.
Big question: Can Bo Nickal pin his way to a championship?
Under @BTNShaneSparks’ spotlight this week as the @B1GWrestling Championships await:
A look at the heavyweights, plus a @NoBickal comparison to another dominant athlete named Bo. 😳 pic.twitter.com/4uu2BPzNm7
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 6, 2019
Bo Nickal has been a force of nature this season, pinning 15 of his opponents and teching two more. He’s earned either a fall or a tech fall in his last six matches, with five of those wins coming against Big Ten opponents. Nickal has scored bonus points in 95.45 percent of his matches, and he leads the nation in the Most Dominant Wrestler standings with an average of 5.41 team points per match. This Big Ten tournament is Nickal’s last shot to take home a conference title in a Penn State singlet, and he’s shown through his performances this year that he should have no problem taking the top spot on the podium on Sunday.
MOST DOMINANT WRESTLER STANDINGS: Nickal and Nolf top the standings, each averaging over five team points per dual
Ohio State’s Kollin Moore also has a shot to compete for a title, but he’ll need to take a different approach against Nickal than he did when he suffered a pin against the Nittany Lion in February. Nickal put Moore on his back in the first period, much like he did against Myles Martin at the 2018 NCAA tournament, and again, team points will matter for Ohio State. The Buckeyes can’t lose by pin at 197 if they want a shot at beating Michigan and Iowa in the team race, and Moore is capable of putting up a fight against Nickal. However, just to make it to the finals, Moore will likely need to take down No. 4 Jacob Warner of Iowa in what is expected to be a tight matchup.
Bo Nickal is expected to take over 197 as he has done all year, and with two other top-5 nationally ranked guys in this weight, excitement is brewing for this bracket.
Big question: Will a former All-American miss out on one of the eight NCAA automatic allocations at heavyweight?
It’s Gable Steveson’s world, and the rest of the Big Ten heavyweight wrestlers are just living in it. The freshman boasts an undefeated record in his first year in a Minnesota singlet, taking down 27 opponents on this way to a No. 1 ranking. He’s the clear favorite at the weight, but No. 2 Anthony Cassar and Michigan’s Mason Parris will still aim to challenge the unbeaten Gopher. The real question, though, is not Steveson, but rather whether or not an All-American will miss out on an automatic ticket to Pittsburgh.
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Maryland’s Youssif Hemida did not manage to earn a Big Ten ranking in the tournament, but after finishing eighth in last year’s national tournament, he’ll be an unranked threat for the podium. Returning All-American Sam Stoll is ranked eighth, but he also sits outside also the list of seven automatic qualifiers based on his pre-seed. Stoll beat Hemida earlier this year, but he previously lost to David Jensen, the No. 7 Big Ten seed that Hemida beat earlier this year. Both wrestlers lost to Hillger, and Hemida also lost to Parris and Steveson in the Big Ten. Jensen, who sits in the magical No. 7 spot, will qualify for the NCAA tournament automatically if he wrestles to seed, but he too should be afraid of Hemida. The Cornhusker lost to his Terrapin opponent 8-6 earlier this year and holds a 14-4 record compared to Hemida’s 11-5 record. Both Hemida and Jensen both lost to Steveson. Watch for Steveson to go on a bonus-point run through the Big Ten tournament, but pay special attention to those athletes seeded in the bottom half of the conference. With only seven automatic bids available, an All-American could be left to hope for a wild card spot.