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Is Penn State still the favorite?

Michigan had an incredible run to win a conference title. Can they do it again in Detroit?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Going into the postseason, Penn State looked pretty untouchable. Previously weak weights 125 and 157 had been solved, they had five title contenders, and after all, they were Penn State. Nobody wrestles in March like Sanderson’s bunch. Intermat’s tournament ranking had them favored over Iowa by nearly 40 points, and 45 over Michigan. But in Lincoln, Michigan shocked the conference, and wider wrestling world, with an incredible tournament championship. The Wolverines had two champions, three runners-up, two thirds, two fourths, and one eighth-place finisher. Is this repeatable in Detroit, or is Penn State destined to take another national championship? And what say does Iowa have in this?

Last year, Iowa won the Big Ten Championships by 25.5 points, scoring 159.5. But at NCAAs, Penn State had four individual champions, threatening the Hawkeyes. They would still lose, getting outscored 129-113.5, but there was no doubt that they performed better at NCAAs than Big Tens. And that’s been a trend for the Nittany Lions. In the last four years, 2020 excluded (because there was no national championships), Penn State has won only one conference title, but three national championships. In 2017 and 2018, they finished second at Big Tens to Ohio State, but each year they rebounded two weeks later to win a national title. How?

In 2017, Penn State finished 9.5 points behind Ohio State at Big Tens with two individual champions, one runner-up, and four third-place finishers. They won NCAAs by 36.5 points, with five individual champions and one other all-American (fifth). In 2018, they lost Big Tens by 16.5, again to Ohio State. They had three individual champs, one runner-up, and two third-place finishers. They won NCAAs by ten points over the Buckeyes with four individual champs, one runner-up, and eight total all-Americans. Both times, Penn State had more all-Americans than top three finishers at Big Tens. Is that necessarily surprising? Well, no. The Big Ten is a very tough conference, and often has more than three all-Americans at any given weight. But Penn State also had more individual champions at NCAAs than Big Tens, and that’s insane.

But is that in the cards this year? Penn State had four individual champions at Big Tens, and two arguably didn’t have to wrestle their biggest competition (Nick Lee won his final by MFF, and Carter Starocci advanced to his final over Kemerer by MFF). They did have one runner-up in Aaron Brooks who could absolutely improve that performance and repeat as a national champion, but I don’t think there’s a single Nittany Lion who’s guaranteed a title. RBY looks dominant over Austin DeSanto, but there’s still Daton Fix, who took RBY to sudden victory in last year’s final. Nick Lee will almost certainly have to wrestle Jaydin Eierman at NCAAs, a rubber match for their career series (2-2). Carter Starocci has to worry about not only Michael Kemerer, but also Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis. Brooks has to get through guys like Trent Hidlay and Parker Keckeisen to get another shot at Amine. 197 is probably the biggest tossup weight, with anyone in the top ten capable of putting together a run. Stephen Buchanan of Wyoming is the likely two-seed. Point being, NCAAs are harder than Big Tens. But that’s true every year. So why does Penn State seemingly always do better at NCAAs?

For starters, they’re top-heavy. Five individual champions generate a lot of points. They had four champs last year, but now they have all-American support at 125, 157, and 285. Michigan’s two champions this year certainly can win at NCAAs, but getting top-four finishes out of guys like Ragusin, Micic, Lewan, and Cam Amine is unlikely. All four can all-American, though, and Michigan does have nine legitimate all-American threats. Would that be enough? Let’s get into the points.

Without going into the specifics of tournament scoring, I’m just going to say that a first place finish is worth 20 points (16 placement and 4 advancement points), second is 16, third is 13.5 (assuming most common path, semifinal loss), fourth is 12.5, fifth is 10, sixth is 9, seventh is 6.5, and eighth is 5.5. Projecting Penn State at four individual champions, one runner-up (Brooks), one fourth-place finisher (Kerkvliet), one fifth (Berge), and one eighth (Hildebrandt) gives them 124 points, which is really, really good. And that doesn’t include bonus points. Projecting Michigan at two champions, two fifth-place finishers, and we’ll just say five seventh-place finishers gives them 92.5 points. Not great. Projecting Iowa at a generous one champion (Marinelli), three runners-up (Eierman, Kemerer, Cassioppi), two third-place finishers (ADS and Warner), two fifth (Murin and Young), and two eighth (Ayala and Assad, and yes that means two eighth-place finishers at 125) gives Iowa 126 points, but again is super optimistic.

Of course, this is all without seeing brackets. And you’re never gonna see everyone wrestle to seed. But it seems like if there’s one team that consistently does that, or better, it’s Penn State. So, much to my chagrin, yes, Penn State is still the favorite. They’re not untouchable, but they are far ahead. Iowa and Michigan are not only going to need to wrestle well, and stay out of each other’s way, but they’re gonna need some help.


Your NCAA Wrestling Champion

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  • 69%
    Penn State
    (60 votes)
  • 11%
    (10 votes)
  • 8%
    (7 votes)
  • 10%
    (9 votes)
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