Closeness should really count in this year’s NCAA team race

Updated: March 16, 2011

By Mike Finn

Closeness counts in horseshoes … but not in NCAA Division I wrestling championships, especially the past decade.

For except for a pair of nationals in 2007 when Minnesota held off Iowa State by a 98-88.5 margin and in 2009 when Iowa slipped by Ohio State by less than four points (96.5-92), the average margin of victory at national championships since 2002 has been 45.5 points.

Among the biggest blowouts during the past decade have been Oklahoma State’s 70-point victory margin over Michigan in 2005 and last year’s 44.5-point advantage by Iowa over Cornell.

But this is the 2011 NCAA, which begins Thursday and ends Saturday, and no one knows who will leave Philadelphia with the team championship.

Cornell coach Rob Koll

“What I told my kids the only thing you can count on is that you don’t know what to count on,” said Cornell coach Rob Koll. “Every year it happens. Two years ago, it happened with Mack Lewnes, who was the No. 1 seed and unbeaten, but went 0-2. But we’ve had kids who weren’t seeded and placed. You’re either going to be a hero or a goat. Our mission this week is to find a couple kids who people have never heard of and find a way to get those guys past the All-American round.

Koll’s Big Red team was ranked No. 1 in WIN’s Tournament Power Index (TPI) most of the season before Oklahoma State took a slight advantage after winning the Big 12 championship in impressive fashion, March 5.

“It ought to be a great championship and we cannot overlook a couple teams that are not represented up here,” said OSU coach John Smith, one day before the start of the 2011 NCAAs in the Wells Fargo Center, where the Cowboys could add a record 35th all-time team title. “It’s a matter of wrestling every match and embrace it. We’re going to embrace the moment, not get ahead of ourselves and don’t look behind if something negative happens.”

John Smith hopes to lead Oklahoma State to a 35th national team title

Ranked right behind Oklahoma State and Cornell are Penn State and Iowa, which has overcome young lineups to also contend for the team championships.

“Competition is exciting,” said Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, who is in his second year at State College. “I’ve hear from several people today that this is the first year in a long time that it is really up for grabs. It comes down to you have to love competition. The more challenging, the more exciting and the better the opportunity. That’s what we want our guys to do. We want them to want to love the great opportunity. The ones who want it will find a way to get it.”

Penn State coach Cael Sanderson led Iowa State to a runner-up spot in 2007.

“You don’t ever know what’s going to happen,” said Iowa coach Tom Brands, whose team with seven first-time NCAA competitors was the only Division I team this season not to lose a dual meet and lost by just one point to Penn State at the Big Tens. “You can have a high-powered team and don’t know what’s going to happen. It comes down to being ready to go and there are going to be a lot of statements along those lines.”

Iowa coach Tom Brands has seen his Hawkeyes win the last three NCAAs.

Of these teams, three had to overcome a low point in the season. Oklahoma State finished sixth at the National Duals. Iowa finished sixth at the Midlands and Penn State lost at home before a packed crowed to Iowa.

“There are adjustments along the way, whether there are communication adjustments, whether it’s these guys or 85 other guys out there coaching do it every day,” said Brands about Iowa’s turn-around since the late December Midlands. “We have a good group of guys.”

“After the National Duals, we talked about over achieving,” said Smith. “For us to have a good season from that point on, we had to over-achieve as a team because of the lineup we have. Since the National Duals, that is what we’ve done. I feel like we are getting the most out of them and now getting even more. We’ve had a real successful season since the Duals.”

“That’s kind of the name of the game,” said Sanderson. “When things don’t go perfectly, you have to stay positive and really emphasize the positive. We have young team and kids who love to compete. The bigger the match, the better they are going to wrestle. When things don’t go your way, you have to keep moving and your head up and keep smiling.”

Koll, who hopes his team is the first squad east of Michigan to win a national championship since Penn State in 1953, said his team also has learned to overcome tough times this season.

“This year has been way to fast,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed the highs and we’ve had our shares of lows as well.”