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Improved MAC ready to take on perennial powerhouse conferences
Mid-Season College Report: After the Big Ten, what is the No. 2 conference?
Addition of Missouri and Northern Iowa expected to move MAC up among national wrestling conferences
By Mike Finn
Based on the performance of two-time NCAA defending champion Penn State this season as well as the 11 other Big Ten conference schools — five of which are ranked among WIN’s Top 10 tournament teams — most wrestling fans expect the Nittany Lions and their Big Ten brothers to be the most dominant conference at this year’s NCAA Division I national tournament.
A more interesting question that may be answered at this year’s NCAAs — which will be held March 21-23 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa: what other wrestling conference will likely finish No. 2?
In the past, that would have easily been the Big 12 Conference. Even though the number of schools with wrestling programs has dropped to just four competing at the Big 12 tournament, the likes of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Missouri sent a large number of wrestlers to the national tournament.
But the 2013 Big 12 has lost some of its firepower after losing Missouri when the school announced it was primarily competing in the Southeastern Conference, which does not offer wrestling. That led the Tiger program, coached by Brian Smith, to join the Mid-American Conference for wrestling.
In its place, the Big 12 added West Virginia — formerly of the Eastern Wrestling League — to its quartet of perennially strong programs, like Oklahoma State, which is ranked No. 2 in WIN’s Tournament Power Index this season and features six probable All-Americans (wrestlers ranked in the Top 8 of their weight class). But Oklahoma and Iowa State — the host school of this year’s Nationals — combine to feature three Top 8 wrestlers and West Virginia has just one wrestler ranked by WIN this season.
If there is a conference that appears to have improved its post-season value, it has to be the MAC, where Missouri — which has three wrestlers ranked in the Top 8 — has joined the likes of Central Michigan, ranked No. 12 in WIN’s TPI, and No. 19 Kent State. The MAC may also benefit from another addition: Northern Iowa, which once dominated the West Regional (now primarily the Western Wrestling Conference).
The following is a mid-season look at all ten wrestling conferences, ranked by potential NCAA points each conference could score, based on WIN’s Jan. 21 Tournament Power Index. Check out the chart, which breaks down each conference, comparing 2013 potential NCAA finishes to 2012 national performances.
1. Big Ten Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9-10 in Champaign, Ill.)
Based on this year’s WIN rankings, the Big Ten is expected to feature over half of the 20 NCAA finalists and over 35 percent of the total predicted All-Americans by WIN in this year’s Nationals; up from last year’s NCAA performers who made up 25 percent of the 330 men who competed in St. Louis.
Based on the rankings, Cael Sanderson is predicted to have three national finalists in former champions David Taylor (165) and Ed Ruth (184) and 2012 national runner-up Nico Megaludis (125). Then throw in plenty of depth which includes the Alton twins (Andrew, 149, and Dylan, 157) who are expected to return from team-created suspensions for breaking team rules in December, as well as another former champion in Quentin Wright (197), and it’s easier to understand why the Nittany Lions should capture a third-straight Big Ten and national team title.
If there is a conference team which could spoil the return of Sanderson — the former four-time undefeated NCAA champion from Iowa State — it could be Iowa, considering Tom Brands’ team features three wrestlers who are also picked to reach the NCAA finals: two-time champion Matt McDonough (125) and fellow returning All-Americans in Tony Ramos (second at 133) and top-ranked Derek St. John, who finished second at 157 at last year’s Nationals.
Then again, the Lions and Hawkeyes could also get plenty of pressure from Minnesota (featuring five Top-8 ranked wrestlers, including 2012 national champion Anthony Nelson at heavyweight), Illinois (also featuring five probable All-Americans like B.J. Futrell, who has two AA honors on his resume) and Ohio State (led by the All-American Stieber brothers, Logan, a 2012 champion, and Hunter).
2. Big 12 Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in Stillwater, Okla.)
This year’s Big 12 tournament could look like an Oklahoma State invitational, considering coach John Smith features six probable All-Americans, including 2011 NCAA champion Jordan Oliver (up two weights to 149 after finishing second to Stieber at 133 last March) and Chris Perry, the top-ranked 174-pounder, who is the nephew of Smith and younger brother of Iowa’s two-time national champion Mark Perry.
The only weight class Oklahoma State should not dominate at the conference tourney, should be at 141 pounds, where Oklahoma’s top-ranked Kendric Maple is expected to take the title for the Sooners. There continues to be talk of whether OSU coach John Smith might move Oliver down 141, inserting two-time NCAA qualifier Josh Kindig at 149. The OSU junior could strengthen the Cowboys tournament team potential substantially.
Iowa State, which finished 26th in last year’s NCAAs, has shown some improvement this season as third-year coach Kevin Jackson features six wrestlers ranked by WIN but only one Cyclone is rated as high as No. 8: 197-pound Kyven Gadson.
3. Mid-American Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 10 in Buffalo, N.Y.)
The MAC was already a respectable league before the addition of Missouri and Northern Iowa considering both Central Michigan (with Midlands champ and three-time AA Ben Bennett, ranked No. 2 at 184) and Kent State (with 2011 NCAA champion Dustin Kilgore, at 197, back from a redshirt season) are picked to be probable finalists. CMU coach Tom Borrelli also welcomed back multiple-time All-Americans in Scott Sentes (133) and heavyweight Jarod Trice.
But there is no doubt that both Missouri and Northern Iowa will add even more punch to the MAC this postseason.
Missouri would really like to make an impression after having had a disappointing performance last March. The young Tiger team sent all ten wrestlers to the 2012 NCAAs, but failed to see any Tiger medal. This year, eight Missouri wrestlers are ranked, led by top-ranked heavyweight Dom Bradley (who also took an Olympic redshirt last season) and 125-pound Alan Waters, ranked fourth by WIN.
Meanwhile, Northern Iowa is back in the national Team Dual rankings after knocking off both Oklahoma and Northwestern in recent weeks, and coach Doug Schwab features five ranked wrestlers, led by Ryan Loder (ranked sixth at 184).
4. Eastern Wrestling Intercollegiate Association (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 8-9 in Piscataway, N.J.)
There is no wrestling conference that is older than the EIWA, which will hold its 109th all-time conference tournament in March.
Most of the conference’s potential All-Americans this year appear to be on coach Rob Koll’s Cornell University squad. After 14 wrestlers from EIWA schools earned All-American honors last March, only six are ranked among the Top 8 in 2012-13 … and four are from the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y.
Four Big Red wrestlers are ranked by WIN; led by three-time champion Kyle Dake (165) and fellow 2012 titlist Steve Bosak (184). 141-pound junior Mike Nevinger, who placed seventh last year, won this season’s Southern Scuffle.
The other EIWA school predicted to place a man on the medal stand is Lehigh with a pair of third-ranked wrestlers in junior Joey Napoli (157) and senior Robert Hamlin (184), who finished second at the 2011 NCAAs.
5. Atlantic Coast Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in University Park, Md.)
Last year, the ACC sent 28 wrestlers to St. Louis, four left the Arch City with an All-American medal. This year, that number could double as nine wrestlers, four from Virginia Tech, two from Maryland, two from Virginia and one from North Carolina are ranked among the Top 8 in their weight class.
Hokie coach Kevin Dresser is having one of his best years at Blacksburg, especially after Tech came within one point of beating Illinois at the 2012 Midlands and beating ACC and in-state rival Virginia in this year’s Virginia Duals. What is odd is that the Hokies are succeeding without one of its nine all-time All-Americans in Devin Carter, who is redshirting this season.
Carter’s fellow 2012 All-American Peter Yates is ranked No. 5 at 165 pounds, the same ranking as 125-pound senior Jarrod Garnett, who took an Olympic redshirt last winter.
Virginia has three legitimate All-American candidates in 125-pound Matt Snyder and 165-pound Nick Sulzer (both ranked No. 8) and 157-pound Jedd Moore, who won this year’s Southern Scuffle.
Meanwhile, a pair of Top 8-ranked wrestlers — fifth-ranked Josh Asper (174) and eighth-rated Jimmy Sheptock (184) — are hoping to use the school’s home-mat advantage at this year’s ACCs for the start of their path to the national tournament.
Finally, North Carolina sophomore Evan Henderson is hoping to become the Tar Heels’ first All-American since Evan Sola finished sixth at 133 in 2005.
6. Eastern Wrestling League (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in Edinboro, Pa.)
It’s hard to say what the future will hold for this long time wrestling-only conference … considering Pittsburgh is scheduled to leave for the ACC next winter; one season after “Backyard Brawl” partner West Virginia left for the Big 12.
But for now, the Panthers of coach Rande Stottlemyer — now in his 33rd year in the Steel City — are the class of the EWL; led by the Wilps brothers (Matt is ranked No. 2 at 197 and Tyler is No. 13 at 165) and the Thomusseit siblings (heavyweight Zac is ranked No. 6 and 184-pound Max is rated No. 13).
Meanwhile, a trio of wrestlers from two schools — Clarion’s James Fleming (4th at 157) and Edinboro’s A.J. Schopp (3rd at 133) and Mitchell Port (5th at 141) — could make an All-American impact in Des Moines.
It should be also noted that Bloomsburg — whose last All-American was Matt Moley in 2008 and ’09 — is on a roll with five wrestlers ranked by WIN with 157-pound Frank Hickman rated the highest at No. 14.
7. Pac 12 Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 2 in Tempe, Ariz.)
Which conference produced the third-highest number of All-Americans in St. Louis last March? The Pac-12, which was somewhat surprising, considering six schools west of the Rockies sent jut 25 wrestlers to the Scottrade Center.
This year, only four schools have ranked wrestlers, led by Oregon State, which has a legitimate shot of producing All-American honors from five Beavers: 141-pound Mike Mangrum (4th), 149-pound Scott Sakaguchi (8th), 157-pound Roger Pena (9th), 197-pound Taylor Meeks (7th) and heavyweight Chad Hanke (4th).
Meanwhile, Boise State — which has gone through a rebuilding phase after the Broncos finished ninth as a team in the 2011 NCAAs —features a legitimate finalist in All-American senior Jason Chamberlain, who took an Olympic redshirt last winter.
8. Western Wrestling Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in Laramie, Wyom.)
The loss of Northern Iowa to the MAC took quite a bit of punch from this relatively new conference and yet oddly the remaining six schools are predicted to produce twice as many All-Americans (four) as they did in 2012 (two).
Recent powerhouse Wyoming features two Cowboys in WIN’s rankings, led by third-ranked Alfonzo Hernandez (197). North Dakota State has two All-American contenders in junior Steve Monk (6th at 165) and senior Trent Sprenkle (7th at 125), while Air Force’s Cole VonOhlen — who has just missed AA honors in his three previous visits — is ranked No. 5 at 149.
9. Colonial Athletic Association (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in Boston, Mass.)
With Old Dominion planning on also joining the MAC next season, the CAA is also going through a transition phase. The league also includes Binghamton, Boston U., Drexel, George Mason, Hofstra and Rider.
The Bearcats of Binghamton appear to be the CAA school with the best chance of producing an All-American with the return of 149-pound Donnie Vinson (who was third last year) and 197-pound Nathan Schiedel (7th).
10. Southern Conference (NCAA qualifying tournament held March 9 in Lexington, Va.)
Last year, Appalachian State provided one of the biggest NCAA surprises as the Mountaineers produced two high-placing All-Americans in Kyle Blevins (4th at 165) and Austin Trotman (3rd at 184). This year, ASU does not feature a ranked wrestler.
Two schools do feature a Top-20 wrestler and The Citadel has two, led by 141-pound freshman Undrakhbayar Khishignyam, a native of Mongolia who finished second at the Southern Scuffle. Citadel’s Odie Delaney is ranked No. 16 at heavyweight. UTC’s Nick Soto is ranked 18th at 125.