Gable: There will be more uncertainty at 2023 NCAAs than expected

Updated: March 13, 2023

Photo: Penn State’s Max Dean (left) and Iowa’s Jacob Warner finished 1-2 at 197 pounds in the 2022 NCAA Division I Championships. The Big Ten rivals each return for the 2023 NCAAs, but neither is seeded in the Top 8 of that weight class. (Sam Janicki photo)

(Note:  Dan Gable built much of his legendary status by leading the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA team titles over a 20-year period. He recently spoke to WIN editor Mike Finn about what will make difference for teams and individuals in this year’s national tournament.)

WIN: We are just a few days away from the start of the 2023 NCAA Division I Nationals in Tulsa. What are your feelings following the conference/NCAA qualifying tournaments that helped set this 330-wrestler field?

GABLE: I felt it was a one-team race going into the qualifiers regarding what team will win the national championship. I’ve now expanded my views a little. I do believe it is more than a one-team race now because I believe Iowa challenged Penn State at the Big Tens.

There is uncertainty in the upcoming nationals. Penn State has a couple guys who will be very tough to beat. Otherwise, there will be a lot of matches in Tulsa where the outcome will not be easily predicted.

WIN: So, you believe that Penn State and many top individuals have shown vulnerability this season, which will be an opening for plenty of upsets in Tulsa?

GABLE: Exactly. This is where coaching is going to make a big difference, especially in the final two weeks before the NCAAs. And this is where momentum will play a factor. You can’t be a coach with plenty of hope and all of a sudden the first guy goes out and gets upset.  This year’s tournament has plenty of wrestlers and teams that are not as predictable as they should be and that will affect the team race. I also believe that wrestling order also plays an impact on a team race. I believe that if Spencer Lee had wrestled first in the 2021 NCAAs, Iowa would have won more individual titles that tournament (where Jayden Eierman and Michael Kemerer lost as number one seeds at 141 and 174, respectively.)

WIN: Is it possible for coaches to create some momentum with their wrestlers, where one feeds off another?

GABLE: Yes, in earlier meetings. But if it doesn’t happen, you have to find a way to start all over again.  I do believe the sport has some really good coaches.

WIN: If you are a coach at Iowa, Missouri, Cornell, Nebraska or some other schools that appear to be ready to challenge Penn State, what do you tell your wrestlers?

GABLE: You give them the message that they proved it at the conference tournaments. And those that did not, they can make amends at the NCAAs. It’s not like they are going from nowhere. Let’s face it, a lot of wrestlers and coaches lose in the qualifiers and do well at the nationals.  There is a difference in the two tournaments, where the NCAAs will be a higher level. Are wrestlers going to be more uptight and scared? They need to feed of earlier success.

WIN: Why has someone like Iowa’s Jacob Warner, a three-time All-American and 2022 NCAA finalist had so many issues going into the postseason where he is seeded No. 14 at 197?

GABLE: He has not had enough recent success along the road to have that confidence in the postseason. He is so close every time that he should have more confidence. Instead, he has held back. There has been a fine line with him and he hasn’t crossed it.

WIN: There is one thing about coaches preaching to their athletes. But doesn’t it come down to wrestlers simply performing what they already know?

GABLE: Athletes must take on what their coaches have given them in a real manner. For example like injuries, all wrestlers deal with them this time of year. Coaches can supervise their training but the athlete has to be smart enough to understand what he needs to do.

WIN: How should coaches deal with wrestlers who have a fear of opening up to their opponent’s moves or are afraid to gamble on trying something because they are afraid of making a mistake?

GABLE: The coach who is already making wrestlers face those fears, are the coach and wrestler who are going to win at the NCAAs. There are a lot of wrestlers like that right now because they have not been able to get on a roll. How many matches are wrestlers going to win the tight matches?  It comes down to who believes in himself the most.

Oddly, the NCAAs are where many wrestlers make a turn-around, especially the guy who comes back to take third. The guy on the bubble is the guy who comes in with some momentum.

WIN: Are the wrestlers who get over the hump at the NCAAs the ones who simply have more weapons to win?

GABLE: The ones who win do have more weapons in their repertoire. And it’s the ones who win the hard way with those weapons who are the ones who make the biggest difference. They are the ones who know how to execute when it matters most, especially those who will try to score in the final seconds of regulation, rather than let the match go to overtime.

WIN: There are some wrestlers who believe the only way they can upset a higher seed is slowing that wrestler down and keep the score tight going into the end. What are your thoughts about this strategy?

GABLE: I don’t believe that strategy works that often. But if the other guy falls into a similar pattern, it could happen. The option of not getting turned is to escape. For example, I have not seen anyone try to get away from Spencer Lee. When you are escaping, you are being controlled less  by the top guy and you actually have a better chance to win than simply becoming more defensive. The momentum of your offense is going to take away what the “better” guy has.

WIN: What about wrestlers who have come up short in the past? What does a guy like Oklahoma State’s three-time NCAA finalist Daton Fix have to do to finally win a championship this year, especially against a guy like Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young?

GABLE: Fix is trying to become a champion, which he already is (in terms of other big events that he has won.) It comes down to whether he can execute under tough conditions better than someone like Bravo-Young, who has already proven that. Daton has to do what he is the best at to put him on top. I’m not sure what that is but it will give him a better chance of winning. He has to see where he has scored and continue to work in those areas.

WIN: How about someone like Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis, a former national champ, who lost to Penn State’s Carter Starocci because of a 15-second difference in riding time? You had talked about uncertainty in this year’s NCAAs. How does someone like that erase than uncertainty?

GABLE: Lewis is someone who really needs his coaches and teammates. It comes down to who can execute the best when they are the most tired. Those are the guys who can win.