Another NCAA, another seeding controversy

Updated: March 20, 2024

Photo: Penn State’s Carter Starocci beat Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis for the 2022 NCAA championship at 174 pounds. This year, the Hokie, also a former champ, is seeded No. 1 while the three-time NCAA champ and Nittany Lion is seeded No. 9 after he was forced to injury default at the recent Big Ten Championships.

By Mike Finn

This marks the 83rd year that the NCAA has sponsored a national college wrestling tournament, including the second time in Kansas City. (The 2003 NCAAs were held in the old Kemper Arena.)

And ever since seeding helped determine matchups in this three-day event, there have always been comments, questions and criticisms.

It’s no different in 2024 after the NCAA seeding committee followed a basic formula, based primarily on this season’s results, including injury defaults in conference tournaments that counted as regular-season losses. Such was the case with Penn State’s three-time NCAA champion Carter Starocci, who showed up at the Big Tens, but was held out of competing after the Nittany Lion suffered a knee injury in the team’s regular-season finale.

That earned the senior from Erie, Pa. — who is looking to join the elite club of four-time champions — a No. 9 seed. That means he would meet the No. 1 seed (Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech) in Friday morning’s quarterfinals if they both win their first two bouts. Both are former champions (Lewis won in 2019) and Starocci beat the Hokie for his second national title.

Starocci downplayed his low seeding.

“I think this is more fun this way,” he said.  “I honestly really couldn’t care less. I’d rather wrestle everybody, honestly. But I think they seeded it a little weird. But again, it doesn’t really matter.”

Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum, who also saw his 157-pound Michael Blockhus, who was ranked as high as second in the country during the regular season earn a No. 13 seed at the NCAAs after the Gopher was forced to injury default at the Big Tens.

“I would just say that I think there needs to be a human side to it because I think there are situations that are strange where you see guys fall into spots where it doesn’t make sense,” said Eggum. “I know it’s never going to be perfect, and every year this is something that, people look at the brackets, they’re always talking about that situation.”

Missouri coach Brian Smith, who has led the Tigers since 1998, knows something about the yearly controversies that arise because the Tiger coach has served on such seeding committees.

“I remember one year I thought the world was against me (after his wrestlers earned low seeds),” said Smith. “So, I took the wisdom of my mother and stopped complaining and I got on the committee. I was in that (seeding) room for four years and you learn a lot about the seeding. There are no deals being made. There is a system and a computer spits it out and it shows where they can go and then you argue about certain things.

“It’s a very fair system, and I know they’re trying to do their best. There were times when we used an eye test and I don’t know what went on in the room (this year), but to me it seemed like it went away from the eye test a little bit.

“If that’s what they’re going to do, it would be nice to know that in the beginning of the year as a coach, that we’re going straight by the computer or straight by this, or we’re going to use some judgment on it.  I remember when I was in there, we had to seed Kyle Snyder (the former three-time NCAA champ from Ohio State) with six matches. And we used an eye test and said, probably should put it this way. Maybe I shouldn’t even be saying these things, but it did. And it worked out pretty good.”

“I think there’s got to be a commonsense factor,” said Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser. “There’s a couple seeds that look kind of funny, especially when you hit a guy like Carter Starocci too hard. Carter is going to wrestle everybody in the building and out in the parking lot.  For the rest of the competitors, it probably was something that probably should have been looked at a little better.”