It’s March, and while the quest for “Madness” continues on the hardwood, the Nebraska wrestling squad starts its journey to “Matness” with the Big Ten Wrestling Championships in East Lansing, Michigan, this weekend.
Nebraska Coach Mark Manning can’t recall a time when both the basketball and wrestling conference championships were on the same weekend, but when it comes to his team, he’s excited for what the postseason has in store.
“I really like our guys, I like where our guys are at. We’re healthy, strong and feeling good,” Manning said.
Not only will the 13th-ranked Huskers compete for a Big Ten title, they will also fight for one of the 80 individual automatic qualifier spots allocated to the nation’s premier wrestling conference.
The NCAA released the allocations late last week and, without surprise, the Big Ten received the most automatic berths, followed by the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (47) and the Big 12 (45).
Here are the numbers of allocated berths assigned to the Big Ten by weight class: 125 (10), 133 (7), 141 (8), 149 (9), 157 (8), 165 (10), 174 (7), 184 (8), 197 (6) and Heavyweight (7).
The official brackets will be released on Friday, but based on the assigned pre-seeds announced on Monday, a handful of Huskers will need to improve their standing in order to qualify for the NCAA Championships in Cleveland on March 15-17.
Overall, eight Huskers received pre-seeds, including four in the top-5
True freshman Jason Renteria (133), redshirt freshman Chad Red Jr. (141) and senior Colton McCrystal (149) each earned the No. 4 seed in their weight classes. Returning NCAA All-American and junior Tyler Berger (157) is seeded fifth.
Also earning seeds was redshirt freshman Taylor Venz, seeded sixth at 184 pounds, sophomore Isaiah White, seeded eighth at 165, redshirt freshman Eric Schultz, seeded eighth at 197, and senior Mitchell Maginnis, seeded No. 11 at 125.
Redshirt freshman Beau Breske (174) and sophomore David Jensen (HWT) did not earn seeds, but still have a chance at qualifying for the national championships if they finish at least seventh in their respective weight classes.
Schultz and Maginnis also have some work to do. Schultz must finish sixth or better, while Maginnis must finish in the top 10 of his bracket.
“We have a great opportunity,” Manning said. “We have a couple guys who are going to have tougher roads, but we have a great opportunity to get 10 guys (to nationals).”
Manning said seeds are one thing, but it ultimately comes down to how an individual wrestles.
“We talk a lot about taking care of ourselves. It doesn’t matter if you’re the three seed or the six seed. It doesn’t matter. You’re in the same spot,” Manning said. “It’s really about just beating the guy in front of you.”
Overall, the 10 wrestlers Nebraska will send to the tournament are a combined 68-37 (.648) against fellow Big Ten opponents this season, but the Huskers are just 15-26 (.366) against Big Ten wrestlers ranked by InterMat.
Lack of Big Stage Experience
Overall, Nebraska’s lineup has very little experience at the Big Ten Championships, with eight wrestlers making their conference tournament debuts this weekend.
McCrystal and Berger are the only two Huskers with experience at this stage.
McCrystal went 0-2 as a true freshman in 2014, but finished third last season in his return.
Berger finished seventh as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and also finished third last season as a sophomore.
Despite an inexperienced lineup, Manning isn’t worried about the big stage affecting the youth on his team.
“They’ve all wrestled in big matches and a lot of these young guys have dreamt of being in this position. Now it’s just going out there and taking advantage of the opportunity,” Manning said.
The eight first-year starters may not have experience at the Big Ten Championships, but most of them know what it’s like to compete in a talent-filled tournament.
Red, White, Breske, Venz, Schultz and Jensen all competed at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas earlier this season. The tournament featured more than 100 nationally ranked wrestlers and 14 of the top-25 teams in the InterMat tournament rankings at the time. The Huskers finished fifth as a team.
Venz and White both finished third at the early-season tournament, while Red took home a fourth. Breske, Schultz and Jensen did not place, but the three finished with a combined six wins.
Manning believes his squad can be a good tournament team.
“It’s about what we do this weekend, and obviously the weekend of the NCAA tournament,” Manning said. “It’s what it’s all about. I’m really excited about these because I think guys are going to step up to the challenge.”
Scouting the Field
There will be no shortage of talent at the Big Ten Championships, as is the case every year.
Nine of the 14 programs are ranked in the current InterMat tournament rankings, four of which are in the top five: No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan.
When it comes to individual talent, 66 nationally ranked wrestlers will pack the brackets. Over two-thirds of those wrestlers are ranked inside the top five of their respective weight classes, including six of the 10 No. 1s.
There’s no arguing all 10 weight classes will be decided by a hard-nosed battle, but a few of the most competitive weights this year include 125, 165 and 184 pounds.
The 125-pound group is stacked at the top, with top-seeded sophomore Nick Suriano of Rutgers leading the charge with an undefeated 20-0 record. Another underclassman, freshman No. 2 Spencer Lee of Iowa, is 14-1 this season with wins against six of the other nine top-10 seeds in the bracket.
Seeded third is three-time All-American and 2015 NCAA Champion Nathan Tomasello. Last year’s NCAA runner-up Ethan Lizak is seeded fifth.
The 165-pound bracket is even more of a logjam with the top nine seeds falling inside the top 15 of the InterMat rankings. The top-three seeds make up the first tier and will likely be the ones competing for a title.
Top-ranked Isaiah Martinez of Illinois is a two-time NCAA Champion and three-time finalist. His career record is 109-2. Oh yeah, he’s also a three-time Big Ten Champion.
Martinez’ lone loss last season was in the NCAA final to Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph, who is seeded third. Between those two is freshman star Alex Marinelli of Iowa. Marinelli is 14-0 this season. He defeated Joseph by decision 9-6 on Feb. 10.
The second-tier of the 165-pound bracket is packed, too, with seeds four through eight ranking Nos. 7-10 in the InterMat rankings.
The top two seeds at 184 pounds have both won a NCAA title. Top-seeded Bo Nickal of Penn State is the reigning champion at 184 pounds, while No. 2 Myles Martin of Ohio State won the 174-pound title in 2016.
Fresh off a redshirt season, Domenic Abounader of Michigan is seeded third. The 2015 Big Ten Champion is 19-4 this season.
The fourth, fifth and seventh seeds all have experience at the Big Ten Championships. Emery Parker of Illinois finished fifth last season, Nick Gravina placed fourth in 2016 and Ricky Robertson of Wisconsin has finished fifth twice.
The sixth seed, Taylor Venz of Nebraska is the highest seeded underclassman.
As past years have shown, one thing guaranteed is that the pre-seeds will not match the final results on Sunday night.
Session I will start at 9 a.m. CT Saturday, with the first round, quarterfinals and first round of wrestle-backs. Session II will start at 5 p.m. CT Saturday with the semifinals of the championship bracket and the second and third rounds of the wrestle-backs.
Session III will start at 11 a.m. CT on Sunday with the medal rounds. Session IV will conclude the tournament at 2 p.m. CT with the championship matches.