PREVIEW Minnesota favored to win mini NCAA tournament

By Craig Sesker | March 02, 2006, 3:30 p.m. (ET)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - They call it the mini-NCAA tournament for a reason.

Just consider what's in store for Big Ten Conference wrestling fans planning to attend the league tournament Saturday and Sunday at Indiana University's Assembly Hall.

Nine of the 11 Big Ten teams are ranked in the top 10 in the country, including top-ranked Minnesota, No. 2 Michigan, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Illinois, No. 11 Iowa and No. 13 Northwestern.

More than 50 Big Ten wrestlers are ranked in the top 20 nationally in their respective weight classes. The conference features five returning national finalists. Illinois is the defending league champion.

"The Big Ten is as strong top to bottom as it ever has been," Northwestern coach Tim Cysewski said. "When you have nine teams ranked in the top 20, that speaks very highly for what our teams are doing. It's going to be another outstanding tournament."

The 125-pound class includes defending national champion Joe Dubuque of Indiana, defending Big Ten champion Nick Simmons of Michigan State, two-time NCAA runner-up Kyle Ott of Illinois and No. 7 John Velez of Northwestern.

Check out the bracket at 157. You start with Illinois' Alex Tirapelle, who is ranked No. 1 in the country and is a two-time defending Big Ten champ. Then you mix in No. 3 C.P Schlatter of Minnesota, No. 4 Craig Henning of Wisconsin, No. 6 Brandon Becker of Indiana and No. 7 Joe Johnson of Iowa. Johnson was second in the country last year and may be seeded fourth for Big Tens.

That's just a sampling of what you can expect in what arguably is the toughest qualifying tournament for the NCAA meet, set for March 16-18 in Oklahoma City.

How tough is the Big Ten? The league qualifies 72 wrestlers for the NCAA meet - the top seven in each weight plus two wild cards overall - but league coaches are questioning if that number shouldn't be somewhere closer to 80.

"With 72 going, there are still some good kids who are going to get left at home," Penn State coach Troy Sunderland said. "You better be ready to go right away or you're going to be out of the tournament before you know it."

Minnesota is the favorite to win the league title after it twice knocked off three-time defending national champ Oklahoma State in duals this season. But the Gophers did suffer a late-season dual loss to Michigan.

"We're wrestling pretty good and we've had a real good season," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "Our young guys have come through. The loss to Michigan may help us in the long run. Anytime you make a mistake you refocus and reassess what you're doing. I think we've learned from it."

Minnesota wrestlers Cole Konrad (heavyweight) and Dustin Schlatter (149) have provided two of the most compelling stories in college wrestling this season.

Konrad, a junior, finally broke through to beat two-time NCAA champ Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State this season at the all-star meet in November. Konrad followed by launching and pinning Mocco to give the Gophers the victory in the finals of the National Duals. He added a win over Mocco in a late-season dual in Oklahoma City.

Konrad placed second to Mocco last year at nationals, falling in overtime.

"Cole was so close last year," Robinson said. "He didn't take time off after that loss and has worked very diligently to get better. He's watched his diet and worked very hard to improve. When he beat Mocco for the first time, that took him to a different plane confidence-wise."

Schlatter has stunned most wrestling observers with the high level of success he's achieved virtually overnight as a true freshman, including a dominant recent win over defending national champ Zack Esposito of Oklahoma State. Schlatter is ranked No. 1.

"A lot of it with Schlatter is genetics," Robinson said. "He's very strong, very quick and has great balance. He's very athletic. He also has very good technical skills. And he is very poised. He keeps things in perspective. He's a very humble kid, but he has a lot of confidence."

All 10 champions from the 2005 Big Ten tournament are back this season.

They include Simmons, Konrad, Tirapelle, Minnesota's Mack Reiter (133), Michigan's Josh Churella (141), Eric Tannenbaum (149) and Ryan Churella (165), Illinois' Pete Friedl (184), Penn State's Eric Bradley (184), and Northwestern's Matt Delguyd (197).

Friedl won at 174 last year, but bumped up to 184 this year.
Minnesota has won eight Big Ten titles, including three straight between 2001 and 2003. Michigan has won 11 team titles, but the last one came in 1973.

The Wolverines are led by All-Americans in the Churella brothers, Tannenbaum and heavyweight Greg Wagner. Michigan was third in the Big Ten last season, but finished second at the national tournament.

"Michigan has a very good team," Robinson said. "They've definitely proven that."

You can't talk about Big Tens without mentioning the Iowa Hawkeyes, the team that owns 31 conference titles. But Iowa has won only two league titles (2000 and 2004) since having a string of 25 straight titles broken in 1999.

Iowa is led by returning NCAA runners-up Mark Perry (174) and Johnston. The Hawkeyes also have All-Americans in Ty Eustice (149) and Paul Bradley (184). Heavyweight Ryan Fuller will not compete at Big Tens after suffering a season-ending back injury.

The third-ranked Perry will be seeded behind No. 2 Jake Herbert of Northwestern, who beat Perry in the finals of the Midlands Championships.

"It comes down to guys performing under pressure situations in the big matches," Iowa coach Jim Zalesky said. "This is the time of year that you train for. You need to take what you do in the practice room and carry it over into the meets. We have some veteran guys who know what it takes. It's just a matter of going out there and getting the job done."

NCAA runner-up Chris Fleeger of Purdue likely will be seeded second behind Reiter at 133. Fleeger is a former Big Ten champ, as is Wisconsin's Tom Clum (133). Fleeger won at 125 in 2003 and Clum won at 125 the following season.

"This is a brand-new season for all of us," Sunderland said. "Minnesota and Michigan have a lot of horsepower, but there are a lot of other teams like us that think we have good enough balance to score a lot of points and qualify a lot of guys for nationals as well. It should be a great tournament."

TheMat.com will provide complete coverage of the event from Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday and Sunday.

Here is a weight-by-weight preview:

125 POUNDS

Defending national champion Joe Dubuque of Indiana is 19-0. Defending Big Ten champ Nick Simmons of Michigan State is ranked third nationally. Two-time NCAA runner-up Kyle Ott of Illinois is ranked No. 8. Northwestern's John Velez is ranked seventh.

133 POUNDS

Minnesota All-American Mack Reiter (25-3) is the defending champ and ranked third in the nation. NCAA runner-up Chris Fleeger of Purdue is ranked fourth while Wisconsin's Tom Clum is sixth and Penn State freshman Jake Strayer is ninth.

141 POUNDS

Michigan All-American Josh Churella (22-1) is the defending champ and ranked fourth nationally. Michigan State's No. 5 Andy Simmons, Iowa's No. 6 Alex Tsirtsis and Northwestern's No. 8 Ryan Lang also are in the mix.

149 POUNDS

Michigan's Eric Tannenbaum is the defending champ, but true freshman Dustin Schlatter of Minnesota is the favorite. Schlatter is ranked No. 1, one spot ahead of Iowa senior Ty Eustice. Tannenbaum is No. 4.

157 POUNDS

Two-time defending Big Ten champion Alex Tirapelle of Illinois (21-1) is the clear favorite here, but don't count out NCAA runner-up Joe Johnston of Iowa, No. 3 C.P. Schlatter of Minnesota or No. 6 Brandon Becker of Indiana.

165 POUNDS

Defending Big Ten champion Ryan Churella (22-0) of Michigan is ranked No. 1. The weight also includes No. 7 Mike Poeta of Illinois and No. 9 Matt Nagel of Minnesota.

174 POUNDS

This could be one of the best finals matchups with No. 2 Jake Herbert of Northwestern and No. 3 Mark Perry of Iowa expected to meet for the title. Herbert edged Perry at the Midlands Championships.

184 POUNDS

Penn State senior Eric Bradley shoots for his third Big Ten title. This weight also is loaded with No. 3 Ben Wissel of Purdue, No. 6 Pete Friedl of Illinois, No. 8 Paul Bradley of Iowa, No. 9 Roger Kish of Minnesota and No. 10 Mike Tamillow of Northwestern also in the hunt.

197 POUNDS

Defending Big Ten champion Matt Delguyd of Northwestern will face a tough road to repeat that includes No. 6 Phillip Davis of Penn State and No. 8 Tyrone Byrd of Illinois.

HEAVYWEIGHT

Top-ranked Cole Konrad of Minnesota may be the best wrestler at any weight class right now with three wins over two-time NCAA champ Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State to his credit. Third-ranked Greg Wagner of Michigan will be his top challenger, followed by No. 11 Dustin Fox of Northwestern.
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