Penn State senior David Taylor is shooting for his fourth straight Big Ten tournament title. USA Wrestling file photo.
How evenly matched are the best teams in the nation’s toughest wrestling conference?
Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa shared the Big Ten Conference dual meet championship this season.
Another hard-fought, edge-of-your-seat battle is expected at the Big Ten Championships, set for Saturday and Sunday at the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center in Madison.
Penn State, winners of the last three Big Ten and NCAA titles, still looks like the team to beat despite dropping a late-season road dual to a very strong Minnesota team.
Penn State is ranked No.1 nationally in WIN Magazine’s tournament rankings. Minnesota is second, Iowa fourth, Nebraska seventh, Ohio State eighth, Michigan 12th, Northwestern 13th, Wisconsin 14th and Illinois 17th.
That’s nine teams ranked in the top 17 in the country.
“Big Tens are going to be insane,” Northwestern coach Drew Pariano said. “You’re going to see matches where you will say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe so much is on the line.’ You can’t look past the guy in front of you in any round of the tournament. There are so many fireworks that can go on in so many weight classes with great wrestlers in them.
“It comes down to who is healthy and who is peaking that week. You’ve got to peak for Big Tens and you’ve got to peak for NCAAs. It’s not a choice, it’s a must. It’s going to be a heck of a show.”
The Big Ten has secured 74 automatic qualifying spots for the NCAA Championships, set for March 20-22 in Oklahoma City. An additional 40 at-large spots from all conferences for the NCAA tournament will be awarded on Wednesday, March 12.
The Big Ten has earned seven automatic qualifying spots at 125, eight at 133, six at 141, six at 149, eight at 157, eight at 165, seven at 174, seven at 184, eight at 197 and nine at 285.
The two-day tournament begins Saturday at 10 a.m. Central Time. The finals will be televised live on the Big Ten Network on Sunday at 1 p.m.
The Nittany Lions have four returning NCAA finalists in their powerful lineup, including 2012 Hodge Trophy winner David Taylor (165 pounds) and two-time NCAA champion Ed Ruth (184).
“Our guys are ready to go,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said during his team’s media day on Monday. “This is a huge weekend for us. We’re very confident in our plan. A lot of it is just attitude at this point. You decide what you want and you go do it. I’m excited to watch our team compete.”
Taylor and Ruth are looking to join the elite club of four-time Big Ten champions. Just 11 wrestlers have earned four Big Ten titles.
“I feel great – I feel confident and I feel our team is right where it needs to be,” said Taylor, a three-time NCAA finalist. “This is the best time of the year and the most exciting time of the year. It’s time to just go out and have some fun.”
Taylor was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year as a freshman and sophomore. Ruth was named Big Ten Wrestler of the Year last season.
“This is what you train for,” Ruth said. “It doesn’t really matter what happened during the season or what happened last year. It comes down to this moment now and getting enthusiastic about it.”
Ohio State junior Logan Stieber, a two-time NCAA champion, is seeking his third Big Ten title. He has moved up to 141 this year after winning two league titles at 133. He likely will be seeded No. 2 behind true freshman Zain Retherford of Penn State. Retherford, a Cadet World champion, is unbeaten and defeated Stieber early in the season.
Minnesota senior Tony Nelson also is seeking his third straight Big Ten title at 285. Nelson has won two straight NCAA titles, but has suffered a handful of losses during the regular season.
Illinois junior Jesse Delgado is the returning league champion at 125. Delgado was named Outstanding Wrestler of the 2013 Big Tens and carried that momentum into the NCAAs where he won a national title last season. He defeated Penn State’s Nico Megaludis in the 2013 national finals.
Megaludis, a two-time NCAA runner-up, is expected to be the top seed at Big Tens. Megaludis and Delgado are ranked 2-3 nationally. Megaludis beat Delgado 5-4 in a dual meet this season.
The Nittany Lions also have a returning league champion in Matt Brown at 174. Brown was second at the 2013 NCAA meet. Penn State’s Dylan Alton (157) placed third in the nation in 2012. Nittany Lion sophomore Morgan McIntosh is ranked third nationally at 197.
Penn State has five No. 1 pre-seeds for the Big Ten meet. They include Taylor, Ruth, Megaludis, Retherford and McIntosh.
Iowa has won 34 Big Ten tournament titles, including three straight from 2008-10 before Penn State won the last three.
Returning NCAA champion Derek St. John of Iowa is seeking his second league title after winning Big Tens two years ago at 157. St. John has suffered three losses in Big Ten duals this season, but the three-time All-American is a proven commodity in March.
In addition to St. John, the Hawkeyes feature another standout senior in two-time All-American Tony Ramos at 133. Ramos placed second behind Stieber the past two years at Big Tens. Ramos has finished second and third at the national tournament. He is the No. 1 pre-seed at 133.
Iowa has three other wrestlers – Mike Evans (174), Ethen Lofthouse (184) and Bobby Telford (285) – who have reached the Big Ten finals in their careers. Hawkeye junior Nick Moore is ranked fourth nationally at 165 and teammate Brody Grothus is No. 8 at 149.
“The key for us is pretty simple – score more points,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “We have the firepower and we need to use our firepower. We have a lot of guys that can do that. Scoring is important and bonus points are important.”
Brands said freshman Cory Clark, a past Junior Nationals champion, will be Iowa’s postseason starter at 125. Clark has shared the starting spot with freshman Thomas Gilman, who beat Delgado en route to capturing the Midlands title this season.
Clark is ranked sixth nationally and notched a win over Delgado as a redshirt during the 2012-13 season. Clark is 15-0 this season.
“We feel good about our lineup,” Brands said. “We need to be the bad draw.”
Minnesota also has a returning conference champion in junior Dylan Ness. Ness, a 2012 NCAA runner-up, won Big Tens last year at 149 before bumping up to 157 this season. He is a two-time All-American who is an exciting wrestler with a go-for-broke mentality similar to Taylor, Ruth and Ramos.
The Golden Gophers also return 2013 league runner-up finishers Kevin Steinhaus (184) and Scott Schiller (197). Steinhaus won a Big Ten title in 2012. Two-time All-American Logan Storley is ranked fourth nationally at 174. Storley was second at the 2012 Big Ten tournament.
Twins Chris and Nick Dardanes are both ranked in the top five nationally for Minnesota. Chris Dardanes is ranked fifth at 141 and Nick is third at 149. Gopher David Thorn is ranked seventh at 133.
"I think we are one of three teams that can win it, along with Penn State and Iowa," Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "We have to wrestle well and take care of ourselves, and get some breaks where other people get knocked off. We've had some real good training and our guys are ready. We're very excited and our kids are excited. The tournament is fairly close to home for us and we'll have a lot of fans there."
Brands envisions a close team race once again at the league tournament.
“Minnesota won the National Duals, and they had a big win against Penn State and a big win against us,” Brands said. “But I don’t think it’s about one or two teams. There are four or five good teams in there.”
Nebraska is led by two-time All-American James Green (157) and All-American Robert Kokesh (174). Teammate Jake Sueflohn (149) is ranked second nationally. Green and Sueflohn were second at the Big Ten tournament last year while Kokesh was third.
Kokesh and Sueflohn are No. 1 pre-seeds for the league tourney. Green, a 2013 University World Team member, is 26-1 this season. Kokesh is 29-1.
Northwestern is led by heavyweight Mike McMullan, who was second to Nelson in the 2013 Big Ten and NCAA finals. McMullan owns a win over Nelson this season.
Wildcat freshman Jason Tsirtsis (149) is a past Junior World Team member and is ranked sixth nationally. Northwestern’s Pierce Harger is ranked sixth at 165.
Michigan is led by true freshman Adam Coon at heavyweight. Coon is ranked No. 1 nationally. He is a past Cadet World champion. Coon is the No. 1 pre-seed for Big Tens at 285.
In addition to Stieber, Ohio State’s Nick Heflin is ranked fourth in the nation at 197 and teammate Johnni DiJulius is eighth at 133.
Tournament host Wisconsin also has some firepower in its lineup. Freshman Isaac Jordan has had a superb season, knocking off Green and St. John late in the season at 157. Jordan is the No. 1 pre-seed for the Big Ten tournament.
Senior Tyler Graff is a three-time All-American for the Badgers. He was second at the 2011 Big Tens. Wisconsin heavyweight Connor Medbery is ranked eighth nationally.
Indiana heavyweight Adam Chalfant is ranked No. 2 in the country. Hoosier teammate Taylor Walsh, one of the nation’s top pinners, is ranked fifth nationally at 157.
Michigan State heavyweight Mike McClure also has had a strong season. He is ranked seventh in the nation and owns a win over Coon this season.
Purdue’s Cashe Quiroga (133) and Braden Atwood (197) are both ranked No. 11 in the country. Quiroga is a past All-American at 125.
Mario Gonzalez of Illinois won a Big Ten title in 2012.
With talented freshmen like No. 1 pre-seeds Retherford, Coon and Jordan making such a big impact, the tournament seeding meeting will definitely be interesting.
The Big Ten has five returning NCAA champions from 2013, but Ruth is the only one who is a No. 1 pre-seed for the Big Ten tournament.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Pariano said. “Seeding for Big Tens is going to be one of the most hotly contested they’ve ever seen.”
BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIPS PRE-SEEDS
1. Nico Megaludis, PSU
2. Jesse Delgado, ILL
3. Cory Clark, IOWA
4. Ryan Taylor, WIS
4. Conor Youtsey, MICH
6. Tim Lambert, NEB
7. Camden Eppert, PUR
8. Nick Roberts, OSU
1. Tony Ramos, IOWA
2. Tyler Graff, WIS
3. David Thorn, MINN
4. Cashe Quiroga, PUR
5. Zane Richards, ILL
6. Johnni DiJulius, OSU
7. Jimmy Gulibon, PSU
8. Rossi Bruno, MICH
9. Shawn Nagel, NEB
10. Dom Malone, NU
11. Joe Duca, IND
12. Garth Yenter, MSU
1. Zain Retherford, PSU
2. Logan Stieber, OSU
3. Chris Dardanes, MINN
4. Stephen Dutton, MICH
5. Josh Dziewa, IOWA
6. Steven Rodrigues, ILL
7. Danny Sabatello, PUR
8. Jessie Thielke, WIS
1. Jake Sueflohn, NEB
2. Nick Dardanes, MINN
3. Jason Tsirtsis, NU
4. Brody Grothus, IOWA
5. Eric Grajales, MICH
6. Ian Paddock, OSU
7. James English, PSU
8. Brandon Nelsen, PUR
1. Isaac Jordan, WIS
2. James Green, NEB
3. Dylan Ness, MINN
4. Derek St. John, IOWA
5. Dylan Alton, PSU
6. Taylor Walsh, IND
7. Zac Brunson, ILL
8. Brian Murphy, MICH
9. Alex Griffin, PUR
10. Ben Sullivan, NU
11. Randy Languis, OSU
12. Roger Wildmo, MSU
1. David Taylor, PSU
2. Nick Moore, IOWA
3. Pierce Harger, NU
4. Dan Yates, MICH
5. Jackson Morse, ILL
6. Danny Zilverberg, MINN
7. Ryan LeBlanc, IND
8. Austin Wilson, NEB
9. Pat Robinson, PUR
10. Joe Grandominico, OSU
11. Bobby Nash, MSU
12. Ben Cox, WIS
1. Robert Kokesh, NEB
2. Matt Brown, PSU
3. Mike Evans, IOWA
4. Logan Storley, MINN
5. Tony Dallago, ILL
6. Mark Martin, OSU
7. Scott Liegel, WIS
8. Collin Zeerip, MICH
1. Ed Ruth, PSU
2. Kevin Steinhaus, MINN
3. Ethen Lofthouse, IOWA
4. T.J. Dudley, NEB
5. Domenic Abounader, MICH
6. Kenny Courts, OSU
7. Jackson Hein, WIS
8. John Rizqallah, MSU
1. Morgan McIntosh, PSU
2. Nick Heflin, OSU
3. Scott Schiller, MINN
4. Braden Atwood, PUR
5. Nathan Burak, IOWA
6. Mario Gonzalez, ILL
7. Alex Polizzi, NU
8. Timmy McCall, WIS
9. Nick McDiarmid, MSU
10. Caleb Kolb, NEB
11. Chris Heald, MICH
12. Garret Goldman, IND
1. Adam Coon, MICH
2. Adam Chalfant, IND
3. Mike McMullan, NU
4. Bobby Telford, IOWA
5. Tony Nelson, MINN
6. Mike McClure, MSU
7. Connor Medbery, WIS
8. Jon Gingrich, PSU
9. Collin Jensen, NEB
10. Nick Tavanello, OSU
11. Alex White, PUR
12. Chris Lopez, ILL