ST. LOUIS – To me, this week is like Christmas.
The NCAA Wrestling Championships are one of the most enjoyable, most exciting and best events I cover. I can’t wait to take in all the action.
This week’s NCAAs, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, will be the 19th I’ve covered since attending my first national tournament in Iowa City in 1995.
I missed back-to-back NCAAs in 1999 and 2000, but I’ve been to every tournament since then and I never plan on missing another one.
This three-day extravaganza is special and magical.
It features six action-packed sessions over three days with boisterous sellout crowds of close to 20,000 fans rooting their teams on.
Just for a little fun, here are some of the storylines we will be following with our coverage on USA Wrestling’s website and social media platforms this week:
How many four-time NCAA champions have been crowned?
Most wrestling observers know the answer to this one. Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith was the first, Iowa State’s Cael Sanderson was the second and Cornell’s Kyle Dake accomplished the improbable feat two years ago.
Sanderson is the only wrestler to go unbeaten over a four-year career after going 159-0 from 1999-2002. Dake won four titles in four different weight classes from 2010-13.
Next in line is the remarkable Logan Stieber of Ohio State. It seems like just yesterday when the multi-talented Stieber stepped onto the mat to face the favored Jordan Oliver in the 2012 NCAA finals here in St. Louis.
Now he’s a three-time champion and the No. 1 seed at 141 pounds. The unbeaten Stieber is a top Olympic hopeful. He’s also a class act, who sets a great example on and off the mat for the Buckeyes.
Stieber will be in the mix to make the 2015 World Team in freestyle this year.
When was the last time someone other than Iowa, Oklahoma State, Penn State or Minnesota won it all?
The answer is 1988. That is when Bobby Douglas led Arizona State to the championship. The Sun Devils are the only school west of the Rocky Mountains to win a gold trophy at this event.
Since that title, Iowa has won 12 titles, Oklahoma State seven, Penn State four and Minnesota three.
That trend could be broken if top-ranked Missouri has anything to say about it.
The Tigers are deep, loaded and talented, and feature three No. 1 seeds in J’den Cox (197), Alan Waters (125) and Drake Houdashelt (149) along with a No. 3 seed in Lavion Mayes at 141 and a No. 4 seed in John Eblen at 174. Missouri has qualified all 10 wrestlers and will be wrestling very close to home in St. Louis.
On paper, the Tigers are the team to beat. Missouri is seeking its first NCAA team title in wrestling. Coach Brian Smith has done a marvelous job in building this program.
Big Ten co-champions Iowa and Ohio State also are very deep with Minnesota and Cornell having a handful of studs who could score a ton of points. Ohio State and Cornell also are seeking their first NCAA team titles.
And don’t count out four-time defending champion Penn State. The Nittany Lions could be a factor as well.
Is this the year the Hawkeyes return to the top spot?
Iowa won three straight titles from 2008-10, but the Hawkeyes have watched Big Ten rival Penn State win the last four NCAA crowns.
The Hawkeyes were ranked No. 1 all season before falling to Missouri in the finals of the National Duals. Iowa then shared the league title with Ohio State after going 0-4 in the finals.
The good news for the Hawkeyes is they have qualified all 10 wrestlers for this tournament, and they have 10 guys capable of scoring a lot of points in this tournament.
They have a veteran lineup with two-time All-Americans Bobby Telford (285) and Mike Evans (174) leading the way along with All-Americans Cory Clark (133) and Nathan Burak (197). Iowa also has top-10 seeded wrestlers in Thomas Gilman (125), Brandon Sorensen (149), Josh Dziewa (141) and Sammy Brooks (184). Senior Nick Moore (165) has been ranked in the top 10 and is determined and hungry to become an All-American for the first time.
Iowa hasn’t hit its peak yet. If they do here, they could be driving back to Iowa City with the Hawkeyes’ 24th NCAA championship trophy.
Can Tsirtsis and Cox repeat?
Northwestern’s Jason Tsirtsis and Missouri’s J’den Cox both won 2014 NCAA titles as freshmen, and both have an excellent shot of doing it again.
Cox is unbeaten and top-ranked at 197 while Tsirtsis avenged his only loss by beating Sorensen to win the Big Ten title at 149.
Cox is in a loaded 197 bracket that includes Big Ten champion Morgan McIntosh of Penn State, two-time All-American Kyven Gadson of Iowa State, Junior World champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State and two-time All-American Scott Schiller of Minnesota.
The second-seeded Tsirtsis is in a strong 149 class that includes Sorensen, No. 1 seed Drake Houdashelt of Missouri and Edinboro's David Habat.
NCAA three-peat for the state of Minnesota?
It was a special Saturday night for the state of Minnesota.
St. Cloud State won the NCAA Division II title just a few blocks away from the Scottrade Center after earning its first national title at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
That same night, perennial power Augsburg won its first title since 2010 by edging Wartburg College to capture the NCAA Division III title.
Now the University of Minnesota has a chance to win the NCAA Division I title. The Gophers previously won titles in 2001, 2002 and 2007 under legendary coach J Robinson.
The Golden Gophers definitely have the firepower to score a ton of points here with two-time NCAA runner-up Dylan Ness (157) and No. 1 seed Chris Dardanes (133) along with All-Americans Logan Storley (174), Scott Schiller (197) and Nick Dardanes (141).
It would be a remarkable feat for the state of Minnesota, which has outstanding programs at the high school level, to complete a sweep of the three NCAA team titles this year.
Keep an eye on the 157 bracket
All the weight classes will be exciting to watch, but I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds at 157.
No. 1 seed and freshman Isaiah Martinez of Illinois has just been phenomenal this season, earning wins over returning runner-up Dylan Ness of Minnesota and returning third-place finisher James Green of Nebraska.
Martinez is an explosive and aggressive wrestler who put on a show in downing Ness in the Big Ten finals.
Throw in guys like returning All-Americans Brian Realbuto of Cornell and Ian Miller of Kent State, and this is a heck of a weight class.
We could see a Martinez-Green semifinal with the winner of that match possibly facing two-time finalist Ness in the finals.
Those three, along with the dynamic Miller, are four of the most exciting wrestlers in the entire field.
And don’t forget about…
Keep a close eye on returning champions Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State (285) and Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State (165). These are two of the most exciting and best wrestlers in the country.
And Nebraska’s Robert Kokesh is unbeaten at 174. He has placed third and fourth in this event. The bottom half of that bracket will be interesting with fellow Big Ten wrestlers and All-Americans Matt Brown of Penn State, Mike Evans of Iowa and Logan Storley of Minnesota battling it out.
Those four are the top returning finishers at 174. Storley was third at the 2014 NCAAs, Kokesh fourth, Brown fifth and Evans sixth.
Big Ten champion Mike McMullan of Northwestern is another guy to watch. The senior is an athletic heavyweight who has finished third, second and third at the NCAAs.
Cornell sophomore Gabe Dean is another very good wrestler who is the favorite at 184. The Junior World bronze medalist is a very physical and powerful athlete. He was third at his first NCAA tourney last year.
There are plenty of other excellent wrestlers to watch as well.
It’s going to be an exciting tournament to watch. I’ve never walked away disappointed.
Let’s hope for more scoring, more action, more wrestlers working for falls and fewer overtimes. And expect a fight to the finish in what promises to be an exciting, edge-of-your-seat team race.
Here are my picks for the NCAAs:
Nahshon Garrett (Cornell) over Alan Waters (Missouri)
Chris Dardanes (Minnesota) over Cory Clark (Iowa)
Logan Stieber (Ohio State) over Lavion Mayes (Missouri)
Brandon Sorsensen (Iowa) over Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern)
James Green (Nebraska) over Dylan Ness (Minnesota)
Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) over Mike Moreno (Iowa State)
Robert Kokesh (Nebraska) over Logan Storley (Minnesota)
Gabe Dean (Cornell) over Max Thomusseit (Pitt)
Kyven Gadson (Iowa State) over Kyle Snyder (Ohio State)
Nick Gwiazdowski (NC State) over Bobby Telford (Iowa)
Top 4 teams
Iowa, Ohio State, Missouri, Minnesota
Feel free to provide any feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to my Twitter account @csesker
ST. LOUIS – To me, this week is like Christmas.