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Now that we have our sweet, sweet brackets for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, it's time to take a closer look at the weight classes. We're doing a deep dive into each division, rolling out previews one at a time, so you can pour over and digest everything before the first whistle in St. Louis on March 16.
As is typically the case, we'll get started with the 125-pounders.
Our lightest division saw the graduation of one national champion and another bumping up to 133. That left Thomas Gilman of Iowa as the favorite coming into the year, and he's held onto the No. 1 ranking all year long, going undefeated in the process (a theme we will be repeating in several other weight classes).
Another potential obstacle was potentially cleared from Gilman's path when No. 2-ranked true freshman Nick Suriano of Penn State injured his ankle in the last dual of the year against Oklahoma State's Nick Piccinnini. A healthy Suriano is a force to be reckoned with, but after injury-defaulting out of the Big Ten tournament, his readiness is anyone's guess.
The Hawkeyes senior will still have plenty of contenders to fend off, though. We'll take a look at them next, followed by dark horses and a then full set of predictions and analysis.
Title Contenders:(1) Thomas Gilman, Iowa
(2) Joey Dance, Virginia Tech
(4) Darian Cruz, Lehigh
Gilman started the year No. 1, and he enters the NCAA tournament with the top seed (part of that theme we will be frequently revisiting). He earned that seed by beating the No. 3, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, and No. 11 seeds this season.
Dance suffered a single loss this year, to fellow contender Darian Cruz. Cruz, a junior, has a loss to both Ethan Lizak of Minnesota and Suriano. Gilman handed Suriano his only non-injury default loss this year, and although I'm erring on the side of caution in leaving Suriano off the list of contenders, I will be among the many fans rooting for him to prove me wrong and make a deep run through the bracket.
Darkhorses:(12) Sean Fausz, North Carolina State
(13) Shakur Laney, Ohio
(US) Conor Youtsey, Michigan
Fausz has gotten hot at the right time, beating then-eighth-ranked Jack Mueller of Virginia in the ACC semifinals. Youtsey has come out of semi-retirement to bolster the Wolverines lineup and is capable of winning (and, if we're being totally honest, losing) against just about any competitor in the division. Laney is also peaking at the right time, winning a deep MAC tournament that qualified six wrestlers from just nine programs.
Upset SpecialBesides our dark horses, keep an eye out for Travis Piotrowski of Illinois. Piotrowski had an uneven regular season but took out some hammers in the Big Ten tournament in Youtsey and fellow qualifier Johnny Jimenez of Wisconsin to finish fourth.
- Thomas Gilman, Iowa
- Joey Dance, Virginia Tech
- Darian Cruz, Lehigh
- Ethan Lizak, Minnesota
- Tim Lambert, Nebraska
- Nick Piccininni, Oklahoma State
- Sean Fausz, North Carolina State
- Freddie Rodriguez, SIU-Edwardsville
An 0-2 day for Suriano helps clear a path for Joey Dance to make the finals and redeem his last two disappointing NCAA tournaments. However, it is, at last, Thomas Gilman's time to shine, and I'm predicting Gilman stops Dance in the final collegiate match for both outstanding wrestlers.
Watch Gilman take out the wily Youtsey in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament here:
I think Darian Cruz, who wrestled as good as I've ever seem him at the EIWA Championships last week, will get by a game Sean Fausz to make the semis. On the opposite side I think Ethan Lizak will step into the breach in Suriano's absence.
I expect both Cruz and Lizak to then win their consi semi matches (after losing to Gilman and Dance, respectively) and battle for third, where I think the Mountain Hawk gets the better of the Golden Gopher. Lizak's punishing top game could tip the scales in his favor, but I think Cruz avoids picking bottom and wins the match in neutral.
Even after suffering an upset special at the hands of the feisty Fausz in the round of 16, I think Tim Lambert valiantly battles back in the consis for an admirable fifth-place finish. His opponent in that match will be Nick Piccininni, who goes down but not before earning some extremely valuable team points for coach John Smith and the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
In the 7/8 match, I think our dark horse Fausz will prevail over No. 14 seed Freddie Rodriguez, who will also benefit from Suriano's absence.
There Will Be BloodroundJust missing the podium will be Travis Piotrowski (taken out by Lambert). Additionally, FredRod beats No. 9 JoshRod of North Dakota State. Piccininni stops No. 11 Josh Terao, and Fausz makes his way to the medal stand by beating the dangerous Conor Youtsey.
Think you can make better picks? There's a very good chance you can! Here's the 125 bracket. Let me know what you think, and enjoy the NCAA championships, wrestling fans!