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The previous articles in this series have examined teams vying for one of four team trophies to be awarded at NCAAs. Penn State will finish either first or second barring a series of unexpected outcomes, so this article will look at their chances of winning the whole thing.
Penn State was the #1-ranked team in the country for the first few weeks of the season, but they've been behind Iowa since late November. Iowa's projected team point lead over Penn State has generally grown over the course of the year and has been as wide as 69 points on February 3.
Based on numbers alone, a team title for Penn State is almost impossible, but in this case, the numbers don't tell the entire story. The Nittany Lions, despite having endured a series of lineup-changing injuries, still have a shot.
Before diving into Penn State's title chances, let's establish a bit of context about this year's field. This season, only Penn State and Iowa have been ranked #1, Penn State until November 19, and Iowa since then.
Every week, each ranked wrestler is assigned the placement and advancement points they would earn if their finish at NCAAs corresponded to their ranking. These do not include bonus points. Team rankings are based on the sum of each team's projected individual points.
Here is the high, low, and average projected score (before bonus points) from each week's rankings for the teams ranked #1-#4 this season:
|1st Place Team||144.5||108||129.24|
|2nd Place Team||105.5||72.5||90.32|
|3rd Place Team||70.5||49||58.12|
|4th Place Team||60||47.5||53.56|
The number that I'm most concerned about for the purposes of this Penn State article is 129.24. That is the average number of pre-bonus points projected for the #1 ranked team this season. It's logical to assume that Penn State will want to aim for that mark if they hope to win the NCAA team title.
Penn State's Season
The Nittany Lions' tumultuous season has resulted in a projected team score that has shrunk over time. NCAA champion Anthony Cassar suffered a season-ending injury, 2018 All-American Kyle Conel is out for the year, and Brady Berge, who was ranked as high as #4 this season, is also out.
Here's a graph that illustrates how Penn State's individual weight class rankings have progressed throughout the season and contributed to their projected team total.
The obvious detail here is that even Penn State's highest projected total, the total including the best versions of Cassar, Conel, and Berge, was well shy of 129.24, this year's average projected total for a #1-ranked team. On top of that, their projected total has generally narrowed over the year, but again, these numbers might not tell the whole story.
In addition to looking at their week-to-week collective team point projection, it's valuable to see the highest and lowest points that each weight class has been projected to score this year. This table contains the high and low point projections for each of Penn State's weight classes.
The sum of Penn State's highest individual point projections is 130.5, just above that magic number of 129.24 we established earlier. The problem is that, at 157, 197, and 285, the Nittany Lions' highest projected points came from wrestlers who are no longer in the lineup.
If we swap out the highest projected points from all starters for the highest projected points for their most recent starters, that 130.5 number shrinks to 95, nearly 35 points below the average projected score for a #1 ranked team this year. But remember, these numbers might not tell the whole story.
Penn State's Path to an NCAA Title
Nick Lee and Vincenzo Joseph are currently ranked #1, and Mark Hall was for most of the year. NCAA titles from those three would give the Nittany Lions a base of 60 points (before bonus) to build on, a base that they probably need to win the team title.
Penn State's next best shot at an individual NCAA champion seems to be 133-pounder Roman Bravo-Young, a sophomore All-American who is currently ranked #4 but whose impressive performance against Austin DeSanto in an injury default and a tight 6-5 loss to Seth Gross have many believing he's capable of a winning it all.
Four NCAA champions in the same year might sound improbable, but remember, Penn State did in in 2018 when they put five in the finals. It's also worth noting that in Cael Sanderson's 10 seasons at the helm of Penn State, he has had NCAA finalists 37 times. In other words, 37 percent of Cael Sanderson-era Penn State starting spots have resulted in NCAA finals appearances.
Even if RBY, Nick Lee, Vincenzo Joseph, and Mark Hall all win NCAA titles, that only gives Penn State 80 points before bonus, almost 50 shy of the average projected points for a #1 team this year.
Both Aaron Brooks and Shakur Rasheed have been ranked to finish on the podium at points this year, and Jarod Verkleeren just beat a top-eight wrestler.
Of these three, Brooks seems the most likely to finish high on the podium, especially after the news of 184 frontrunner Zahid Valencia's suspension. Rasheed has placed before but hasn't seemed completely healthy this year. Verkleeren would be a surprise All-American unless he registers more upsets at the Big Ten Championships.
Penn State could really use 30 points from this group, a tall task considering the best versions of each have been projected to score 19.5.
So far, in this hypothetical situation, Penn State is hoping for 80 points (before bonus) from RBY, Lee, Cenzo, and Hall in the form of four NCAA championships and 30 points from Verkleeren, Brooks, and Rasheed in some combination of three All-American finishes. That still leaves them with about a 20-point gap.
The lingering question for Penn State fans is whether Penn State will start Seth Nevills or Greg Kerkvliet in the postseason. CP, Bratke, and Ben Askren discussed this topic on FRL. Kerkvliet could score meaningful points for Penn State and might have NCAA title potential. A title, as we've established, would make up that 20-point gap.
In short, Penn State's NCAA title hopes hinge on each individual having his absolute best possible performances, a below-projection showing from Iowa, or a combination of the two. Despite the improbability of a championship for the Nittany Lions, their stellar past NCAA performances leave the door open.