Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ranking Each Number One Seed's Championship Chances at the NCAA Wrestling Tournament

It's the most wonderful sports weekend of the year. Starting on Thursday, all eyes will be towards the sports world. Fans will fill out their brackets and hope that this is the year that they win their office pool. And after three days of amazing action, on Sunday you can rest and watch basketball, because the NCAA Wrestling Tournament is here. March Matness is the only thing that matters this weekend, so do yourself a favor and tune into as much as you can.

With that, I wanted to look at all of the number one seeds and rank who has the best and worst chances of being atop the podium on Saturday night.

10. Zahid Valencia - Arizona State - 174
Valencia has had an incredible freshman season, as he has worked his way through everyone that stood in his path to an undefeated record. He faced some solid competition but almost completely avoided the Big Ten, and I believe that is where he will struggle in this tournament. As a number one seed, it's close to impossible to see them lose one of their first two matchups, and Valencia should cruise through those. I believe he'll have to get through Miles Amine in the Quarterfinals, who he did beat by a single point earlier in the season, and Amine has seemed to improve by leaps and bounds since then. After that, he either gets Zach Epperly of Virginia Tech or super Freshman, Mark Hall. I think it'll be the latter, and I significantly favor Hall in that match. His offense has just been incredible, and you could make a pretty strong argument that he outwrestled Bo Jordan in the B1G finals through seven minutes but wasn't able to get the win. After that, I think Bo Jordan comes out of the bottom half of the bracket, but Realbuto is funky enough to give anyone troubles. Still, I just don't see how Valencia gets through all of these landmines to win a championship. But the good news is he's only a freshman, so he'll still have plenty of time to end up as a champion.

9. Dean Heil - Oklahoma State - 141
I'm a Dean Heil hater. I wrote this article last year, and he ranked tenth, but he managed to still win the National Title, so this year he moves all the way up to the nine spot. The guy wrestles way too many close matches to consistently come out on top, but he does manage to always come out on top. I'm still predicting that to end at the NCAA Tournament. He's a tough guy to score on, but I refuse to believe he's going back-to-back this year. Although I have trouble not seeing him in the semifinals, I see him having a tough time getting past Matthew Kolodzik or Anthony Ashnault, especially since the latter is wrestling better than he ever has before. I like Ashnault a lot in this tournament and would bet on him to beat Heil this year, but even if he makes it to the finals, a matchup with Kevin Jack or Joey McKenna awaits him. Honestly, there isn't much separating the top five guys at this weight. Last year, Heil managed to work his way through to a title; I don't see him repeating the feat.

8. Nathan Tomasello - Ohio State - 133
Tomasello's a stud, but 133 is absolutely stacked this year. It's either this weight or the next one I'm going to talk about for the toughest weight class in college wrestling. Tomasello will cruise through his first two opponents, but things start to get very interesting in the quarterfinals. Zane Richards is a tough guy who was looked at as a top-five guy entering this year. I do think Tomasello can take care of business there, but things get very interesting in the semifinals where he is likely to take on Cory Clark or Stevan Micic. He barely beat Micic 6-5 at the Big Ten Tournament, and that is a guy who has gotten a ton better as the year has gone on. I'm still hoping it's Clark he's going to see, and Tomasello won by a literal last second escape (and was helped by getting a point for an illegal move as well). I think it was a learning experience for Clark, and I think Tomasello is in serious trouble if Clark gets past Micic. Then you have the bottom half of the bracket that is led by Seth Gross and Kaid Brock, two guys who can absolutely put up points, and even they have to get through Eric Montoya and Dom Forys just to get there. Tomasello could beat any of these guys, but it's going to be tough to beat all of them, and I just don't see him doing it this year.

7. Gabe Dean - Cornell - 184
On talent and resume, Gabe Dean should definitely be higher on this list. I know that, you know that, we all know that. But 184 has a legitimate claim at being the toughest weight class in college wrestling this year. There are just so many landmines at this weight class. I mean, yes, Dean is cruising through his first two opponents, but then he likely gets Nate Jackson of Indiana or Jack Dechow of Old Dominion, both of who are tough guys. Then he will likely get Zach Zavatsky (I'm not a believer in Nolan Boyd) who is another legitimate challenger. Those guys are all tough, but Dean has faced tough guy after tough guy and almost always comes out on top. I have trouble seeing him not make the Finals, but then he goes up against either Sammy Brooks or Bo Nickal. Bo Nickal may have the most fun offensive moveset in college wrestling, as the guy is always looking for a huge move. He has the ability to hit it on anybody, and that include Gabe Dean. But don't sleep on Brooks who wrestled Dean tight two years ago and is wrestling better than he has ever wrestled right now. Dean is the best guy at this weight, but with the competition that he is going to have to go through, it is far from a guarantee that he ends up on top of the podium.

6. Thomas Gilman - Iowa - 125
Is there some Hawkeye bias here? Maybe, but who exactly is he going to lose to before the finals? He's basically dominated every opponent he's had outside of Nick Suriano, who is both injured and on the other side of the bracket. He's beaten just about every guy on his side of the bracket, and with the way he's wrestling this year, it seems highly unlikely that anyone is going to rise up and take him out. So that leads him to a relatively easy path with a likely matchup against Suriano or Joey Dance from Virginia Tech. Suriano is hurt, and I really don't think he's going to be able to make an impact on a bum ankle. He's 1-1 against Dance, but they wrestled both of those matches two seasons ago. Both have gotten better since then, but Dance is only very good where Gilman is an absolute dominator on the mat these days. I think Gilman finds his way through the bracket to become the Hawkeyes first National Champion since Tony Ramos.

5. Isaiah Martinez - Illinois - 165
Isaiah Martinez is going for his third national title in three years, this time up a weight at 165. Although there are some tough guys at 165, Martinez is still the clear favorite. He's going to cruise to the semifinals where a likely matchup with Isaac Jordan awaits. Jordan is always rock solid in his wrestling, but I just don't think he has the offense to truly threaten Martinez. The most interesting matchup lies in the finals where he will take on Logan Massa. Outside of getting hit with a six-point move in the Big Ten Tournament, Massa has wrestled Martinez tough, but I have a tough time seeing anyone stop Martinez from a threepeat.

4. J'Den Cox - Missouri - 197
Originally, I had Martinez ahead of J'Den Cox, but then I got to looking at things, and then I thought about some things and decided it's really hard to put the 2016 Olympic Bronze Medalist lower than this. He's wrestled against the #2, #3, and #4 ranked wrestlers and beaten them all. Yes, they have been relatively close as he's won each match by two points, but he's winning, and he's super good. Also, this weight isn't that strong past Cox. Kollin Moore and Brett Pfarr are both good enough to push Cox in the Finals, but third best in the world almost definitely means that he's the best in the NCAA.

3. Zain Retherford - Penn State - 149
I could probably just say, "Ain't nobody stopping the Zain Train," and call it a day, but what fun would that be? There are two interesting matchups for him. One with Brandon Sorensen, who he beat 9-8 after having an advantage in riding time in the second tiebreaker, and Anthony Collica, who he only beat 2-1 in their match late in the season. Those were his only two decision wins, and honestly, I still wouldn't be surprised if those remained his only two decision wins this year, as I could easily see him storming through everyone in the tournament. As a Hawkeye fan, I'd love to pick Sorensen for the upset, but ain't nobody stopping the Zain Train.

2. Kyle Snyder - Ohio State - Heavyweight
How can I put the United States's youngest Olympic gold medal winning wrestler below the top spot? I'm struggling with that question myself. I actually originally had him at the three spot, but decided to move him ahead of Zain. The other issue is that he won that gold medal at 213 pounds, and the heavyweight limit is 275. Even if he's walking around at 225-230, he's going to be giving up around 50 pounds to some of the big boys at this weight. He's still steamrolled everybody that he's gone up against, as he's a takedown machine. He's freakishly strong as no heavyweight can push him around on the mat, and he's such an incredible athlete that he can do whatever he wants despite the size disadvantage. He's going to win his second straight national title, but I just couldn't put him ahead of this last guy.

1. Jason Nolf - Penn State - 157
Nolf is winning the National Title this year. The only thing that stopped him were some incredibly close matches with Isaiah Martinez last year, and this year, he doesn't have to worry about that. In fact, he doesn't have much to worry about at all. There is only one guy he hasn't scored bonus points against this year, and that is the second-ranked Michael Kemerer, but that does not mean that these were close matches. Kemerer lost by more but looked better in their second match, but Nolf is just too good. Even as a Penn State hater, there is no way to not like watching Nolf. There is no question that he will come home with a National Title; the only question is whether he gets bonus points in all of his matches or not. He's that good, and that is why, out of all the number one seeds, there is nobody I am more confident in taking home the title than Jason Nolf.

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