Now that we know that Penn State’s wrestling team is human, the outlook for this weekend’s NCAA Championships has shifted from how many points will the Nittany Lions win by to how can they hold off Oklahoma State and Ohio State and prevent a repeat of the disappointing Big Ten Championships.
Even with the second place finish at the conference championships two weeks ago, this is still the same team that was 14-0 in duals and beat every opponent by at least 13 points. Additionally, as the reigning national champion, it remains the team to beat.
However, the path to Cael Sanderson’s sixth title in seven years will be a bit more interesting than most had predicted after Penn State obliterated Oklahoma State in the NWCA Dual Championship on February 19.
Nick Suriano Has To Be Fully Ready To Go
Update, 2:13 p.m. March 15: Penn State wrestling announced on Twitter that Suriano will not compete at this year’s NCAA Championships.
At Monday’s media availability, Sanderson said that Suriano will compete this weekend. That’s the same answer he gave prior to the Big Ten Tournament, which the stud freshman injury defaulted through. Granted, this weekend has much higher stakes for both the team and Suriano, so he will likely take the mat at all costs, but the question will be how strong he’ll be after almost a month off.
Perhaps he’ll be well-rested, but if he’s still recovering from the ankle injury he sustained against Oklahoma State and not 100%, he won’t be as dangerous at 125 as he was in the dual season.
The good news for Penn State is the opponents from Suriano’s toughest two matches — Iowa’s Thomas Gilman and Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccinini — are on the opposite side of the bracket, so he should have a relatively easier path to the finals.
A Suriano vs. Piccinini final is one of many potential title bouts that could determine the national team champion.
Any Final At 133 Other Than Nathan Tomasello vs. Kaid Brock
133 pounds is where the Cowboys and Buckeyes have the biggest opportunity to gain ground on the Nittany Lions with Penn State not qualifying a wrestler in the weight class. Ohio State’s Tomasello and Oklahoma State’s Brock — who are a combined 44-2 — are the one and three seeds, respectively. Penn State fans should be rooting for guys like South Dakota State’s Seth Gross and Michigan’s Stevan Micic to have strong tournaments and advance to the finals.
Tomasello and Brock will inevitably score points for their respective teams and at least one most likely will qualify for the finals. But if both advance that far, the Nittany Lions will not win the title.
Jimmy Gulibon Must Be At His Best
This weekend is Gulibon’s last chance to make a splash in college wrestling and throughout his up and down career, he has shown signs of being one of the best wrestlers at his weight class. After a great finish to the regular season, he struggled in the Big Ten Championships and finished seventh — barely qualifying for the national tournament.
Although the senior is entering unseeded, if the Jimmy Gulibon who won his last six of the dual season shows up to the Scottrade Center this weekend, he’ll face Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil — the top seed who he was a controversial call away from upsetting in the NWCA National Dual Championship on two different occasions — in the semifinals. Penn State will be tough to beat if Gulibon’s wrestling at his best and scoring points.
Zain Retherford Has To Hold Off Anthony Collica
Before the Big Ten Championships, Retherford appeared to be the least invincible member of Penn State’s “Big Three” after a pair of narrowly won matches against Iowa’s Brandon Sorensen and Oklahoma State’s Collica. The redshirt junior and reigning national champ, however, rattled off one of the best conference tournament performances of all time — racking up three pins to get to the final and taking down Micah Jordan tech fall to claim his second-straight Big Ten title.
Coming off a Big Ten Championships Most Outstanding Wrestler performance, Retherford is primed to win his second meeting with Collica more comfortably as opposed to scraping by without scoring a takedown. This potential championship bout does, however, remain one to keep an eye on considering how much Collica challenged him.
It Can’t Be One Of Those Days For Myles Martin
Ohio State’s 184-pound Big Ten Champion has handed Bo Nickal two of his three collegiate losses. The two have faced a total of six times with Nickal winning four of them. Martin can rise to the occasion in the moment at times and has shown he matches up nicely with Nickal so this potential semifinal matchup could be costly for the Nittany Lions.
Although his win over the Penn State sophomore at the conference championships may have proved that his win in the NCAA Championship finals a year ago was not a fluke, Nickal remains the superior wrestler and favorite to take on Cornell’s Gabe Dean for the NCAA title.
Don’t Forget About Iowa
While the Buckeyes remain the biggest threats to the Nittany Lions’ championships hopes, Iowa could quietly challenge all three teams with a few nice runs in the tournament. Still a lot needs to go right for the Hawkeyes to make noise in the tournament but they remain a threat.
It appears all the planets will need to align for this, but Iowa will be dangerous if Gilman wins at 125, Cory Clark makes the finals at 133, Soresen upsets Retherford after losing in sudden victory during a national finals rematch this dual season, Michael Kemerer makes it to the finals at 157, and Big Ten-champ Sammy Brooks places in the top four at 184.
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