The NCAA tournament is next week, March 17-19, and six Illini wrestlers will compete, including four wrestlers with top six seeds in their weight division.
Coming off his second Big Ten championship, sophomore Isiah Martinez is the # 1 seed at 157#. He is looking to defend his national title that he won last year. I simply can't stress enough what an amazing talent that Imar is. Even if you don't follow wrestling, you should try to see him wrestle as he is an incredible person and wrestler. Last year, he cruised through the season undefeated and was rarely challenged. This year, he came up against redshirt freshman Jason Nolf of Penn State, who is playing Arnold Palmer to Imar's Jack Nicklaus. In their first match, Martinez was pinned by Nolf, but he avenged his only collegiate loss with a double overtime win in the Big Ten Championships. (It should not have gone two overtimes. Martinez took Nolf down earlier in the match and I have watched the replay and I'm still not sure what the refs saw to overturn the takedown) All wrestling fans nationwide are looking forward to watching these guys battle it out over the next few years. (although Imar might bump up to 165 next year)
Junior Zane Richards received the # 3 seed and a serious contender for the national title at 133 #. In a reversal of fortunes from Martinez, Richards lost the Big Ten championship to Cory Clark of Iowa in overtime. Richards had defeated Clark in dual competition earlier in the year. The championship loss was Richards first loss of the year. He has seven wins against wrestlers ranked in the top 15 in the nation so clearly he can compete at the highest levels.
Junior Zach Brunson is the # 5 seed at 174 #. Brunson started this year on fire, racking up pins at an incredible pace. He missed the first half of the Big Ten season with an injury. Since his return, he has wrestled well, but has not been getting as many pins. Two of his three losses on the year came at the hands of #1 seed Bo Nickal of Penn State, including a loss in the Big Ten championship match. Brunson is currently 9th on Illinois all time single season pins list, despite missing a chunk of the season due to his injury. Brunson is obviously a threat to place high at the NCAAs, but he will have to solve Bo Nickal if he wants to win it all.
Senior Steven Rodrigues comes in at the # 6 seed at 165#. Rodrigues had wrestled at 141 # last year so he made a large jump in weight and was very successful ending the year with a 24-3 record. All three losses were at the hands of the Jordan cousins. He lost to Bo Jordan of Ohio State in dual competition and again the Big Ten semi finals and he lost to Big Ten Champion Isaac Jordan of Wisconsin in dual competition. Rodrigues wrestled back for a third place finish in the Big Ten championship and has beaten several ranked opponents this year.
Senior Jeff Koepke was unseeded in the NCAA tournament at 184 # after a sixth place finish at the Big Tens. He has an unfortunate draw as his opening match will be against Dom Abounader of Michigan who he is 0-2 against this year.
Sophomore Brooks Black rounds out Illinois participation in the NCAA tournament as an unseeded heavyweight. Brooks took fifth in the Big Ten tournament. To achieve that fifth place finish, Brooks had three wins over ranked opponents and is looking very strong late in the year.
The NCAA tournament will be broadcast live on ESNPU and ESPN3.