The NCAA Tournament will get underway this morning and the Illinois Fighting Illini will be in action looking to bring home the title. If you've watched any of either basketball season, you'll know that I'm not talking about those contests. I'm talking about the 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Tournament being held in Madison Square Garden. Illinois sent six wrestlers (four of whom are seeded, one at #1) to the tournament. I'll quote liberally from this lovely preview by He Was A High School Quarterback in discussing our boys in Orange and Blue. You should read it for complete run-downs of each of our contenders; they've all worked their tails off to get to this point. The complete brackets can be found here.
133lb | (3) Zane Richards | 23-1
Junior Zane Richards received the # 3 seed and a serious contender for the national title at 133... 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.
Richards will start off in Match 35 this morning against 24-10 Joey Palmer of Oregon State. Defending champion Cody Brewer of Oklahoma is the 4 seed at 21-2, and Big Ten nemesis Cory Clark is the 2 seed. The major threat will come from Cornell's Nashon Garrett, the top seed at 32-0 and the favorite in this weight class. However, Richards wouldn't face Garrett until the finals.
157lb | (1) Isaiah Martinez | 27-1
[Martinez] is looking to defend his national title...I simply can't stress enough what an amazing talent "Imar" is. Even if you don't follow wrestling, you should try to see him wrestle as he is an incredible person and wrestler...This year, he came up against redshirt freshman Jason Nolf of Penn State...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.
This sophomore is a highly aggressive wrestler that likes to rack up points with take downs in the early going. He'll start off against 11-12 Robert Henderson of UNC in match 75 this morning. Though NC State's Thomas Gantt comes in 24-0 as the 2-seed, I'm far from alone in expecting Martinez-Nolf III in the championship match.
165lb | (6) Steven Rodrigues | 25-3
Rodrigues had wrestled at 141lb last year so he made a large jump in weight and was very successful... 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.
The senior will likely have to find a way to beat both Jordans as Isaac (25-0) and Bo (16-2) are the 2 and 3 seeds respectively. Should he accomplish this, he'll almost certainly take on Oklahoma State senior Alex Dieringer, who has won championships at 165 and 157 over the last two years and comes in with a sterling 129-7 career record which includes a 62-0 run at 165 that he's still on after finishing 28-0 this year. To recap: Steven Rodrigues will most likely have to avenge losses to two cousins and then defeat the tournament's most decorated wrestler. He'll start his road to glory in match 102 against 26-9 George Pickett of Cornell.
174lb | (5) Zach Brunson | 20-3
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...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 will await the winner of Match 7 this morning. He has a ways to go before earning the right to challenge Nickal in the semifinals. Should he get past Nickal, he'll likely find Cornell's Brian Realbuto (33-3), the #2 seed, in the championship match.
184lb| Jeff Koepke | 20-8
...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.
The senior definitely has his work cut out for him as he'll kick things off in match 130 against the 4-seeded Dominic Abounader, who is 23-2 on the year. Should he pull a string of upsets, defending champ Gabe Dean from Cornell lurks as the 1 seed.
Heavyweight | Brooks Black | 20-9
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.
Black will face an uphill battle against the 6 seed Denzel Dejournette (31-2) out of Appalachian State in match 166 this morning. Fortunately, he's managed to land in the half of the bracket opposite two-time defending champion Nick Gwiazdowski of NC State.
Other Weight Classes
Illinois does not have entries in the 125, 141, 149 or 197lb weight classes. Defending champion Nathan Tomasello (24-0) from Ohio State is the 1-seed at 125, where the top 4 seeds have separated themselves from the rest of the pack and are expected to all compete in what should be a great semifinal round. The top of the 141 class is strangely devoid of Big Ten wrestlers save for 4-seed Anthony Ashnault (29-3) of Rutgers; Oklahoma State's Dean Heil comes in as the top seed at 27-1. The 149 weight class sets up a potential final between 29-0 Zain Retherford of Penn State and 25-1 Brandon Sorenson of Iowa, the top two seeds in the bracket. At 197, yet another undefeated Penn State wrestler, Morgan McIntosh, is the top seed with the two-spot being held by last year's top seed J'Den Cox (28-1) of Missouri
With entries in only 6 of 10 weight classes, Illinois is highly unlikely to be in the running for the team championship but should still make a strong showing. With three top seeds, Penn State is the heavy favorite in the team competition, but Iowa, Cornell, Oklahoma State and defending champion Ohio State are in position to give them a run for their money.
Watching and Tracking
Round 1 matches will be today at noon Eastern with the second round taking place tonight at 7ET. Quarterfinals will happen tomorrow (Friday) morning with semifinals that night. The championship matches will take place Saturday night. Coverage will be on ESPNU; coverage of all mats will be available on ESPN3. Last year I tracked the matches on TrackWrestling and will likely have to do the same today and tomorrow; @IlliniWrestling on Twitter is another resource to use. Last but not least, I'll be providing results for Illini wrestlers right here at The Champaign Room.