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Illinois Fighting Illini: 2018 NCAA Tournament Preview and Predictions

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The Fighting Illini wrestling team heads to Cleveland for the NCAA Championships this week

NCAA Wrestling: Big Ten Wrestling Championship Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball season has come and gone in a horrific barrage of uncontested dunks. The NCAA tournament bracket is loaded with former Illini coaches, would-be program saviors that we couldn’t close the deal on or missed entirely, and full-on enemies of the state. Personally, these factors make it hard for me to care about the NCAA basketball tournament.

If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck!

Another NCAA championship starts this weekend and it DOES involve Illinois! On Thursday, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships will commence in Cleveland, and you should tune in! Illinois has wrestlers in five of the ten weight classes, and while this almost certainly puts them out of contention for the team title, there are still some things Illini fans need to watch for.

Schedule and TV Info

There are six sessions which are as follows:
Session 1: Thursday 3/15 at 11AM Central Time: ESPNU
Session 2: Thursday 3/15 at 6PM: ESPNU
Session 3: Friday 3/16 at 10AM: ESPNU
Session 4 (Championship Semifinals): Friday 3/16 at 7PM: ESPN
Session 5: Saturday 3/17 at 10AM: ESPNU
Session 6 (Championship Finals): Saturday 3/17 at 7PM: ESPN2

The brackets can be found here.

Illinois Qualifiers

125 lb: Travis Piotrowski, Sophomore (17-8)
133 lb: Dylan Duncan, Freshman (20-7, ranked #19 on InterMat)
141 lb: Mike Carr, RS Freshman (17-5, #7)
165 lb: Isaiah Martinez, RS Senior (14-0, #1)
184 lb: Emery Parker, RS Sophomore (21-3, #8)

Preview and Predictions

Travis Piotrowski represents the Illini in the 125 lb slot once occupied by two-time national champ Jesse Delgado. He qualified for the tournament last year as a true freshman, losing by technical fall in the opening round. Piotrowski is again unseeded and faces an even tougher opponent in this year’s opening round in the #6 seeded Nick Piccininni (22-3) from Oklahoma State. If he managed to win the opening round, it would be a big upset.

True freshman Dylan Duncan made a surprising run to third place at the Big Ten Tournament, going 5-1 over the course of the weekend. He’s come on strong over the late part of the year but like Piotrowski he faces a very unfavorable matchup against an Oklahoma State Cowboy, #4 seed Kaid Brock (25-3).

Mike Carr posted a stellar record at the 141lb weight class and upset Iowa’s Nick Lee on his way to the Big Ten Championship Match, where he lost to national #4 Joey McKenna of Ohio State. This was enough to earn him the #11 seed in the NCAA championship bracket, earning him a favorable opening-round matchup. Unfortunately, two-time defending national champion Dean Heil of Oklahoma State is the #6 seed and will most likely face Carr in the second round. While Heil has proven more vulnerable this year by losing five matches, that only proves how deep the 141 lb class is this year with #1 seed Bryce Meredith also coming out of the Big 12. Carr has a chance to make a huge impact in a stacked field.

I’ve spoken at length about how great Isaiah Martinez has been in his career, but in case you need a reminder, the greatest wrestler in Fighting Illini history is 14-0 in his senior year after avenging last year’s national finals loss to Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph by defeating him in the Big Ten championships to claim his fourth conference title. As the top seed, his toughest matchups on his side of the bracket would be Alex Marinelli of Iowa and Rider’s Chad Walsh. The other side of the bracket will be compelling as well, with Joseph the #3 seed and undefeated David McFadden of Virginia Tech as the #2 seed. You should expect to see Isaiah Martinez in the finals on Saturday night, and you owe it to yourself to see a legend in action.

Emery Parker qualified for his second trip to the NCAA championships, building on last year’s 30-win season to place fifth in the Big Ten tournament and earn the #10 seed in the national championship bracket. If he avenges the 2005 NCAA basketball championship game for us by defeating UNC’s Chip Ness, he has a good shot to knock off the #7 seed Taylor Venz from Nebraska. After that, he’d likely have to knock off the #2 seed Myles Martin of Ohio State to advance to the semifinals. HOWEVER, last year he did just that in the NCAA championships. If Parker can find his way to the finals, he will almost certainly face turbocharged murder machine Bo Nickal of Penn State, the defending national champion with an 85-3 overall record who’s 26-0 this year.

The Champaign Room will keep you updated on how our boys are doing in March Madness, so keep it right here!