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No. 18 Illinois Wrestling Season Outlook: Illini begin with road trip to Michigan State and Michigan

There’s no conference tougher than Big Ten Wrestling.

NCAA Wrestling: DI Wrestling Championships Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Though wrestling season has technically been on since November, the real team competition portion of the season begins Friday for the No. 18 Fighting Illini.

Illinois will contest a dual meet in The Ultimate Sport tonight at 6 p.m. CT in East Lansing. It will be the first Big Ten dual meet for the Fighting Illini, who will then ride to Ann Arbor for a much stiffer challenge from No. 5 Michigan tomorrow.

Illinois is 1-1 in dual meets so far this year, defeating Northern Illinois and losing to No. 9 Missouri, 30-8, in the Grapple at the Grove, the outdoor wrestling meet at Grange Grove in the hours before the football team hung 55 points on Minnesota.

By the way, regardless of the result, the Grapple at the Grove was awesome and should be held every year and everyone should go.

Murderer’s Row

The media loves to talk about how tough it is to win in SEC football or ACC basketball, but there’s a good argument to be made that there’s no tougher conference in any NCAA Division I sport than Big Ten wrestling. If it were only because of Penn State, who would be the 8-time defending national champions if not for the stars aligning for Ohio State in 2015, that would be enough to back up that argument. However, the league also contains those Buckeyes, who are currently ranked #2, in addition to #3 Iowa and #6 Minnesota. The latter two won the last four national titles before Cael Sanderson led Penn State to an absolute stranglehold on the sport. Iowa is not quite Penn State today, but they won 23 national championships in 35 years between 1975 and 2010.

Those four are national title contenders every year, but the Big Ten also boasts #5 Michigan, #7 Nebraska, #11 Northwestern, #13 Rutgers and #19 Wisconsin to go along with our #18 Fighting Illini. That makes six of the top 10 and ten of the top 20 teams that belong to the Big Ten. Seven of the 10 No. 1 wrestlers in their weight class are in the Big Ten.

Michigan State

The first thing we need to address is that the greatest Illini wrestler of all-time, Isaiah Martinez, has graduated. We may never see his likes again, and he remains an absolute joy to watch.

With that out of the way, here’s the matchups for tonight’s meet:

Not sure where fightingillini.com gets rankings from, but I’m using InterMat.

Junior Piotrowski faces off against by far the best wrestler for Michigan State this year. Rayvon Foley had a very impressive early season, losing only one match to the current #4 wrestler at 125 pounds. Piotrowski will be the underdog in this one.

Sophomore Dylan Duncan will look to keep his path back to the NCAA tournament clear, while classmate Mike Carr should be positioning himself for a run at the Big Ten title. Christian Kanzler was last year’s JUCO national runner-up at 141 lb, but has struggled moving up to 149. Moving up to 157, however, has been a good look for Eric Barone, who was an NCAA qualifier at 149 last year. Iowa transfer Joey Gunther’s wonderful mustache also qualified in 2018. Junior Carver James is a Big Ten starter for the first time in his Illini career at 174. Seniors Lee and Rachal face TBD opponents at 197 and 285.

Emery Parker represents the best chance Illinois has to put a wrestler in the NCAA finals for the seventh straight year. He’s currently No. 2 behind Ohio State’s Myles Martin, who he upset in the Big Ten tournament last season. With defending champ/unstoppable killing machine Bo Nickal moving up to 197, the 184 class is wide open. Parker puts his undefeated record on the line against a red-hot Cam Caffey, who has gone 18-1.

I’d expect Illinois to take at least six of these matches.

Michigan

Piotrowski dropped a 3-2 decision to Mattin in the fifth place match at the Cliff Keen Invite earlier this year, but there’s no reason he can’t even the series. Duncan faces last year’s national runner-up Steven Micic at 133, and at least it can be said that he has the opportunity for a massive upset.

Carr has an intriguing matchup against former Iowa State Cyclone Kanen Storr, who posted a 40-12 record at ISU before a bitter dispute with the coaching staff led to his departure. His sole defeat as a Wolverine came 3-2 at the hands of Mizzou’s Jayden Eierman in the Cliff Keen Invite. Eierman, the current #3, got the best of Carr in a 12-10 decision at Grange Grove. If they change the order of the matches, I would expect this to be the finale; either of these two wrestlers could end up in the Big Ten championship match.

Carver James may face the longest odds of any Illini against Myles Amine, who knocked off two top-5 wrestlers on his way to the 174-pound title at Cliff Keen and whose only loss has been to defending national champ Zahid Valencia. Freshman J.T. Correll is a complete unknown, and Emery Parker should ensure it stays that way.

Regrettably, I will be unable to travel to either of these despite my close proximity to these events.

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