Men’s and women’s basketball aren’t the only NCAA tournaments being contested by Fighting Illini this week.
The #23-ranked Fighting Illini wrestling team will have entries at five of the 10 weight classes in the NCAA Championships that start on Thursday and wrap up Saturday night.
Despite a disappointing 10th-place finish at the Big Ten Wrestling Championships the first weekend of March, Illinois qualified one more wrestler for NCAA’s than they did last year.
Qualifying for NCAA Championships
Qualifying for the NCAA championships is determined almost entirely by how well you do in your conference tournament. The NCAA allocates a certain amount of automatic bids per weight class per conference based on how well each conference’s wrestlers have done at that weight class. If a wrestler satisfies 2 of 3 performance criteria, he will earn the conference an automatic bid. However, those automatic bids are all up for grabs at the conference tournament.
The Big Ten received 88 automatic bids out of a total of 285. This is because the Big Ten has a stranglehold on collegiate wrestling that’s hard to grasp. For a more detailed explanation of the qualifying procedure and how it shows the dominance of Big Ten wrestling, see below.
After the conference tournaments, 45 at-large bids were given to select wrestlers who did not secure one of their conference’s automatic bids. No Illini wrestler received an at-large bid.
Illini Results at Big Ten Championships
Illinois came into the tournament ranked #16 in the AP poll with seven nationally ranked wrestlers, all of whom were seeded such that if their finishing place matched their seed they would have all qualified.
Unfortunately, the early rounds were a bloodbath for the Illini with only three wrestlers surviving the opening round. Zac Braunagel was the only Illini to make the semifinals.
The Illini would have to do some work in the loser’s brackets to make up ground. Seventh-year senior Mike Carr, who qualified for NCAA’s at 141lb in 2018 and 2019, wrestled a limited schedule this year but was given one last chance to get back to NCAA’s at 157lb. He ended his career going 0-2 at B1Gs, losing to two lower seeds.
A much more shocking result was Danny Pucino, who had a breakout sophomore year at 141lb and was at one point ranked as high as 8th in the country at his weight class. After losing as the 6 seed to Wisconsin’s Joe Zargo he was defeated 4-1 by Maryland’s Kal Miller, the lowest seed in his bracket, in the consolation round. Still alive for a 9th place finish that would grant an NCAA tournament berth, he lost to Miller again in an 8-5 decision. Pucino had been the 6 seed and came into the tournament ranked in the top 25, and so it was a disappointing 0-3 end to his otherwise stellar sophomore campaign.
At 184lb, Dylan Connell lost in overtime against Rutgers’ Brian Soldano in his first round match and then forfeited his first consolation match due to an injury. He recovered in time to win two matches in 8-0 and 6-0 decisions, winning ninth place and the final NCAA tournament berth at his weight class. The redshirt freshman has spent most of the conference season hovering around 25th in his class and his career is off to a promising start.
Redshirt junior Danny Braunagel lost his first match at 165lb to the 9 seed, but pinned Michigan State’s Caleb Fish in the consolation round to earn Illinois some bonus team points. He lost his next two in close decisions but this was enough for 8th place. Like Connell, he managed to sneak into NCAA’s by grabbing the final automatic bid.
Edmond Ruth racked up over 20 wins at 174lb in his first season at Illinois after transferring from Lehigh, which was enough to earn the 5th seed in the conference tournament. Unfortunately, he could not avenge his dual-meet loss to Minnesota’s Bailee O’Reilly in the second round, losing 4-2. He went 2-2 in the consolation round to finish 6th, qualifying for NCAA’s.
Zac Braunagel made it the farthest of any Illini in the championship bracket, losing a 4-3 heartbreaker to eventual champion Silas Allred of Nebraska. He lost to Maryland’s Jaxon Smith (regular Jaxon Smith, not Jaxon Smith-Njigba) in overtime in the 3rd place match, but his 4th place finish at 197 bodes well for his NCAA outlook.
Lucas Byrd scored the most team points for the Illini with a fall, a major decision and four other victories. After losing in the second round to Minnesota’s Aaron Nagao, Byrd plowed through the consolation bracket culminating in a 3-1 overtime victory over Northwestern’s Chris Cannon in the 3rd place match for the 133lb weight class.
Overall, the Illini finished 10th, just half a point behind a Purdue team they convincingly overpowered in their dual meet. Illinois finished behind two teams they defeated in duals (including Wisconsin) and one team in Northwestern to whom they lost on tiebreakers. They did however improve their place by 1 from last year while improving their team score by 12 points from 34.5 to 46.5.
After the aberration that was Michigan’s B1G title last year, things returned to normal with Penn State and Iowa way out in front of the field this year. Penn State took the title with 147 points, while Nebraska managed a surprising 3rd in what’s been a very good year for the Huskers.
NCAA Championships Preview
While Illinois is not in contention for even a top-20 team score by virtue of only having five qualified wrestlers, a major point of pride is at stake. Illinois has had at least one All-American for 30 consecutive seasons. This is the single result I will be most fixated on.
Connell got the lowest seed of the Illini and as the 23 seed he will face 10 seed Travis Wittlake of Oklahoma State in the first round. Oklahoma State likes to keep matches low scoring and rack up riding time, and this conservative approach might let Connell hang around long enough to get a takedown at the end to win the match. While Wittlake boasts a 19-5 record, he’s not in the gauntlet that is Big Ten wrestling. Connell is 1-6 against common opponents to Wittlake’s 3-4. There’s some first round upset potential here for our man, but his likely second round opponent Hunter Bolen is 18-6 against common opponents (to his 5-10) and would be a much tougher matchup.
Danny Braunagel is the 19 seed at 165lb and his first round opponent is West Virginia’s Peyton Hall, who he defeated 7-6 at the end of December. They have identical 12-8 records against common opponents all time. Hall has the far superior record, but did not participate in his conference tournament (the Big 12 got eight 165lb allocations, and if he wasn’t 100% he might have been guaranteed a place and opted to preserve his health). Braunagel could absolutely win this one, but Wisconsin’s Dean Hamiti would await him. In three matches against Hamiti, he’s lost 15-0, 11-1 and 10-0.
At 197lb, Zac Braunagel will wrestle Virginia Tech’s Andy Smith as the 12 seed and could be on upset alert. They have similar results against common opponents and the same number of losses but Braunagel has notched more wins while competing in a tougher conference. The upper seeds of this weight class are littered with wrestlers who boast fantastic records but haven’t been tested by a lot of quality opponents. This is true of the 5 seed Michael Beard and 4 seed Ethan Laird. The top seed is Pitt’s Nino Bonaccorsi, who needed overtime to defeat Zac. This bracket seems primed for a lot of upsets and our boy from Belleville could absolutely make a run at All-American status here.
The winningest Illini at 28-4, Byrd was assigned the 10 seed at 133lb. If he avoids a stumble against Air Force’s Cody Phippen, he’s likely to face Michael Colaiocco of Penn for a second time this season. Byrd scored 11 points in the third period of their December bout only to come up short 15-13 in what was nevertheless the craziest match any Illini was involved in this year. (As a side note, Colaiocco’s opponent is Kurtis Phipps. Hopefully Phipps can wrestle Phippen in the consolation round). Byrd knocked off Colaiocco in last year’s NCAA consolation bracket and those are the two times these wrestlers have met. Byrd has a better common opponent record and I think he can absolutely get through to round 3. Unfortunately, the 133lb bracket is all about 2-time defending champ Roman Bravo-Young and Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, who has wrestled in the championship match three times but never won. Bravo-Young defeated him in the finals each of the last two years and each enters with an undefeated record. Fix is the 2 seed and I have a hard time seeing Byrd derailing his date with destiny.
Ruth got the highest seed of any Illini with the 9 seed at 174lb, where he’ll face Phillip Conigliaro of Harvard. In their common-opponents matchup for this year only, Ruth is 4-0 while Conigliaro is 2-2. Awaiting Ruth in round 2 is likely to be the 8 seed, his nemesis Bailee O’Reilly. They’re similar calibers of wrestler, but Ruth has lost both matchups by two points. If he can overcome this thorn in his side he’ll get a shot at undefeated #1 seed Carter Starocci of Penn State on Friday morning in the quarterfinals. Win that match and become a legend.
Overall, I think Zac Braunagel has the best chance to keep the All-American streak going. Byrd and Ruth could get there but will have to do a lot of winning in the consolation bracket because they would both face oppressively strong opponents in the quarterfinals. All five of these wrestlers return next year.