NCAA Wrestling Preview, Part 1: Breaking Down Penn State's Battle With Ohio State

By Rob Dougherty on March 13, 2018 at 11:30 am
Penn State vs. Ohio State will determine the National Title in March.

Mike Carter - USA Today Sports

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The time is here for the NCAA Tournament and Penn State will look to add its seventh championship under Cael Sanderson. Make no mistake about it: This is a two horse race, with Ohio State and Penn State ahead of the rest of the field.

Penn State beat Ohio State earlier this season in a thrilling 19-18 dual. Ohio State followed that up with its second consecutive Big Ten Tournament victory. Of course, the results of the dual and the Big Ten Tournament won't matter once the NCAA Tournament gets started on March 15.

Penn State is the two-time defending champion, yet the rankings have had them as a slight underdog to Ohio State since the Cliff Keen Invitational in December. If all wrestlers wrestled to seed and there were no bonus points, Ohio State would likely win. The Buckeyes have a talented roster and very well could produce the toughest challenge to any of Sanderson's prior national champions. 

Let's break these two down class by class to determine how they stack up with one another. Before this is done though, it's important to do a brief refresher on the NCAA Tournament scoring rubric: 

ncaa tournament scoring

Here are the placement points a team gets for the top eight places at the NCAA Tournament: 

  • 1st place - 16 points
  • 2nd place - 12 points
  • 3rd place - 10 points
  • 4th place - 9 points
  • 5th place - 7 points
  • 6th place - 6 points
  • 7th place - 4 points 
  • 8th place - 3 points

This is pretty straightforward, the higher a wrestler places, the more placement points they get. Now, let's get to the more complicated part of the scoring, with advancement points and bonus points. To make this easier, I have separated this into two categories, championship bracket and consolation bracket: 

Championship v. Consolation Bracket Scoring
Advancement Point - Win in Championship Bracket 1
Bye followed by Win in Championship Bracket 1
Advancement Point - Win in Consolation Bracket .5
Bye followed by Win in Consolation Bracket .5
Win by Fall, DQ, Forfeit or Default 2
Win by Tech Fall with Near Fall Points 1.5
Win by Tech Fall without Near Fall Points 1
Win by Major Decision 1

This is where you can see why Penn State has been so dominant in the NCAA Tournament under Sanderson. The bonus points that his teams rack up provide his team a significant edge, especially considering how well his most elite performers wrestle.

For instance, last year at NCAAs, Zain Retherford scored 28 points just on his own (16 placement points, 4 advancement points, 6 points for technical falls with near fall points, and 2 points for a fall). Jason Nolf scored 27 points on his own (16 placement points, 4 advancement points, 3 points for technical falls with near falls, 2 points for major decision wins, and 2 points for a fall). 

Ohio State had 110 points as a team last season, Retherford and Nolf themselves had 55 points. That's what makes Sanderson's teams special ± the best pile it on and give the team the points they need to separate themselves from the pack. It becomes a lot easier for the rest of your lineup when the top three or four are likely to snag nearly 100 points between them. 

ohio state vs. penn state projection for nationals - 125 pounds through 157 pounds

Penn State has five returning national champions, and so conventional wisdom would surmise that of course they are the favorite. Last season, Penn State was second in the nation for much of the season behind Oklahoma State, a team that was very good top to bottom, but lacked the big point potential that Penn State did. The Cowboys ended up finishing third at Nationals.

However, this Ohio State team is not like last year's Oklahoma State team, as they pack a more significant punch and have multiple wrestlers who can become NCAA champions. An NCAA champion is an automatic 20 points on the board, and that kind of firepower has to be respected. Let's break this down class by class: 

125 pounds - No. 2 Nathan Tomasello, no PSU qualifier

Devin Schnupp and Carson Kuhn tried their hardest this year, but Penn State was unable to get a qualifier at this weight. The Buckeyes pack a considerable edge here in Tomasello, who has finished first, third, and third in his three NCAA Tournament appearances. He's also a four-time Big Ten champion. 

However, this is the weight class that Penn State fans may be keeping their close eye on considering the surplus of talent at this weight. 125 pounds may very well be the deepest class in the country, and there are a few wrestlers who will miss the opportunity to be an All-American this season.

All of these guys have an opportunity to pull out a deep run at the NCAA Tournament: Nick Suriano (Rutgers), Darian Cruz (Lehigh), Ethan Lizak (Minnesota), Nick Piccininni (Oklahoma State), Sean Fausz (North Carolina State), Ronnie Bresser (Oregon State), Taylor Lamont (Utah Valley), Sean Russell (Edinboro), Sebastian Rivera (Northwestern), and Pennsylvania native Spencer Lee (Iowa). 

Tomasello is the two-seed and has a semifinal match with Lee staring him down. This weight class is going to be a battle. Tomasello has not been a big bonus point candidate at nationals, and this weight class will likely make that a very difficult task. A quarterfinal match against No. 7 Taylor Lamont or No. 10 Sebastian Rivera is also a not very comfortable matchup, even if Tomasello would be favored against either.

Suriano and Cruz could easily battle it out for the top side, but Suriano is rumored to be injured and there are questions about whether Cruz can beat Tomasello. Despite a tricky path, Tomasello appears to be the favorite at 125. 

  • Prediction - Nathan Tomasello finishes 1st and scores 22 points in the process. 

133 pounds - Corey Keener vs. No. 3 Luke Pletcher

Keener has been up and down for most of this season. His performance at the Scuffle was disappointing, especially considering what happened to the field around him. He needed to win his seventh place match at the Big Ten Tournament to even guarantee his spot at Nationals.

Keener does not have a tremendous history of performances in the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Keener went 1-2 and lost in the first round of the championship side. Can Keener make a run to the blood round or pull off an upset along the way?

That kind of question cannot be answered at this time, but Penn State would certainly welcome any contribution he can provide in March. Keener's opening round match is against No. 11 Dom Forys (Pittsburgh), a man he's 0-2 against. Those matches have not been particularly close. An upset there and No. 6 Scott Parker (Lehigh) is his likely second round opponent. If Keener loses to Forys and wins his opening match in the wrestlebacks, a matchup with either No. 5 John Erneste (Missouri) or No. 12 Josh Terao (American) is looming. This is not an easy road for Keener, who didn't get a great draw at all. 

This weight class provides another advantage for Ohio State, but the question is how much of an advantage? Pletcher is the better wrestler of the two, and has had the better performances thus far this season. Pletcher has wins over No. 2 Stevan Micic (Michigan) and Terao. Last season, Pletcher fell in the consolation bracket two rounds before the round of 12, and was up a weight at 141 pounds.

However, Pletcher is not a big bonus point wrestler, as he's only bonused in four of his 28 matches this season. Also, despite beating Micic, he's since lost to Micic twice and finds himself in a fairly difficult quad. A potential second round match with Scott Delvecchio (Rutgers) and a quarterfinal match with either Forys or Parker do not offer a stress-free path to a semifinal rematch with Micic. 

  • Prediction - Corey Keener goes 1-2 again with one win in the consolation round to score .5 points. Luke Pletcher finishes fifth and scores 10 team points. Ohio State 32, Penn State .5. 

141 pounds - No. 8 Nick Lee vs. No. 4 Joey McKenna 

This weight class is one of the more intriguing ones between both sides. Both teams have a lot of potential here. Lee has had a fascinating freshman campaign, one that saw him pin No. 9 Josh Alber (Northern Iowa) after using a double overhook, inside trip.

That said, it's pretty clear that Lee can bonus point NCAA qualifiers, and his relentless pace could be devastating in the consolation round for a few wrestlers who are looking to call it quits. Lee wrestles like his solution to the ever-confusing stall rules in the NCAA is just to push forward relentlessly so referees can never make that call.

Lee has a first round matchup with Ryan Diehl (Maryland), and Lee has beaten him twice this season, both times by major decision. In the second round is the aforementioned Alber, who Lee has already beaten. Granted, a quarterfinal matchup with No. 1 Bryce Meredith (Wyoming) is likely not a particularly ideal matchup for Lee. The wrestlebacks offer some promise that Lee can wrestle to seed though, especially if he makes it to the quarterfinals. 

McKenna is the experienced veteran and a former third place finisher at the NCAA Tournament. However, McKenna lost in the blood round last year and he's been working hard to return to the top of the food chain. He's been on a great run that has seen him beat Lee, and No. 5 Kevin Jack (North Carolina State) in the last month of the season, and he won the Big Ten title.

McKenna has every reason to believe he's going to get to the semifinals, considering in his path are fairly beatable wrestlers. He gets Alex Madrigal (Old Dominion), and No. 13 Luke Karam (Lehigh) before a potential rematch with Jack. That's not exactly murderer's row, at least until he gets to Jack. Meredith will be a tough matchup but McKenna is in a real position to get another high placement finish in the NCAA Tournament. 

  • Prediction - Nick Lee finishes in 7th and scores 8.5 team points (4 for 7th, 3.5 for advancement, 1 major decision), and Joey McKenna finishes in 4th and scores 13.5 team points (9 for 4th, 3.5 for advancement, 1 major decision). Ohio State 45.5, Penn State 9.

149 pounds - No. 1 Zain Retherford vs. No. 5 Ke-Shawn Hayes

If Penn State didn't have the best wrestler at 149 pounds, Hayes would be a significant concern for the Nittany Lions. However, Zain Retherford is here and he's looking to capture his third consecutive national championship. He currently holds the school record for consecutive wins, which stands at 89. He's also two pins away from setting the school record for most pins.

Retherford just won his third straight Big Ten title, albeit less flashy than usual, as he managed two major decisions and a 2-0 win in the final against No. 2 Brandon Sorensen. Retherford's first round match is with Kyle Springer (Eastern Michigan) and his second round match is likely to be against No. 16 Alfred Bannister (Maryland). Retherford has pinned both of them before. No. 8 Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State) is at least an intriguing test since Retherford hasn't faced him, but it's tough to imagine Lewallen getting close. A semifinal match with Hayes is possible and a final showdown with Sorensen seems inevitable. 

Hayes is a legitimately very talented wrestler, but he's not Zain Retherford. To be fair, that is completely acceptable. Hayes would probably be talked about as a sleeper finalist candidate if he found himself on Sorensen's side of the bracket. Hayes has won 16 of his 26 matches by bonus, and he's been getting better all season. After a strange loss against Eleazer Deluca (Rutgers) where he was thrown to his back twice in the third and gave up a huge lead, Hayes has been pretty solid.

A first round match with Malik Amine (Michigan) should not give Hayes much problem, and the same goes for No. 12 Ryan Blees (Virginia Tech). However, a quarterfinal date with No. 4 Troy Heilmann (North Carolina), who Hayes lost to back in December, will be fascinating. A loss there and Hayes should still be ok to place, but it would likely put a dent into Ohio State's chances. This bracket seems like it will be chaotic, because after Retherford and Sorensen, there isn't a significant gap between many of these guys. Don't be surprised to see something funky here before it's over. 

  • Prediction - Zain Retherford finishes in first and scores 26.5 team points (16 for 1st, 4 for advancement, 6.5 in bonus points), Ke-Shawn Hayes finishes in sixth and scores 10 team points (6 for 6th, 3 advancement, 1 in bonus). Ohio State 55.5, Penn State 35.5. 

157 pounds - No. 3 Jason Nolf vs. No. 7 Micah Jordan

After two victories and a medical forfeit for a sixth place finish in the Big Ten Tournament, Jason Nolf is looking to win his second consecutive national title. He will have to do so from the three-seed, as No. 2 Joey Lavallee (Missouri), who Nolf beat in last year's final, managed to snag the two despite not beating anyone seeded in the top eight this season.

Nolf wrestled with a fairly prominent knee brace and did not look as free flowing as he did before the injury. If Nolf is going to win, it probably won't be the way we are accustomed to seeing him win. Even still, he managed to beat qualifier Jake Short (Minnesota) 15-2 with his top game. Nolf has a fairly tricky road to repeat though. Colin Heffernan (Central Michigan) is a solid first round opponent, and No. 14 Andrew Crone (Wisconsin) is not an easy task.

Get through those guys and No. 6 Michael Kemerer (Iowa) waits in the quarters. Kemerer has been dogged by knee injuries as well, but it's pretty insane that last year's one and two seed could meet in the quarters this year. Nolf is a unicorn and will expect to get far, the main concern for Penn State will be his health and can he grind out as many wins as possible. It would seem foolish to bet against him. 

Jordan has had a fairly interesting season. He picked up a fall over Kemerer at the Big Ten Tournament despite losing a not very close 8-4 decision to him earlier in the season. Jordan was unable to beat No. 5 Alec Pantaleo (Michigan) in either meeting this year either, and he lost to No. 1 Hayden Hidlay (North Carolina State). Jordan has prominent issues from the bottom position, and it led to him getting ridden hard by Retherford last year. Nolf's top game would almost assuredly be a ton to handle for Micah, but will they actually meet?

Luke Weiland (Army) should not be the toughest test and No. 10 Markus Scheidel (Columbia) is a real gamer, but not the most prolific scorer. Scheidel could make things interesting but I'd expect Jordan to come through. A quarterfinal match with Lavallee should get a significant amount of interest. Lavallee is a great scrambler, which could be problematic for Jordan and he just keeps finding ways to win. Maybe Lavallee's easier schedule has allowed that to happen, but he could give Jordan a heck of a time. If Jordan were to fall to Lavallee, he could have a fairly difficult bloodround match depending what happens. 

  • Prediction - Jason Nolf battles his knee injury and manages to finish in first, and collects 22 team points (16 for 1st, 4 advancement, 2 bonus points). Micah Jordan finishes in seventh, and collects 7.5 team points (4 for 7th, 2.5 advancement, 1 bonus point). Ohio State 63, Penn State 55.5. 

My projection has Ohio State with a narrow 8.5 point lead as we advance in weight classes, but Ohio State is lurking with two number one seeds and a number two seed.

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