One of the most anticipated matches of the season is nearly here.
Before the season, the 141-pound weight class was very difficult to preview with a number of guys having a chance to win the title. The preseason-No. 1 wrestler was Dom Demas (Oklahoma), mainly because he beat Nick Lee in the consolation semifinals at last season's NCAA Tournament. Current-No. 1 Luke Pletcher was a two-time All-American at 133 pounds, and it was not revealed until Ohio State's wrestle-off that Pletcher would compete at 141 pounds this season.
Pletcher announced his arrival at the new weight early in the year, beating Demas in a 2-1 decision in TB-2. He has held onto the No. 1 ranking ever since. At 133 pounds, Pletcher was not much of a bonus point scorer, but he has significantly upped his game in that area as a senior.
No. 2 Nick Lee entered the season as a favorite to contend for the national title, but he had yet to separate himself from the field. As the season has gone on, that has started to happen. Lee has posted a 93% bonus rate in 16 matches. In his last three matches, he's faced three top-eight opponents and won by major decision, technical fall, and fall.
How does the potential match between these two breakdown? First, even though transitive property is not necessarily the best way to analyze two wrestlers, let's look at their records this season and how they fared against common opponents:
|Nick Lee||Luke Pletcher|
|Vs. No. 4 Mitch McKee (Minnesota)||Fall (1:56)||Dec. 12-6|
|Vs. No. 7 Tristan Moran (Wisconsin)||Maj. Dec. 14-1||Maj. Dec. 11-3|
|Vs. No. 8 Chad Red (Nebraska)||Maj. Dec. 9-1||Maj. Dec. 10-1|
|Vs. No. 14 Dylan Duncan (Illinois)||Maj. Dec. 13-5||Dec. 12-5|
|Vs. Jojo Aragona (Rutgers)||TF 19-4||Maj. Dec. 13-5|
|Vs. Alec McKenna (Northwestern)||TF 20-5||Maj. Dec. 13-4|
|Vs. Hunter Baxter (Maryland)||TF 16-0||Fall (1:57)|
Despite Pletcher winning many of these matches by a comfortable margin, Lee has had a slight edge against him in common opponents. Pletcher has been no slouch, as he has five bonus point wins in these seven matches. However, Lee has been better against the competition. What has made him so effective this season?
For one, Lee is not only doing a great job controlling the center of the mat, but he's also so efficient now finishing his takedowns when he gets in deep. Lee is stronger and more explosive, and he's been able to finish opponents off more quickly. Here's a quick double leg against Tristan Moran:
Here he is with a head outside single against Chad Red:
Here is another shot to Chad Red's left that Lee instantly scores on:
Lee is also more patient, and while he's constantly attacking and looking for angles, he is comfortable taking what comes to him. Here he is against Chad Red, who lunges for a low single before Lee easily finishes the major clinching takedown:
Lee's defense has also improved a lot since his early days at Penn State. He would over-extend himself, creating openings for opponents. Those holes are not as obvious now. Here's a good series of defense from Lee where he defends Moran's deep single leg attempt. Lee is able to flatten out Moran and turn it into his own points:
Lee may have been able to defend these types of moves earlier in his career, but he's so much more consistent, and it shows throughout his matches. His top game has been elite too. Here is a third period rideout from Lee against Moran where he gets a four-point tilt and forces a stall point:
Here he counters a headlock and near six-point takedown from Mitch McKee, and turning it into a takedown and cradle:
What has made Pletcher such a good wrestler throughout his college career is his defense and counter wrestling. That has not been his exclusive calling card this season. He has a high motor, and is very strong for a 141-pounder. He has been very efficient finishing his deep shots this season. Here he is against Mitch McKee finishing a takedown:
Pletcher is very similar to Lee in terms of how relentlessly he controls the center of the mat. Whoever establishes that territorial dominance is probably going to win. Here he is against Chad Red, when he stalks Red to the edge of the mat and gets a takedown:
Despite Pletcher having a smaller stature at 141 pounds, his defense has not suffered. If anything, it's giving his opponents less to aim at, and Pletcher's strength and agility give him good opportunities to counter. Here he is defending a low single attempt and countering it into two points of his own.
It will be a fascinating tactical battle, and one that we should almost certainly see again in the postseason. Both guys have differences in how they wrestle, but in terms of controlling the center of the mat and finishing efficiently, Pletcher and Lee have been very successful in their own ways. This match is ultimately going to come down to who can control the center and who can finish their chances.