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The Meat Grinder: The Big Ten Wrestling Championship Preview

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Maryland faces their first trip to the daunting Big Tens. The goal...Survive!

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Tens, Where Only the Strong Survive

Maryland got embarrassed more than once this year in their inaugural season in the Big Ten. To say that Maryland had a few bad matches this season is like saying that a filet mignon is just a steak. It's like saying the Grand Canyon is long and wide. Maryland fans might remember this season more fondly years from now but they are probably glad that the dual season is finally over. Head Coach Kerry McCoy said that nothing can make the regular season disappear but post-season success can help ease the pain. Now the real excitement begins, the postseason!

It's Automatic!

Here's a look at the amount of automatic qualifiers broken down by conference and weight class. See if you can notice the difference between the Big Ten and everyone else.

The Big Ten will give out 86 of the 330 spots (10 weight classes and there are 33 wrestlers per weight class) available for the NCAA Tournament. That is more than twice the amount of the next biggest conference, the EIWA. For more information on how the rest of the bracket will get filled out, click the link here.

Houston, We Have A Problem

The Terps face a very tough road. Only one wrestler is ranked going into the tournament and only one has a record of .500 or better. Both of those distinctions belong to Spencer Myers.

Breaking Down The Records and Seeds

The brackets for each weight class can be found here. Iowa appears to be the top dog this year and they are trying to end Penn State's streak of four straight Big Ten titles.

125 - Josh Polacek has gone 0-7 in conference duals this season. The Big Ten only seeded eight guys in the weight class and only five will get automatic qualifier spots. Polacek is near the bottom of the conference and I'm not counting on him finishing in the top five in this very talented weight class.

He has a winnable match in the first round against Purdue's Luke Welch, the eighth seed, but it will very tough. If he gets past Welch, he'll have to wrestle the top seed, Iowa's Thomas Gilman, who beat him handily in College Park.

133 - Geoffrey Alexander dropped from the top 20 rankings after his loss to Dom Malone of Northwestern. Alexander went 3-6 in Big Ten duals but two of those wins came from forfeits against Wisconsin and Minnesota. He beat Dom Malone at the Midlands but lost to him in the dual match. The only Big Ten dual match that Alexander wrestled in and won was against Nebraska all the way back in mid-November. The last match that he wrestled and won was on January 11th against Lehigh.

Luckily for Alexander, he is in solid position to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships. The Big Ten has 12 automatic qualifying spots in the 14 person weight class. That means that there will only be two teams that don't represent the Big Ten at 133 in the NCAA Championships. 12 people in the 33 person bracket will be Big Ten wrestlers. That is insane and it shows how good this weight class was this year. Most of the guys in this weight class spent much of the year beating each other. For instance the tenth seed beat the number four seed. I expect to see upsets at this weight. Alexander won't be an easy out in this tournament. If he wins one or two matches at Big Tens, he'll have an automatic bid. This is a minefield of a weight class and I don't expect Alexander to win it.

Alexander gets to wrestle Cory Clark of Iowa, a kid who beat him in a close match in College Park, in the first round. If he gets by Clark, he'll have another rematch with a kid who beat him in Johnni DiJulius of Ohio State.

McCoy said that he expects Alexander to turn a couple of matches around against guys he lost to during the regular season like Jimmy Gulibon, Johnni DiJulius and Zane Richards.

141 - Shyheim Brown also has a Big Ten dual record of 3-6 with wins against Wisconsin, Penn State and Minnesota, His win against Minnesota came against a back-up wrestler and not against top-10 ranked Nick Dardanes. Four of Brown's conference losses came by two points or less.

Brown is seeded 12th out of 14 and so he is in a very tough position. The Big Ten will give out eight automatic bids. He has a pretty good spot in the coaches' poll and RPI so he is positioned to grab an at-large bid if he doesn't crack the top eight and get an automatic bid. I think he gets into the 7th-8th place match to grab an automatic spot. With three-time defending NCAA Champion Logan Stieber in this weight class, every one else is fighting for the 2-8 spots.

Brown is in the same position as Alexander and he will wrestle a kid who beat him earlier in the season in the first round. That kid would be Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers. A win against Ashnault would give him a rematch against Steven Rodrigues of Illinois who also beat him earlier this season.

McCoy said that Brown is a very cerebral wrestler and has been working on doing everything with a purpose in the weeks leading up to the tournament. He said that a couple of small fixes will turn some of his regular season losses into tournament wins.

149 - Ben Dorsay is 1-5 in Big Ten dual competition with the lone win onhis record coming in the final match of the dual against Illinois. Dorsay's lack of success throughout the season (he only has three wins with one of them coming from a forfeit) hurt him.

The Big Ten will only send seven guys from this weight class, the second lowest number of automatic bids in a Big Ten weight class this year. They seeded the top eight and Dorsay is not seeded. The top two wrestlers are Iowa's Brandon Sorensen and defending NCAA Champion Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern. Everyone else is fighting for 3-7 at this weight. Like Polacek, I don't think that Dorsay will get one of the automatic bids and he isn't high enough in the RPI or the coaches' rankings to merit an at-large bid.

Dorsay got matched up with Nebraska's Justin Arthur in the first round. Arthur is the seventh seed.

157 - Lou Mascola was one of Maryland's best wrestlers in Big Ten dual competition, going 4-5 and nearly pinning top-ranked Dylan Ness which would have brought his record to 5-4. He was rewarded with the 10th seed. The Big Ten has eight automatic bids up for grabs at this weight and I expect Mascola to be one of them. The top three guys in this weight class are rock solid. I don't see Mascola as a threat to win this weight class but he is probably the most dangerous lower seed match-up at 157 if he wrestles to his potential. I wouldn't be surprised to see him wrestling for 5th or 6th.

Mascola probably got the best draw of any Maryland wrestler in the tournament because he gets to wrestle Michael Kelly of Iowa in the first round. Mascola beat Kelly in College Park earlier this year and his second round match-up would be second-seeded Dylan Ness of Minnesota who he nearly pinned (and would have if the referee had called it correctly). It would be a monumental feat for him to make the Big Ten semifinals but it isn't impossible if he wrestles the way he is capable of. He has to take care of Kelly first.

165 - Tyler Manion had perhaps the most frustrating and futile season of any Maryland wrestler this season. His three wins this season came in the first event of the season, the Terrapin Duals, and he lost every match after that. He got hurt against Iowa and he is done for the year. T.J. Guidice went 0-3 in Big Ten duals this season. He wrestled up a weight against Penn State and wrestled 165 against Minnesota and Northwestern in relief of Manion. The results have not been pretty. In his three losses he was been pinned twice and tech-falled.

Justin Alexander, the younger brother of Geoffrey Alexander, will be representing Maryland at 165. He was seeded 14th out of 14 wrestlers. You could pencil in the top three or four guys at this weight to be All-Americans and I think at least one will make the NCAA semis. They demolish people. The 5th seed in this weight class is ranked 8th nationally by Intermat. That is how tough the top four in this weight class is. I don't think he is ready for this. I see him going 0-2 and failing to secure one of the eight automatic bids at this weight.

Alexander drew a crusher in the first round in Indiana's Taylor Walsh.

174 - Josh Snook has not been 100 percent healthy for much of the season but still managed to take fourth at the Midlands and compiled a 3-4 record in Big Ten duals with one of those wins coming by forfeit against Northwestern and another coming against a back-up wrestler from Ohio State.  A big issue for Snook is how healthy he will be going into the tournament and the fact that he has yet to beat a ranked wrestler this season.

Same story different verse with the top four in this weight class. The 5th seed at this weight is ranked 10th nationally by Intermat and I expect the top four seeds to all be on the podium this year as All-Americans. Intermat has the top four seeds as the top four wrestlers in the entire country. There will be some high level wrestling in Columbus at this weight.

However, I think Snook will qualify for the NCAA Championships because the Big Ten is giving out 10 automatic bids at this weight. Snook has beaten the 8th seed, Frank Cousins of Wisconsin, twice this season.

Snook's loss to Bakuckas of Rutgers dropped him to the 12th seed and he will have to face Zach Brunson of Illinois in the first round. That is a very, very tough first round match-up and if Snook loses, he will have little to no margin for error as he tries to wrestle back and grab an automatic bid.

184 - Tony Gardner has had a rough year at 184 pounds, winning only once this season (George Mason). He is 0-9 in Big Ten dual competition and his road will be next to impossible.

The Big Ten is giving out 10 automatic bids at this weight but Gardner is seeded 14th out of 14 guys. Mitch Sliga of Northwestern beat him by decision and he is seeded 12th. I don't see Gardner cracking the top 10 but he has big move capability and could potentially pull a stunner in Columbus if he catches his opponent napping. I think he will go 0-2.

Gardner drew the third seed, Wisconsin's Ricky Robertson, in the first round. Like Snook, that is a very tough match-up and he will probably have to claw back through the consolation bracket.

197 - Rob Fitzgerald racked up a 2-7 Big Ten dual record but his two wins both came against ranked opponents. Those seven losses really hurt Fitzgerald and he will have a very tough road in a very tough weight class. The top six seeds at this weight are all in the top 10 of Intermat's 197 pound rankings.

Fitzgerald is seeded 13th but he pinned the 7th seed in Maryland's season finale at Northwestern. The Big Ten will be giving out nine automatic bids at this weight and Fitzgerald has major upset potential. It is going to be a very bitter pill to swallow if he can't crack the top nine because he has come close. Unfortunately his very low seed puts him in a tough spot where he has very little margin for error. I think he gets past a couple of higher seeded guys and into the 7th-8th place match.

Fitzgerald has the unenviable assignment of facing off against an All-American in round one. He'll go head to head with Iowa's Nathan Burak.

Heavyweight - Spencer Myers is Maryland's only ranked wrestler going into the Big Ten tournament. He is 3-3 in Big Ten duals. One of those wins came against a back-up wrestler and the other two came in overtime against top-15 ranked wrestlers. Two of his three losses came against heavyweights ranked in the top five in the country who were both multiple time All-Americans. The other loss came on the road in overtime against Illinois. He can make a run but how far he goes will be up to him. If he wrestles passively, he won't knock off the top heavyweights in the Big Ten.

The top four seeds at this weight are consensus top-six wrestlers in the nation. Myers is seeded 7th. He has wins against the 6th and 8th seeds at this weight but has losses to the 3rd, 4th and 10th seeds. He cannot afford to take a match off. I expect to see the chalk move through to the quarters and then things will get interesting. Myers will almost certainly grab one of the nine available automatic bids at this weight but I don't think he will win the Big Ten title. He has the potential to do it but I haven't seen him wrestle aggressively consistently enough to think that he has what it takes to beat Medbery, Coon, McMullan and Telford.

He gets Illinois' Brooks Black in the first round. Black beat Myers in overtime when they wrestled earlier this year but Myers is in better wrestling shape now. Myers cannot overlook Black and he will have to be much more aggressive if he wants to beat him this time.

If he beats Black, he will wrestle Adam Coon of Michigan in the quarters. He lost to him 4-1 last year so Myers will have to do something different this time around. Again, Myers' tournament and NCAA fate depend on how aggressive he is. McCoy said that if Myers is aggressive and goes after and gets a takedown or two in the first period, he is going to be really tough to beat.

The Bottom Line

McCoy made a point of mentioning to me that in addition to the exposure and great wrestling experience that his kids get, one of the massive perks of joining the Big Ten is the amount of automatic qualifying bids that the conference receives. The large amount of automatic bids at weight classes like 174 and 197 could help Maryland get wrestlers like Josh Snook and Rob Fitzgerald get into the NCAA Tournament. If there had only been five or six bids available and they didn't finish in the top five or six, they probably wouldn't get looked at for at-large bids. I think Maryland is realistically looking at five or six guys making it to the NCAA Championships but could finish with as few as three or four if things don't go well in the wrestle-backs.

Alexander at 133 and Myers at heavyweight are pretty much locks. Snook got the 12th seed and has to finish in the top 10. Mascola got the 10th seed and has to finish in the top eight. Shyheim Brown is seeded 12th and has to finish in the top eight. Even if he doesn't, I expect him to get an at-large bid. Rob Fitzgerald is seeded 13th and has to finish in the top nine. If he doesn't make it, he almost certainly won't get an at-large bid.

McCoy said at the beginning of the season that this team was built not for the regular season dual schedule but for the Big Ten Tournament. He said that his goal was for Maryland to finish in the top half of the Big Ten. I don't see it happening. Even if they score higher than Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State and Rutgers, they would still have to get past Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Here is why I don't think they can do that.

Michigan has two second-seeded wrestlers and if they make the finals, Michigan will get big advancement points from those two guys alone. I don't think any Maryland wrestlers will make the finals this year. Wisconsin has a top seed in Medbery and two second-seeded wrestlers in Ryan Taylor at 133 and Isaac Jordan at 165. Throw in a 3rd seed in Ricky Robertson at 184 and Wisconsin should beat Maryland too because of their advancement points. Maryland will fail to pass Northwestern for the very same reason. Northwestern has three horses (returning All-Americans) that will rack up bonus and advancement points for them. Tsirtsis is seeded 2nd at 149 and will almost certainly make the conference finals, Harger is seeded 4th at 165 and McMullan is seeded 3rd at heavyweight and is a serious threat to make the finals.

Maryland will not score more than Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State or Illinois. Get that out of your head right now. Nebraska may get enough points just off of James Green and Robert Kokesh's bonus point victories to beat Michigan State. Maryland won't beat them either. I already outlined why Maryland won't top Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. That means there are nine teams that I do not think Maryland can beat. But wait, there's more!

Maryland has a shot at beating Rutgers but it will be difficult because Rutgers has a bunch of guys seeded in the top eight in their weight classes. Rutgers has four wrestlers seeded in the top eight. Purdue has five (three of whom are from the same family!). Maryland has one.

Indiana was the conference doormat this season and they gave up at least 30 points in every Big Ten dual except Michigan State, who beat them 26-16. Taylor Walsh can't carry them past Maryland. Michigan State doesn't look too threatening either and I think Maryland can beat them. I think Maryland finishes in 12th place in its first ever Big Ten tournament.