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Nittany Lions, Hawkeyes expected to battle for Big Ten Conference title

Iowa’s second-ranked Montell Marion battles Michigan’s top-ranked Kellen Russell earlier this season. Photo by Darren Miller, University of Iowa.

They call it a qualifier.

But the Big Ten Conference Championships are much more than a qualifier for the NCAA wrestling tournament.

It’s an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat battle where the stakes are high.

This year is no exception with an abundance of great storylines expected to unfold at the Big Tens on Saturday and Sunday at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. The finals will be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network at 3 p.m. Central Time on Sunday.

Four of the nation’s top seven teams are in the field with No. 2 Penn State, No. 3 Iowa, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota leading the way.

Iowa won the Big Ten dual meet title this season despite losing eight starters from last season’s national championship team. The Hawkeyes rolled to their third straight Big Ten tournament title and 34th overall last season.

“On paper, Penn State is the favorite based on the pre-seeds,” Minnesota coach J Robinson said. “Iowa has a lot of guys seeded pretty high as well and they are wrestling well right now. There are a lot of young teams who have had good seasons, but can they come through? Penn State has a lot of talent, but they’ve got to produce. It will be interesting to see what happens. It will be a good battle, it always is.”

The return of two-time Big Ten champion and 2010 NCAA champion Andrew Howe of Wisconsin will be another story to keep an eye on.

The Big Ten has earned 64 of 281 automatic qualifying spots for the NCAAs, set for March 17-19 in Philadelphia. An additional 49 at-large berths will be awarded on March 9.

Penn State has five wrestlers who have drawn No. 1 pre-seeds for the tournament. They include Andrew Long (133 pounds), Frank Molinaro (149), David Taylor (157), Ed Ruth (174) and Cameron Wade (heavyweight).

Long was an NCAA runner-up for Iowa State at 125 as a freshman in 2010. Molinaro finished fifth in the nation last year. Taylor is a talented freshman who is undefeated this season. He is a past U.S. Junior World Team member in freestyle. Ruth is ranked No. 2 nationally as a freshman.

“Our kids have worked hard and continued to progress,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said. “I’m real excited to see what we can do. We do have a lot of young guys in our lineup, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win at this level. These guys expect to win and expect to be the best. It would be great for our program to win Big Tens and carry that over into nationals.”

The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 1 before suffering a home dual-meet loss to Iowa on Jan. 30.

“It was a great learning experience,” Sanderson said. “Iowa did a great job and wrestled well. Our guys have bounced back and responded well. We have a real strong tournament team and we are ready to compete to our highest capabilities.”

Wisconsin has No. 1 pre-seeds with Howe (165), Travis Rutt (184) and Trevor Brandvold (197). The Badgers are coming off a strong 2009-10 season where they took home a trophy after placing fourth in the NCAA Championships in Omaha.

Brandvold, ranked No. 2 nationally, won Big Tens last year before earning All-American honors. Rutt, ranked third in the country, made the 2009 U.S. Junior World Team in Greco-Roman wrestling. Wisconsin’s Tyler Graff (133), a past Junior World Team member in freestyle, placed fifth in the NCAA tournament as a freshman in 2010.

“We have a lot of guys from last year who are back,” Wisconsin coach Barry Davis said. “We have that experience and maturity and leadership. We have a shot to do better than last year, but we’re not there yet. This is the first time since November we’ve had our full squad back together. We’ve had a lot of adversity, but our guys never lost their focus for what they want to achieve.”

Howe has been out nearly two months after suffering a hamstring injury. He is a top prospect in freestyle, winning the U.S. Open in 2010 before placing second at the U.S. World Team Trials. He is a past Junior World bronze medalist.

“Howe is looking great,” Davis said. “He ripped his hamstring and it was a pretty bad injury. He did a great job coming back. The doctors have been amazed by how quickly he’s come back. His body looks fresh. He went real hard with Travis Rutt in the room the other day and passed that test with flying colors. He’s looking really good.”

Iowa has a No. 1 pre-seed in 2010 NCAA champion Matt McDonough (125). McDonough was second in this event last year as a freshman. He made the 2010 U.S. Junior World Team in freestyle.

The Hawkeyes have seven wrestlers listed among the top three pre-seeds in their respective weight classes.

“Penn State has five No. 1 seeds, so they are the favorite going in on paper,” Iowa coach Tom Brands told the Iowa media on Tuesday afternoon. “That doesn’t matter. They’ve been the favorite all year since the Southern Scuffle. We’ve got our work cut out for us. It is a two-day tournament, and it is four rounds of wrestling. We’ve got to be strong and solid all four rounds.”

Iowa has won three straight Big Ten titles, but does not return an individual champion from last year.

“The importance is high and it’s a qualifier for the next step,” Brands said. “We have to be ready to do some work. We are a program that’s about winning championships. If individuals worry about themselves and win championships, the team race will take of itself.”

McDonough and Northwestern All-American Brandon Precin have split matches this season at 125. McDonough is ranked No. 1 nationally and Precin is No. 3. They could meet at Welsh-Ryan Arena for the third time this season after facing off there at the Midlands and in a Big Ten dual meet.

Precin beat McDonough in the Midlands finals before McDonough pinned Precin in the dual.

“This is what we’ve trained for all year,” McDonough said. “It’s a long season, but it’s a lot longer when you’re the guy who is getting tired and not training to the highest level and not peaking at the right time. Every single guy in our room is ready to unleash what they’ve worked for all season.”

Hawkeye freshman Tony Ramos placed fifth in the Junior World Championships in 2009. Ramos is the No. 3 pre-seed at 133, but does own a win over the top-seeded Long this season.

“We had a great regular season and ran the table in the Big Ten, and that was important,” Brands said. “Now we are to the tournament, and that’s what we are going after. We will get a lot of questions answered about this team now.”

Michigan’s Kellen Russell, ranked No. 1 in the country, has earned the No. 1 pre-seed at 141. Russell is a two-time Big Ten champion who earned All-American honors two years ago. He redshirted last season before coming back strong this year.

Minnesota has been bolstered by the return of All-American Sonny Yohn (197), who had been out with an injury. Yohn placed second in the 2010 Big Ten tournament.

Minnesota’s Mike Thorn won Big Tens last year at 141. A returning All-American, Thorn is the No. 3 pre-seed in a loaded weight class that also includes Russell, returning NCAA runner-up Montell Marion of Iowa, All-American Jimmy Kennedy of Illinois and freshman standout Andrew Alton of Penn State.

Russell, Marion, Thorn and Kennedy are ranked 1-4 in the nation by InterMat with Alton close behind at No. 7.

Minnesota’s Scott Glasser (174) placed second in this tournament last year. Gopher junior Zach Sanders (125) is a two-time All-American.

“We have some good, hard-nosed kids who have wrestled well,” Robinson said. “They have good attitudes and they are coachable. Their hard work is paying off for them.”

Ohio State’s Colt Sponseller (165) and Purdue’s Colton Salazar (157) both return after placing second in the 2010 Big Ten tournament.
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