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Big Ten Preview: Do Iowa or Nebraska have the firepower to beat Penn State?

by Andy Elder, Special to

Roman Bravo-Young (Penn State) and Spencer Lee (Iowa) acknowledge their fans. Photos courtesy of Penn State Athletics and Iowa Athletics.

The 2023 Big Ten Wrestling Championships are setting up much like the 2022 version.

Fresh off winning the conference’s dual meet championship, Penn State has four No. 1 seeds, twice as many as any other team, three No. 2s and two others in the top 5 of their respective weights.

The Nittany Lions, in just about everyone’s estimation, are the clear favorites to hoist the team trophy early Sunday evening in Michigan’s Crisler Arena.

Of course, that’s what most people thought a year ago.

Michigan had other plans. The Wolverines, as Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said at the time, “just kept winning every match” and emerged victorious, 1.5 points head of the Nittany Lions. It was the Wolverines’ first Big Ten title since 1973.

If there is to be a repeat in 2023, and it doesn’t seem likely, only two teams seem to have the depth of talent to pull it off — Iowa and Nebraska.

Iowa’s only dual meet loss came in Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, and that 23-14 final was made possible by three Nittany Lion 1-point wins. If the Hawkeyes can flip a couple of those outcomes and have their guys finish higher on the podium, then maybe, just maybe, Iowa could follow Michigan’s blueprint.

Much like the team race, seven individual weights — 125, 133, 141, 157, 174, 184 and 197 — are topped by heavy favorites that only an unlikely upset will prevent from winning. The three other weights — 149, 165 and 285 — could see any of three or four different wrestlers win.

Here’s a weight-by-weight look at the favorites at each weight.

125 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): This weight will be more of a coronation than a competition. Iowa’s Spencer Lee, bidding for his third Big Ten title, is undefeated and has pinned the three wrestlers that are seeded 2-4: Nebraska’s Liam Cronin, Purdue’s Matt Ramos and Wisconsin’s Eric Barnett.

133 pounds 9 (automatic qualifying bids): The domination isn’t as complete as Lee, but Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young is undefeated and gunning for a third consecutive title. He, too, has a win over his most likely finals opponent, Ohio State’s Jesse Mendez. Two-time All-American Lucas Byrd of Illinois would probably like a rematch with Mendez to avenge a 3-2 loss Nov. 6 at the Michigan State Open. If the seeds hold, that will happen in Saturday night’s semifinals.

141 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): Undefeated Real Woods of Iowa is the favorite here, but the two wrestlers 2-3 will have a say in who wins the weight. Woods edged Nebraska’s Brock Hardy, 6-4, and decisioned Penn State’s Beau Bartlett, 4-1. Woods could see Northwestern’s fourth-seeded Frankie Tal-Sharar in the semifinals, but Woods owns a 17-2 technical fall over the Wildcat.

149 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): A replay of last year’s final, in which Wisconsin’s Austin Gomez beat Ohio State’s Sammy Sasso, 8-5, isn’t out of the question. Sasso is seede first, Gomez second. Either Yahya Thomas (3) of Northwestern or Max Murin (4) of Iowa could make a run to the finals, but they would likely have to upset one of the two top seeds in the semis.

157 pounds (10 automatic qualifying bids): Nebraska’s Peyton Robb is rightfully favored here after finishing the season undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Who he might face in the finals looks to be one of two guys; Purdue’s Kendall Coleman (3), who Robb beat 8-0 in the 2022 fifth-place bout, or Penn State’s precocious freshman Levi Haines (2).

165 pounds (8 automatic qualifying bids): With four-time Iowa champ Alex Marinelli out of the way, last year’s second- (Michigan’s Cam Amine), third- (Dean Hamiti of Wisconsin) and fourth-place (Carson Kharchla of Ohio State) finishers will be looking to climb to the top of the awards podium. This year, Hamiti earned the top seed, followed by Amine and then Iowa’s Patrick Kennedy. A couple of newcomers, Iowa’s Patrick Kennedy (3) and Penn State’s Alex Facundo (4), will be looking to crash the party.

174 pounds (7 automatic qualifying bids): Defending champ Carter Starocci of Penn State and Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola each finished the season undefeated and ranked 1-2 nationally. Those two, seeded 1-2 are the favorites to meet in the finals. Starocci owns two career wins over Labriola. If anyone could prevent that showdown, it would be Ethan Smith (3) of Ohio State. He lost a close match to Labriola and the veteran Buckeye is capable of turning the tables against him.

184 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): Two-time champion and three-time finalist Aaron Brooks of Penn State figures to earn a fourth finals appearance and is a heavy favorite to win a third title. Ohio State’s Kaleb Romero is the most likely last hurdle on Brooks’ march to the top of the podium. Romero pushed Brooks until the end in a 3-2 loss in Columbus.

197 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): Defending champion Max Dean of Penn State is the clear favorite to defend his crown. A knot of four or five contenders loom as a possible finals opponent: Iowa’s Jacob Warner (5), who Dean defeated in the 2022 NCAA final, Nebraska’s Silas Allred (2), Michigan State’s Cameron Caffey (4), Maryland’s Jaxon Smith (6) and Zac Braunagel (3) of Illinois.

285 pounds (9 automatic qualifying bids): Four Big Ten big men finished the regular season ranked atop the national rankings: No. 1 Mason Parris of Michigan, No. 2 Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State, No. 3 Tony Cassioppi of Iowa and No. 4 Lucas Davison of Northwestern. And those four are lined up in that order for this weekend. Parris was the only one of that quartet to emerge unbeaten, thus the top billing. Assuming all four perform as expected, the semifinals here could be worth the price of admission by themselves. Davison has yet to break through for a win against any other three, so the champion will probably be found among the top 3 seeds.


at Ann Arbor, Mich., March 4-5

Saturday, March 4

10 a.m. Session I (First Round, Quarterfinals, Wrestlebacks)

5:30 p.m. Session II (Consolation Matches, Wrestlebacks)

7:30 p.m. Session II (Semifinals)

Sunday, March 5

1 p.m. Session III (Consolation Semifinals, 7th-Place Matches)

4:30 p.m. Session IV (1st-, 3rd- and 5th- Place Matches)