With the 2021-22 regular season in the rear view mirror, we look ahead to the Big Ten Championships to start the postseason.
The No. 11-ranked Huskers have been impressive the last couple years at their conference tournament. In 2020, Nebraska finished second behind Iowa. Then in 2021, the Huskers came in third place behind Iowa and Penn State.
This season, the tournament will take place in Nebraska’s back yard at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. Just down the road from the Devaney Center.
With the Huskers playing host, Nebraska Head Coach Mark Manning isn’t convinced that the pressure is a bad thing.
“Pressure is a privilege. It’s a privilege to wrestle here (at Nebraska) and compete here,” Manning said at Wednesday’s press conference. “When you wrestle for big things, there’s going to be a lot of pressure and you have to be able to really embrace those moments and be inspired by it.”
The Team Race
This year, it seems to be a two-team race between No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Iowa. Michigan is ranked No. 3 and will have a lot to say about it, too.
Then there’s No. 6 Ohio State and No. 7 Wisconsin who have solid rosters. In one of the toughest fields the Big Ten has ever seen, the brackets are littered with former Big Ten champs, All-Americans and NCAA champs.
“Toughest tournament in the country. Tougher than the NCAA tournament in a lot of ways,” Manning said. “Just, the pure competitors from one to 14 in every weight class. There’s not easy matches in the tournament, so you have to be ready to go. There’s a lot of good coaches, so everyone is well scouted. People know what people’s strengths and weaknesses are and they try to exploit that. So, really you need to be on top of your game both mentally and physically.”
The Nittany Lions are the team to beat. They have four No. 1 seeds, all returning national champions in Roman Bravo-Young (133 pounds), Nick Lee (141), Carter Starocci (174) and Aaron Brooks (184). Then they have top-ranked Max Dean at 197 pounds, but he’s just the 2-seed at Big Tens due to his conference loss while Nebraska’s Eric Schultz stayed undefeated in conference action. Penn State has another 2-seed in Drew Hildebrandt at 125, while Greg Kerkvliet is the 3-seed at heavyweight. That’s a lot of firepower.
Not too far behind them are the Hawkeyes. After losing three-time NCAA Champion Spencer Lee for the year, Iowa is going into this weekend’s tournament without a single No. 1 seed. Instead, the Hawkeyes have five 2-seeds and no wrestler seeded lower then No. 6.
For the team title, it will likely come down to Penn State’s top-heavy roster that has a few holes racing Iowa’s top-to-bottom depth of scoring options.
How to Watch
The Big Ten Wrestling Championships will air both on the Big Ten Network and BTN+. The action will start from 10 a.m. (central) to 2 p.m. on Saturday and will air on BTN with more in-depth viewing options on BTN+.
Session two starts Saturday with wrestleback matches beginning at 5:30 p.m. and streaming on BTN+. Television coverage on BTN resumes Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. for the semifinal round with individual mat coverage for the semis and wrestleback matches streaming on BTN+.
Session three starts Sunday with consolation semifinals at 11 a.m. and will stream on BTN+. At 3:30 p.m., the television coverage will resume with the finals at 3:30 p.m. The third and fifth-place matches will be available on BTN+.
13-seed Jeremiah Reno
This season started with freshman Jeremiah Reno wrestling in the Nebraska Duals before senior Liam Cronin won a match 3-1 against then-No. 17 Spencer Moore of North Carolina. After that, Cronin went 2-3 at the Daktronics Open which was the last time Cronin wrestled, being sidelined with an injury.
Reno was Nebraska’s starter from then on. He’s taken his lumps as he’s 4-12 on the year against some stiff competition in the Big Ten.
Reno will face a tough test in the first round against 4-seed Malik Heinselman of Ohio State. The senior is 16-3 on the year and will be a very heavy favorite.
If Reno somehow pulls the upset against Heinselman, he’d face 5-seed Devin Schroder of Purdue in the quarterfinal. Schroder beat Reno 17-0 via tech fall this year in their dual matchup.
If Reno is going to pick up a win at the conference tournament, it’ll likely come on the back side.
10-seed Dominick Serrano
After using both sophomore Alex Thomsen and freshman Dominick Serrano as their starter this year, the Huskers will be represented by Serrano here at 133 pounds.
Serrano heads into the postseason with a 12-9 overall record but he’s just 1-4 in Big Ten duals. All four losses came to Top-10 opponents.
Serrano will see a rematch of his first Big Ten loss in the opening round Saturday as he’ll take on 7-seed Chris Cannon of Northwestern. Cannon beat Serrano 5-4 in late January.
If Serrano can pull the upset, he’ll see 2-seed Austin DeSanto of Iowa in the quarterfinal. In Nebraska’s season-ending dual against Iowa, Thomsen got the nod at 133 and lost to DeSanto 22-7 via tech fall. I do think Serrano will be a tougher matchup for DeSanto than Thomsen, but the Husker freshman will have a tough time with the Hawkeye senior.
4-seed Chad Red Jr.
This will be Chad Red Jr.’s fifth Big Ten Championships and it’s probably the toughest field he’s faced. Nebraska’s Red will have to outpace returning NCAA Champion Nick Lee of Penn State, returning Big Ten Champion Jaydin Eierman of Iowa, and two-time Big Ten Champion Sebastian Rivera of Rutgers.
“CJ is in a really tough weight class with Nick Lee, the defending national champ,” Manning said. “Then the defending Big Ten champ is (Jaydin) Eierman of Iowa, so there’s no easy weight classes.”
After going 11-4 on the year, Red secured the 4-seed for the second year in a row and will face 13-seed Cayden Rooks of Indiana in the opening round. Red should be able to make it through both Rooks and his likely quarterfinal opponent 5-seed Jakob Bergeland of Minnesota. Red downed Bergeland 9-0 via major decision in their dual matchup this year.
In a likely semifinal matchup against 1-seed Nick Lee, Red will be the major underdog. Red beat Lee to finish his high school career but has gone 0-4 against him in college. If there’s a time to solve the riddle that is Nick Lee, it’s now.
3-seed Ridge Lovett
In his first full season as the starter at 149 pounds, Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett earned the 3-seed with a 17-2 record. The talented sophomore suffered just one conference loss to No. 4 Austin Gomez of Wisconsin. His only other loss was to top-ranked Yianni Diakomihalis in overtime.
Lovett should easily get through 14-seed Alex White of Purdue before taking on 6-seed Mike Van Brill of Rutgers in the quarters. Lovett and Van Brill have never hit, but I expect Lovett to advance to the semis at least.
The bracket is set up for Lovett to get another crack at the 2-seed Gomez in the semis. Despite the loss this season to Gomez, I think Lovett has a really good shot at beating him to make his second straight Big Ten Championship final, likely against Ohio State’s 1-seed Sammy Sasso again.
5-seed Peyton Robb
This has been a weird weight for Nebraska this year. Nebraska’s Peyton Robb went 10-6 on the year. After starting the season on a tear that saw him beat NCAA Champion Austin O’Connor of North Carolina and nearly beating NCAA Champion David Carr of Iowa State, Robb has cooled off in Big Ten play. He’s 3-4 in Big Ten duals.
Robb will face 12-seed Joe Roberts of Illinois in the opening round, a match Robb won 3-2 in their dual matchup. With a win, Robb will likely face 4-seed Kendall Coleman, a wrestler Robb hasn’t faced this year but has beaten in the past.
With a win over Coleman, Robb would then face 1-seed Ryan Deakin of Northwestern in the semis. That’s a nightmare matchup for anyone not named David Carr. Deakin beat Robb 4-2 in their dual matchup, but the final score does no justice to just how dominant Deakin was in that match. He’s the heavy favorite to win the conference title.
8-seed Bubba Wilson
Nebraska’s third freshman starter is Bubba Wilson. Wilson is in his first season as the starter at 165 with a 10-10 record. His best win of the year came against Michigan’s then-No. 12 Cam Amine.
Wilson earned the 8-seed going in and will face 9-seed Cael Carlson of Minnesota in the opening round. These two guys didn’t hit in the regular season, so this match is a true toss up.
With a win, Wilson would then face 1-seed Carson Kharchla of Ohio State in the quarters. That’s a tough proposition for Wilson, as Kharchla has had a very impressive debut for the Buckeyes.
Wilson will likely have to wrestle back through the consolation bracket for team points and to earn an all-important NCAA bid.
3-seed Mikey Labriola
This is arguably the toughest weight at the Big Ten Championships, as last year’s NCAA and Big Ten finalist Michael Kemerer of Iowa is the 4-seed. That’s the same Kemerer who was upset last time out by Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola.
With that win, Labriola took the 3-seed and pushed Kemerer to the 4-seed. This sets up a likely semifinal match between Kemerer and 1-seed Carter Starocci of Penn State. Kemerer and Starocci met each other in both the Big Ten and NCAA finals last season.
Labriola will breeze through 14-seed Nate Jimenez of Michigan State in the first round before taking on 6-seed Bailee O’Reilly of Minnesota in the quarters. With a likely win, Labriola will advance to a rematch of one of his regular season losses against Michigan’s 2-seed Logan Massa, a wrestler I think Labriola can definitely beat.
That would set up Labriola with a match against the Starocci-Kemerer winner in the Big Ten final. Labriola, who just beat Kemerer and has wrestled Starocci into overtime, absolutely has a chance to win a conference title this year.
4-seed Taylor Venz
For Nebraska, senior Taylor Venz has been all over the map this year. He’s looked great and he’s also looked very beatable. With a 13-6 record on the year, Venz earned the 4-seed at this year’s Big Ten Championships.
In the first round, Venz will face 13-seed Max Lyon of Purdue. Lyon beat Venz earlier this year, proving how deep this weight class is in the Big Ten. I expect Venz to exact revenge over Lyon here, advancing to the quarters to likely face 5-seed Abe Assad of Iowa. Venz is coming off a damaging pin over Assad to end the regular season.
With a win over Assad, Venz would face 1-seed Aaron Brooks in the semis. Brooks is 43-1 in his career and is the defending NCAA champ. His only loss came at the hands of Venz, but Brooks has beaten the Husker four straight times since that dual loss in 2020.
1-seed Eric Schultz
For the second straight year, Nebraska’s Eric Schultz earned the 1-seed at the Big Ten Championships. The senior is 14-1 on the year and undefeated in Big Ten duals.
Schultz will get a first-round bye before taking on either 8-seed Braxton Amos of Wisconsin or 9-seed Gavin Hoffman of Ohio State in the quarterfinal round. Both are really talented, but Schultz did beat Amos 3-1 in their dual matchup.
With a likely win in the quarters, Schultz will probably face 4-seed Jacob Warner of Iowa in the semis. He just beat Warner 3-2 and has won three straight now over the Hawkeye senior.
That means Schultz has a really good shot at making the final where he’ll likely face 2-seed Max Dean of Penn State. Dean didn’t wrestle in the Nebraska-Penn State dual, so this could be these two’s first career matchup.
Despite Dean being ranked No. 1 in the country, he received the 2-seed behind Schultz. That may seem odd, but Dean’s loss came to a Big Ten opponent in Michigan State’s Cam Caffey. Schultz is undefeated in Big Ten duals. Also, in these two schools’ dual, Dean didn’t wrestle, and Eric Schultz did.
“I’m sure Penn State felt like Max Dean deserved (the 1-seed),” Manning said. “But he had a loss in the conference. I’m not sure why he didn’t wrestle us in the dual meet, but if they meet they meet.”
6-seed Christian Lance
Anchoring the Husker lineup is 6-seed Christian Lance. Lance is 13-6 on the year while navigating a hellish schedule.
Lance will take on Purdue’s 11-seed Michael Woulfe in the first round before likely seeing 3-seed Greg Kerkvliet of Penn State in the quarters. Lance beat Woulfe 11-4 this year but fell to Kerkvliet 8-2 in their dual matchup.
If Lance wants to help in the team standings and earn a good seed to NCAAs, he’ll have to do some damage in the consolation bracket.
This Husker team is very talented, especially with its top guys Red, Lovett, Labriola, Venz and Schultz. This team has a lot of point scoring potential this weekend, but so does Penn State, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State. In reality, it’s a two-horse race between Penn State and Iowa for first with Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska battling it out for third place.
One Really Bold Prediction
It’s been seven years since Nebraska has crowned an individual conference champion, last happening when current assistant coach Robert Kokesh won the Big Ten title at 174 pounds. But this year with this bunch of top-shelf talents, I see the Huskers getting at least one individual title in Lincoln, likely from Schultz, Labriola or Lovett.
“We’ve had a lot of guys in the finals here, but we haven’t knocked it down,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can do something about it Sunday. I think we have a lot of guys that are close to being the best in their weight class. We’re going to find out a lot about our team on Saturday and Sunday. If we do what we’re capable of, it’s going to be a fun weekend. I think this team has a lot of potential of really making some noise here this weekend.”