Since we already went into depth on who the Big Ten lost after the 2021-22 season ended, it’s time to take a look at who returns for the country’s toughest wrestling conference.
We’re now concluding our countdown of the 30 best returners (and incoming transfers) in the Big Ten that you can expect to be at or near the top of the NCAA podium this coming season.
Now let’s move on to a star-studded Top Ten that holds a combined 12 individual NCAA titles and 16 NCAA final appearances. There are more than a few all-time greats on this list, just proving how loaded the Big Ten is, especially at the top of the heap.
Big Ten’s 30 Best (The Top 10)
10. Mason Parris - Michigan
The first of three heavyweights in the Top 10, Michigan’s Mason Parris has been fairly dominant the past four seasons, but he’s never been able to get past Minnesota’s Gable Steveson.
Gable Steveson vs Mason Parris 2021 NCAA Finals pic.twitter.com/Dzxe8PrDLd— Heavyweight Nation (@hwtnation) November 25, 2021
Parris finished as the NCAA runner-up in 2021 before securing All-American honors again this past season when he finished in 5th place. The Michigan senior went 20-6 last season, but he sports an impressive career record of 93-18.
With Steveson possibly returning, along with Penn State’s Greg Kerkvliet and Arizona State’s Cohlton Schultz (the only three guys to beat Parris a year ago), Parris will have a tough road to an NCAA title. But if Steveson decides not to come back, Parris will be one of a handful of guys in contention for a title.
9. Sammy Sasso - Ohio State
The highest-ranking Buckeye on this list, Sammy Sasso is going into his junior season as a two-time All-American and a Big Ten champion already. Sasso won a conference title in 2021 but fell short of repeating this season as he finished as runner-up. At NCAAs, Sasso made it all the way to the NCAA final in 2021 but fell to Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis. This past season, Sasso dropped a bit and finished in 5th place.
Sasso went 17-1 in 2021 with his only loss in that NCAA final, and this past season he went 26-4. In his career, Sasso is currently 66-8, and he’s proven to be an incredibly talented defensive wrestler who excells in the scrambles when the action hits the mat.
Sammy Sasso confidently working his underhook game against one of the best overhookers in college wrestling. One of his main attacks is a throw-by to single. Will often try to shelve opp's ankle on his far thigh - although this one turns into a scramble before he can get it there pic.twitter.com/kFZnMtwamB— Dan Sweeney (@DPSBreakdowns) November 22, 2021
Having already made it to an NCAA final, Sasso is always a threat, but he’s in one of the best weight classes in the country as well as in the conference. Three of this list’s Top 10 are in the 149-pound weight class, plus he still has Diakomihalis, who’s going for his fourth NCAA title this year as a senior, to deal with.
8. Austin Gomez - Wisconsin
Austin Gomez started his career at Iowa State, where he went 24-7 as a redshirt freshman and made it to the Round of 12 at 133 pounds at the NCAA Championships in 2019. He then suffered a series of concussions that led to him announcing his retirement from wrestling in 2020 while taking on a wrestler-coach role at Iowa State in 2021.
Gomez then entered the transfer portal last summer and landed at Wisconsin, where he moved up to 149 pounds and had an outstanding season. Gomez finished the year with a 23-4 record while winning a Big Ten title and finishing fourth at NCAAs to earn his first All-American honors. Here’s Gomez downing Sasso at NCAAs.
Just a junior-to-be, Gomez has proven he’s legit at 149 pounds and should again be in contention at Big Tens and NCAAs.
7. Greg Kerkvliet - Penn State
Amazingly, this is the first Nittany Lion on this countdown, but Greg Kerkvliet definitely won’t be the last.
Kerkvliet is just a sophomore, but he’s already established himself as one of the best heavyweights in the country. After going 10-4 as a redshirt freshman in 2021, a free year of eligibility, Kerkvliet improved leaps and bounds this past season. He went 22-3 with his losses to just Gable Steveson and Tony Cassioppi and his third loss a medical forfeit.
Last season, Kerkvliet overtook Mason Parris as the Big Ten’s best competition for Steveson, as he went 3-0 against the Wolverine.
Highlights from Greg Kerkvliet vs Mason Parris match last night pic.twitter.com/dat6tCVjJp— Heavyweight Nation (@hwtnation) January 22, 2022
A former cadet world champion, Kerkvliet has incredible age-level freestyle credentials, but he’s increasingly improved his folkstyle game. He’ll be one of the favorites to win an NCAA title this season, as long as Steveson stays retired.
6. Ridge Lovett - Nebraska
A returning NCAA finalist, Nebraska’s Ridge Lovett has improved at a rapid rate throughout his career. Starting as a 133-pounder, Lovett competed as a true freshman in 2019-20 and went 17-8.
The next year, Lovett skipped over 141 pounds up to 149. Midway through the season, he took over as Nebraska’s starter before making it to the Big Ten final and qualifying for NCAAs. This past season, Lovett got his first full season at his new weight class and didn’t disappoint. He went 24-4 and made it all the way to the NCAA final before falling to three-time champion Yianni Diakomihalis of Cornell.
One of the skills that sets Lovett apart is his work while in the top position. He’s smothering, he rides you out, and he looks for turns. In fact, when given the choice of top, bottom or neutral to begin the period, Lovett’s opponents often choose neutral rather than going on bottom to earn the “easy” escape. No escapes are easy against Lovett, so his opponents often don’t even want to be underneath him. And those that do choose bottom often regret it, like when Lovett took out the 2-seed Tariq Wilson of NC State at NCAAs. Check it out below. Go to the 4:30 mark. Lovett made him PAY for choosing bottom in the second period.
Despite falling just short of the ultimate goal in college wrestling, the junior-to-be Lovett has established himself nationally and will be the slight favorite to again meet Diakomihalis at the end of the year. He’s 50-15 on his career and is also in position to establish himself as an all-time Husker great.
5. Max Dean - Penn State
Now is where we get into the Big Ten’s national champs. Penn State’s Max Dean transferred from Cornell last summer. After making it to the NCAA final in 2019 at 184 pounds, Dean moved up to 197 when he got to Penn State, and he went on to win his first NCAA title as a junior.
Going 23-1 on the year with his only loss a 3-2 setback against Michigan State’s Cam Caffey, Dean also won a Big Ten title in 2022 by beating Nebraska’s Eric Schultz. At NCAAs, Dean overcame Iowa’s Jacob Warner in the 197-pound final.
With an 80-13 career record, Dean will again be considered the favorite to win this year’s national championship.
4. Aaron Brooks - Penn State
There are few who have had better starts to their careers than Penn State’s Aaron Brooks. A junior-to-be, Brooks holds an astonishing 50-2 record so far in his career at 184 pounds. He’s a two-time NCAA Champion as he won titles as a sophomore in 2021 and 2022. After NCAAs were cancelled in 2020 during Brooks’ freshman season, Brooks won both his titles as a sophomore due to the NCAA’s free year of eligibility in the shortened 2021 season.
Brooks has lost two matches, one to Nebraska’s Taylor Venz as a freshman and the other to Michigan’s Myles Amine in the 2022 Big Ten final in overtime. Brooks got his revenge however in this year’s NCAA final, downing Amine 5-3.
An absolute powerhouse (see below) with amazing defense, Brooks heads into his junior year as the heavy favorite to win his third NCAA title. I honestly don’t see anyone really challenging Brooks now that five-time All-American Amine has graduated.
Aaron Brooks doing what many Penn State guys do, which is use the ankle pick as an entry to other attacks. Here it's an ankle pick to double leg - a nice chain b/c opp cannot sprawl his right leg back once the ankle is controlled. Great positional progression!— Dan Sweeney (@DPSBreakdowns) March 22, 2022
3. Carter Starocci - Penn State
Another two-time NCAA Champion for the Nittany Lions, Carter Starocci technically is entering just his sophomore season at 174 pounds. He won his first title in 2021’s free year of eligibility, then he won his second in 2021 as a redshirt freshman again.
In fact, Starocci has a chance to become college wrestling’s first five-time NCAA champ if he keeps up his current pace. Starocci even lost his first college match 10-9 to Indiana’s DJ Washington, but ever since he’s been on a tear. He’s 37-2 on his career with his only other loss to Iowa’s Michael Kemerer in the Big Ten final in 2021. He avenged that loss in the NCAA final, downing Kemerer 3-1 in sudden victory (see below).
In 2022, Starocci finished a perfect 23-0 season with a win over former NCAA champion (at 165 pounds) Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech. Starocci won a tight match in tie-breakers with riding time.
Likely, Starocci and Lewis will again meet in the NCAA finals this season.
2. Roman Bravo-Young - Penn State
Yet another Penn-Stater on this list, Roman Bravo-Young decided he’d return for his senior season and will look to win his third NCAA title.
Wrestling at 133 pounds, Bravo-Young hasn’t lost a match since 2020. He went 14-0 in 2021 while winning his first NCAA title then followed that up with a 22-0 season this past year with another NCAA title.
With both wins in the NCAA finals against Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, a former World silver medalist in freestyle, Bravo-Young is one of the very best in the country at any weight. Below is Bravo-Young’s win over Fix in 2021.
And here’s his won over Fix this past season.
Fix is now a three-time NCAA runner-up, and all signs point to a Fix vs. Bravo-Young trilogy match in this year’s NCAA final.
T-1. Spencer Lee - Iowa
Now we’re at No. 1. And yes, I cheated. There are two No. 1s. With all of the uncertainty surrounding Minnesota’s Gable Steveson and whether he’ll come back for his senior year, I decided to lump these two Hodge Trophy winners in at No. 1 on our countdown of the Big Ten’s best wrestlers.
First is Iowa’s Spencer Lee. The three-time NCAA champion has the opportunity to be just the fifth four-time NCAA champion and the first for the Hawkeyes. Lee missed this past season after having surgeries to repair BOTH ACLs in his knees. Lee won his 2022 NCAA title with no ACLs
Lee hasn’t lost a match since the 2018-19 season when he was a sophomore. As a freshman, Lee went 22-2 while winning his first NCAA title, dropping Nick Suriano (then at Rutgers) 5-1 in the NCAA final (below).
Then in 2019, Lee was able to down Jack Mueller of Virginia to win his second NCAA title (see below). He finished the year with a 23-3 record.
After a cancelled 2020 NCAA Championships, a year that Lee went 18-0 and captured his first Big Ten title, he went on in the shortened 2021 season to capture his third national title, beating Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney in the NCAA final. Lee finished the year 12-0.
If Lee comes back even close to his former form, he’ll be one of the country’s biggest favorites to win an NCAA title. He’s already a Hawkeye great, but he could join the discussion for wrestling’s best ever with another undefeated season and a fourth NCAA title.
T-1. Gable Steveson - Minnesota
What has Gable Steveson not accomplished on the mat? He’s a two-time cadet world champion, a junior world champion, a Big Ten champion, an NCAA champion, and an Olympic champion.
And he’s only 22 years old.
A phenom from the start, Steveson amassed all of those accolades in pretty short order. In college at Minnesota, the heavyweight has a 90-2 record with his two losses coming to Penn State’s NCAA Champion Anthony Cassar, a senior during Steveson’s freshman season. Cassar beat Steveson at Big Tens then in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament. See Steveson’s last loss on a wrestling mat below. Steveson finished his true freshman season with a 36-2 record and All-American status as he finished third.
Ever since those setbacks as a freshman, Steveson has been perfect. He’s won 52 straight matches in college, winning three Big Ten titles and two NCAA titles along the way (the 2020 NCAA tournament was cancelled) while also winning an Olympic gold medal in 202One. In fact, he put together one of the best comebacks we’ve ever seen on the mat in the final against Georgia’s Geno Petriashvili.
In many people’s opinions, including people way smarter than me, Steveson has already proven to be the best heavyweight we’ve ever seen. Now, Steveson still has a year of eligibility to use, but it’s unclear if he’ll use it.
Steveson has signed a contract with the WWE and put his shoes on the mat after his most recent NCAA title win, a universal sign that a wrestler is retiring from the sport. But the Minnesota big man has also hinted at one more season as he tries to win his third title. He’s done the same about the 2024 Olympics, teasing a return.
With Gable, it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do. But if he does return, he’ll be the best wrestler in the country at any weight and he’ll be the biggest favorite at any weight class to win it all.