For any wrestling fan, this is the best time of the year. The regular season schedule is done and we’re onto the postseason and the real March Madness.
The No. 4-ranked Huskers have had a sensational year considering who they had to replace in the lineup from last year’s team that finished 5th at the NCAA Championships, just one spot away from earning a team trophy.
Gone due to graduation were 3x All-American Chad Red (141 pounds), All-American Taylor Venz (184), All-American Eric Schultz (197) and All-American Christian Lance (285). Then there was the decision to redshirt All-American Ridge Lovett after he made it to the NCAA final a year ago as a sophomore.
That’s five All-Americans out of the lineup, and the Huskers have done a great job building this team into a serious team trophy contender (Top-4 finish at NCAAs), even without all that lost firepower.
Nebraska has been recruiting very well in recent years and it showed this season as the Huskers just reloaded. Now, this team is far from perfect — it certainly has its weak spots — but it may just be better overall than last year’s 5th-place team.
They’ll get a chance to prove it this weekend when they travel to Ann Arbor to compete in the Big Ten Championships. Nebraska is one of the top teams in the conference with a 12-3 dual record, its only conference loss coming to No. 2 Iowa.
The Team Race
Behind a loaded Penn State squad, second place is really kind of up for grabs between the Hawkeyes, Huskers and No. 6 Ohio State.
The top-ranked Nittany Lions have been a force for over a decade and this year will be no different. Penn State has four returning NCAA champions in its starting lineup in Roman Bravo-Young (133), Carter Starocci (174), Aaron Brooks (184) and Max Dean (197). On top of that they’ll also have a few 2-seeds at the tournament in Beau Bartlett (141), Levi Haines (157) and Greg Kerkvliet (285).
Beyond Penn State, Iowa is the favorite to finish second. Their entire lineup is projected to place (Top-8 finish), and with favorites Spencer Lee (125) and Real Woods (141), they’ll be tough to beat.
Then there’s Ohio State and Nebraska. Each team has some very highly-ranked wrestlers but both teams lack the kind of weight-by-weight depth that will be needed to top Penn State and Iowa this year.
And obviously, don’t count out teams like Michigan and Northwestern here. They’re bound to make some noise too.
How to Watch
The Big Ten Wrestling Championships will air both on the Big Ten Network and B1G+ (subscription required).
Here’s the coverage schedule.
Big Ten Wrestling Championships Schedule
Day Date Session Coverage Time (Central)
Saturday, March 4 - Session 1 BTN 9 a.m.
Saturday, March 4 - Session 1 B1G+ 9 a.m.
Saturday, March 4 - Session 2 – Wrestlebacks B1G+ 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 4 - Semifinals BTN 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 5 - Session 3 – Cons. Semis B1G+ Noon
Sunday, March 5 - Session 4 — Finals BTN 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 5 - Session 4 – 3rd and 5th B1G+ 3:30 p.m.
*Rankings according to FloWrestling
2-seed Liam Cronin
Ranked No. 3 in the country, the seventh-year senior Liam Cronin has never looked better. He’s 18-3 on the year and is the 2-seed at Big Tens, positioning himself on the opposite side as No. 1 Spencer Lee. If Cronin can navigate his half of the bracket, he’ll inevitably see Lee again in the conference final.
Looking at the bracket at 125 pounds, Cronin will open things with a bye (top 2 seeds get byes) before taking on the winner between 7-seed Braxton Brown of Maryland and 10-seed Gary Steen of Penn State (Originally, it was supposed to be 7-seed Malik Heinselman of Ohio State vs. 10-seed Jack Medley of Michigan with the winner facing Cronin, but Heinselman is out for the season with an injury that was announced Thursday). Cronin has never faced either Brown or Steen. Brown is 21-4 on the year, while Steen is 6-12. Brown is ranked No. 23 in the country and could be a tough quarterfinal test for the senior Cronin.
With the loss of Heinselman, Ohio State will be going with Andre Gonzalez, a redshirt freshman with a 14-9 record this year. He’ll get the 14-seed and everyone else will move up a seed as the bracket is adjusted.
Cronin should be a lock to make the semifinals, setting up a highly anticipated matchup between him and 3-seed Matt Ramos of Purdue. Cronin sat out their dual, so they’ve never met on the mat before. Ramos is 26-3 on the year and is ranked No. 4 right behind Cronin.
With a win over Ramos, Cronin will have to try to solve the puzzle that is Spencer Lee. He’s a three-time NCAA champion and a two-time Hodge Trophy winner (about to get his third). In their meeting this year, Lee pinned Cronin in 38 seconds.
Lee has lost before, but it’s been a very long time since it’s happened (2019 Big Ten final). Cronin winning would be a monumental upset.
12-seed Kyle Burwick
After a lot of tinkering with the lineup here, the Huskers settled on Kyle Burwick. The Wisconsin transfer is 13-7 on the year but only 1-6 in Big Ten duals.
As the 12-seed, Burwick will have a tough opening-round matchup against 5-seed Dylan Ragusin of Michigan. These two have never met, but Ragusin (14-6) has had a really solid season and will be a heavy favorite against the Husker.
With a loss to Ragusin, Burwick will likely face 13-seed Dustin Norris of Purdue in the consolation bracket. With a win over Norris, Burwick could see 6-seed Aaron Nagao or 3-seed Lucas Byrd in the next round. Burwick fell to Nagao 4-2 in sudden victory this season. Against Byrd, Burwick lost a 3-0 decision.
This looks like the most likely place where we’ll see Burwick’s tournament come to an end, unfortunately not far enough to earn him an automatic qualifier spot for the NCAA tournament. With the Big Ten getting eight automatic qualifier spots, he’ll need to pull off an upset or two and has to place to qualify for nationals.
3-seed Brock Hardy
Nebraska reloaded here after losing Chad Red to bringing in redshirt freshman Brock Hardy. Ranked No. 6 in the country, Hardy is 24-4 on the year. He’s been one of a few young breakout stars for this Husker team.
As the 3-seed, Hardy will first face 14-seed Kal Miller of Maryland. A true freshman, Miller is 12-14 on the year. With a likely win over Miller, Hardy will then probably face 6-seed Danny Pucino of Illinois. Hardy already faced Pucino this year and beat him 16-1 via tech fall.
With a win over Pucino, Hardy will move on to another of the tournament’s most anticipated matches when he takes on Penn State’s 2-seed Beau Bartlett. A sophomore, Bartlett is 19-1 on the year with his only loss coming to No. 2-ranked Real Woods of Iowa.
In fact, get used to these very anticipated meetings between Penn State and Nebraska wrestlers as these two teams didn’t dual this year, and there are a few big matchups that could materialize this weekend between the two.
Should Hardy beat Bartlett in the semis, he’ll likely face the top-seeded Woods in the final. These two wrestled in the season with Woods coming out on top 6-4. It was an interesting match where Hardy showed he has the ability to score on the Hawkeye but overplayed his position a few times.
If this final materializes, it’ll be a great match to watch. And if Hardy can beat Woods, he’ll likely earn a Top-2 seed at NCAAs.
11-seed Dayne Morton
Having to replace Lovett — one of Nebraska’s best wrestlers — has been a mixed bag this year. For the most part, Nebraska has rolled with Division II transfer Dayne Morton here and he’s 5-12 this year.
Morton has largely struggled to find wins this season, but he’s been pretty stingy as far as giving up points. He had close matches with No. 4 Yahya Thomas (4-2 decision) and No. 5 Kyle Parco (5-2) while also notching a ranked win against No. 16 Michael Blockhus of Minnesota via 5-4 decision.
This weekend, the 11-seed Morton will face off against the 6-seed Blockhus in the first round. Blockhus is 14-4 this year and has won five of six matches since losing to Morton in January. I know Morton has the upset win against Blockhus, but I see this match going the way of the Golden Gopher.
With a first-round loss, Morton will then likely see 14-seed Jaden Reynolds of Purdue to start the consolation bracket. Reynolds is 5-13 on the year. If Morton is able to grab a win against Reynolds, he’ll likely face 5-seed Shayne Van Ness of Penn State or 4-seed Max Murin of Iowa next.
Either way, this is likely where Morton’s tournament ends as Van Ness and Murin are two of the better wrestlers in the conference.
1-seed Peyton Robb
Sporting a perfect 23-0 record, top-ranked Peyton Robb has clearly separated himself from the field with his 11 wins over ranked opponents, earning the 1-seed at Big Tens.
As the top seed, Robb gets a first-round bye before taking on the winner between 8-seed Trevor Chumbley of Northwestern and 9-seed Garrett Model of Wisconsin in the quarterfinal round. Robb beat Chumbley 2-0 in their dual while also downing Model 11-3 via major decision.
That sets up Robb with a semifinal match against either 4-seed Chase Saldate of Michigan State or 5-seed Cobe Siebrecht of Iowa. Robb defeated both this season, downing Saldate 12-6 while beating Siebrecht 7-2.
In the finals, Robb will face the winner of the other semifinal, likely a match between 2-seed Levi Haines (20-1) of Penn State and 3-seed Kendall Coleman (26-3) of Purdue. Robb has never faced the true freshman sensation for the Nittany Lions but has faced Coleman many times. Robb is 4-1 against the Boilermaker with a 7-3 decision win this season at the Cliff Keen Invite in Vegas.
In all honesty, that Haines-Coleman semifinal will be one of the best under-the-radar matches of the tournament. I’d love to see Robb take on Haines, but Coleman is a very tough out and is a seasoned veteran.
Robb is certainly the favorite to win conference gold here. It’s been eight years since Nebraska had an individual Big Ten champion, and Robb is its best bet to get one this year.
10-seed Bubba Wilson
In his second year starting, Bubba Wilson is 13-10 on the year. Wilson has won four straight duals after dropping five in a row before that.
As the 10-seed, Wilson will face 7-seed Maxx Mayfield of Northwestern in the first round. Wilson fell to Mayfield 7-2 in dual action, so Wilson is certainly the underdog.
With an opening loss, Wilson will then drop down to the consolation bracket. He’ll get a bye in the first round of consolations before seeing 9-seed Andrew Sparks of Minnesota or 8-seed Danny Braunagel of Illinois in the second round.
If Wilson is able to get a win there, he’d likely face 5-seed Carson Kharchla or 4-seed Alex Facundo of Penn State. Neither would be a good matchup for Wilson.
Wilson will need to out-perform his seed if he wants to earn an auto-qualifier spot at NCAAs. With only eight auto-qualifier spots for the Big Ten, Wilson will need to place or he’ll be left hoping for an at-large bid.
2-seed Mikey Labriola
A heavy favorite to make it to his first Big Ten final, No. 2-ranked Mikey Labriola is another undefeated wrestler for the Huskers at 24-0. He’s had the best year of his career, which is saying something. He’s a 3x All-American, finishing third in 2021. He’s also climbing up the Husker career wins chart. Right now, he’s tied for 11th on the list with 114 career wins (career record of 114-27) — tied with 2x NCAA finalist TJ Dudley. Just three more wins and Labriola will pass NCAA finalist Tyler Berger (116 career wins) for 9th place on the all-time list. That’s about as high as he can climb with the next guy on the list being Jason Kelber at 8th with 123 wins.
This weekend will go a long way in determining Labriola’s legacy. He’s never competed in the finals for a conference or national title.
As the 2-seed, Labriola will get a first-round bye before likely facing 7-seed Nelson Brands of Iowa. Brands is 6-4 on the year and lost a tight 3-2 match against Labriola in their dual.
With a win over Brands, Labriola will likely face either 3-seed Ethan Smith of Ohio State or 6-seed DJ Washington of Indiana. Labriola is 3-1 against Smith in their careers, downing the Buckeye 6-4 this year in their dual. Against Washington, Labriola is 2-0 with a pair of decision wins in 2021 (8-4 and 13-7), but the two haven’t wrestled this season.
Onto the finals, Labriola will take on 1-seed Carter Starocci. A two-time NCAA champion, Starocci has two wins over Labriola in their careers but they haven’t wrestled this season. Starocci is 16-0 this year and hasn’t lost a match since the 2021 Big Ten tournament.
This is one of the biggest matchups of the entire tournament should it materialize. Two undefeated wrestlers meeting in the Big Ten final — nothing better than that.
7-seed Lenny Pinto
Lenny Pinto has to be the most dangerous 7-seed ever. He’s going to be a tough out having won his last six matches, including an incredible pin over No. 20 Anthony Montalvo to end the dual season.
There's no QUIT in LENNY PINTO. @HuskerWrestling x @Goodlen7 pic.twitter.com/oJ5uGVeL4p— Nebraska On BTN (@NebraskaOnBTN) February 19, 2023
Pinto is 19-7 on the year with some big-time wins. He’s also had a few head-scratching losses from early in the year, but he’s been solid in Big Ten play. He’s 6-2 in Big Ten duals — his two losses were each by one point to No. 9 Abe Assad of Iowa (6-5) and No. 10 Isaiah Salazar of Minnesota (7-6).
As the 7-seed, Pinto will first face 10-seed Tyler Dow of Wisconsin in the first round. Pinto shouldn’t have much trouble here after he beat Dow 16-4 via major decision in their dual.
In the quarters, Pinto will face 2-seed Kaleb Romero of Ohio State. Romero didn’t face Pinto in their dual, so this match hasn’t happened yet. Romero is extremely solid and consistent, but he’s missed some time with injury. This is honestly a match that I’ve been really excited to see, but I just think Pinto could be an upset machine this weekend.
With the upset over Romero, Pinto would face 3-seed Salazar in the semis. In their match that Salazar won 7-6, Pinto never trailed until the final two seconds. It looked like he just let the match slip away in the final seconds. I expect better out of Pinto this time around and I honestly think he gets this win too.
With another upset win, Pinto will find himself facing 1-seed Aaron Brooks of Penn State in the final. Brooks is a two-time NCAA champ with a 59-3 career record. He’s a very heavy favorite to win another set of Big Ten and NCAA titles. I can’t wait to see the let-it-fly freshman from Nebraska take on Brooks. Brooks is 9-1 on the year with a loss to Iowa State’s No. 4 Marcus Coleman, so he’s not invincible.
Don’t be too surprised if Pinto connects on a big move and gets the upset, although he’s definitely the underdog here.
2-seed Silas Allred
Another bright spot for the Huskers this year has been redshirt freshman Silas Allred. Ranked No. 10 in the country, Allred is 23-5 this season. His five losses have come to three guys in No. 7 Isaac Trumble of NC State (2x), No. 9 Tanner Sloan of South Dakota State (2x) and No. 12 Jacob Warner of Iowa.
Allred is on a six-match win streak, including wins over No. 11 Zac Braunagel of Illinois and No. 16 Braxton Amos of Wisconsin, earning him the 2-seed this weekend.
As the 2-seed, Allred gets a first-round bye before likely taking on 7-seed Gavin Hoffman of Ohio State. Allred met Hoffman at the Cliff Keen Invite, downing the Buckeye 5-2.
With a win over Hoffman, Allred will move onto the semis to face 3-seed Braunagel or 6-seed Jaxon Smith of Maryland. While Braunagel is seeded higher, don’t count out Smith. After all, Smith beat Allred two times in a row in freestyle this past summer to earn the spot on the U20 World Team.
I definitely see Braunagel as a better matchup for Allred, but I see him winning against either guy. With that, Allred would move on to face 1-seed Max Dean in the finals. Another NCAA champion for Penn State, Dean is 18-2 on the year with losses to No. 2 Michael Beard and No. 6 Ethan Laird. He’s not as much of a favorite this weekend as many of the other Penn State 1-seeds. In fact, he’ll have a really tough semifinal against either 4-seed Cam Caffey of Michigan State or 5-seed Jacob Warner of Iowa, so it’s no guarantee that he even makes the final.
Regardless of his opponent, making it to the Big Ten final as a freshman is a major accomplishment, and Allred has the tricks to get there and score a big upset.
14-seed Austin Emerson
Nebraska’s Austin Emerson is in a tough spot here. He’s taking the spot of an injured Cale Davidson after not wrestling a single Big Ten dual.
Davidson had his struggles this year going 9-15, while Emerson is 10-4 at open tournaments mostly. He did get in the lineup in Nebraska’s final dual against Arizona State where he faced No. 5 Cohlton Schultz. Emerson did an admirable job holding the match to a 6-0 decision.
In the Big Ten, it gets no easier. The top four seeds at this weight are the top four wrestlers in the country — 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. That’s a tough bracket to get dropped into.
As the 14-seed, Emerson will face 3-seed Cassioppi in the first round. Cassioppi is an elite heavyweight and a tough matchup for Emerson. With a loss to Cassioppi, Emerson will likely face 11-seed Garrett Joles of Minnesota in the first round of consolations. Joles is 12-11 on the year and 3-5 in Big Ten duals.
Again, this is a tough spot for Emerson, but if he’s going to get a win this weekend, Joles is his best shot because in the second round of consolations, Emerson would likely see 5-seed Trent Hillger of Wisconsin or 4-seed Davison. Both guys are All-Americans.
This year’s Husker team is certainly top-heavy, especially to start the year. They knew before the season that Robb and Labriola were solid, but I don’t know that there were many people outside of the Devaney Sports Center who thought that Cronin, Hardy, Pinto and Allred were going to be this good this year.
Nebraska has four wrestlers with first-round byes, showing the top-level talent on this team. However, the fact that four of Nebraska’s other wrestlers are seeded 10th or worse is the reason the Huskers just can’t compete this year with a team like Penn State and possibly even Iowa. The Nittany Lions are loaded with top talent AND depth, and the Hawkeyes boast the across-the-board depth that piles up points.
So, Penn State should run away with the team title behind a number of champions, while Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State will likely be the three teams vying for runner-up. Iowa is definitely favored to finish second, but the Huskers and Buckeyes both have paths to overtaking the Hawkeyes.
If I had to bet on it, I’d go with Nebraska finishing third just ahead of Ohio State.
One Really, Really Bold Prediction
Nebraska has at least four finalists and gets two champs
As I mentioned, it’s been eight years since Nebraska won an individual Big Ten title (Last time was when current assistant coach Robert Kokesh won his second Big Ten title at 174 pounds in 2015). I really thought last year’s team was going to win one but they fell short.
This year, Nebraska has a very real chance of putting five guys into the finals — maybe even six if Pinto blows the bracket up like I think he can. Now, that’s an extremely optimistic scenario, but it’s certainly not unthinkable that Robb, Labriola, Cronin, Hardy and Allred can all get to the finals. It’s very unlikely they all make it, but it wouldn’t be shocking if any one of them made it to the final.
Making it to the final and winning are two very different things. Cronin will have a very tall task against Lee, while Labriola, Hardy and Allred would also be underdogs in their matchups. If he makes it, Pinto would also be a heavy underdog. Really, Robb is the only Husker favored to win a title.
But, with so many possible shots at individual conference gold, the Huskers have to crown at least a champ or two...Right?
I see Robb getting it done while the Huskers get a surprise second champion out of Cronin, Hardy, Labriola, Pinto or Allred.