Sesker Slant: Picking the champs at NCAAs

By Craig Sesker For The Predicament

Spencer Lee

The NCAA Championships are my favorite wrestling event.

I grew up following the Division I college tournament very closely and cheering for many of my early heroes in the sport.

And I’ve covered the three-day extravaganza 20 times.

This year’s NCAA Championships, set for March 15-17 in Cleveland, is setting up to be another outstanding event.

A down-to-the-wire team race is expected between No. 1 Ohio State and defending champion Penn State.

The second-ranked Nittany Lions have five national champions back from last year.

The Buckeyes have three national champions in their loaded lineup.

I’ve covered wrestling at the Olympic Games, the World Championships, Pan American Games and World Cup, but the NCAAs is still the event I enjoy most.

The arena is packed for every session – well almost, Saturday morning isn’t always full – but you get the picture.

The NCAAs is an outstanding event that not only has 10 individual titles at stake, but a team race as well.

The fans are loud, crazy and boisterous, and the drama on the mat is compelling for the most part.

College wrestling does need to make some rules changes to make the sport better, but that’s a discussion for later.

Here are my weight-by-weight predictions for the 2018 NCAA tournament:

125 pounds

Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello won a national title his freshman year in 2015 while helping the Buckeyes earn the team championship.

Will Tomasello bookend his career with another title as a senior?

Iowa freshman Spencer Lee is very good, and split matches with Tomasello this season.

You also have returning champion and top seed Darian Cruz of Lehigh in the bracket. Cruz could meet returning runner-up Ethan Lizak of Minnesota in Friday morning’s quarterfinals.

How healthy is Rutgers sophomore Nick Suriano? An interesting second-round matchup could pair Suriano against West Virginia’s Zeke Moisey, a surprise finalist as a freshman in 2015.

And don’t forget about Oklahoma State All-American Nick Piccininni.

This weight class is loaded and fairly wide-open with a number of wrestlers capable of landing berths in the finals.

The Lee-Tomasello semifinal could determine this year’s champion. They’ve already had two outstanding matches. Expect another one if they meet again in Cleveland.

Lee is a freshman, but he’s also won three age-group world titles.

My pick: Lee.

133 pounds

South Dakota State’s Seth Gross nearly won it all last year, and he’s come back strong this season.

Gross is the No. 1 seed and he is the favorite to win it this year. He’s a tough matchup for anybody who faces him. He’s big for the weight class, and a good wrestler in all three positions.

Michigan’s Stevan Micic, a returning All-American, is on a roll now after winning Big Tens and is the No. 2 seed. Micic is very good on his feet, and is a top freestyle wrestler.

Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher, Oklahoma State’s Kaid Brock and Missouri’s John Erneste also are expected to contend in this division.

Exciting Drexel freshman Austin DeSanto is another wrestler to keep an eye on. DeSanto beat Micic early in the season.

My pick: Micic.

141 pounds

Oklahoma State’s Dean Heil has won the last two national titles in this class, but he comes into his final national tournament as the No. 6 seed.

Heil is 23-5 this season.

Wyoming’s Bryce Meredith, who beat Heil in the Big 12 finals and was second to Heil at the 2016 NCAAs, is the No. 1 seed.

Missouri’s Jaydin Eierman is the No. 2 seed, followed by Cornell freshman Yianni Diakomihalis, Ohio State’s Joey McKenna and North Carolina State’s Kevin Jack.

Heil and Diakomihalis could meet in Friday’s quarterfinals.

This is a weight class where any of the top six could make a legitimate run at the championship.

My pick: Meredith.

149 pounds

Hodge Trophy winner Zain Retherford of Penn State is the heavy favorite to win his third straight national title in this division.

Iowa senior Brandon Sorensen, a three-time All-American who was second to Retherford two years ago, is the No. 2 seed. Retherford beat Sorensen 2-0 in the Big Ten finals.

Missouri’s Grant Leeth is the 3 seed, followed by North Carolina’s Troy Heilmann and Ohio State’s Ke-Shawn Hayes.

Sorensen could meet past NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis of Arizona State, the 10 seed, in the quarterfinals. Tsirtsis, who transferred to ASU from Northwestern, could face No. 7 Ryan Deakin of Northwestern in the second round.

My pick: Retherford.

157 pounds

Penn State’s Jason Nolf was the clear-cut favorite here before he went down with a leg injury late in the season.

Nolf came back from a January knee injury and looked good in winning two bouts at Big Tens, but then was pulled out of the tournament as a precaution.

If Nolf’s injury isn’t too serious, he is still the pick to win here. He’s been dominant in this division.

North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay is the No. 1 seed. The freshman is 22-0 this season.

Missouri’s Joey Lavallee is seeded second with Nolf third. Nolf beat Lavallee in the national finals in 2017.

Arizona State’s Josh Shields is the No. 4 seed with Big Ten champion Alec Pantaleo of Michigan coming in as the 5 seed.

Iowa sophomore Michael Kemerer, third in the nation last year, suffered his first loss at Big Tens. But expect Kemmer to be in the hunt in Cleveland. He wrestled well at NCAAs last season. Kemerer is seeded sixth.

Big Ten runner-up Micah Jordan of Ohio State also could be a factor in this weight class.

My pick: Nolf.

165 pounds

Illinois superstar Isaiah Martinez won his fourth Big Ten title with a win over Penn State sophomore Vincenzo Joseph in the finals.

Martinez, seeking his third NCAA title, also beat Joseph in the 2017 Big Ten finals. But Joseph rebounded to score a stunning finals win over Martinez at the national tournament.

Martinez looked very good at Big Tens, and he looks to be in the best shape of his career. That’s bad news for the rest of the field in Cleveland.

Virginia Tech’s David McFadden is unbeaten and seeded second. He could face No. 15 Anthony Valencia of Arizona State in the second round. Valencia is a talented freestyle prospect who hasn’t had as much success at the collegiate level.

Joseph is seeded fourth followed by Rider’s Chad Walsh and Iowa’s Alex Marinelli.

Michigan’s Logan Massa also can’t be discounted after scoring two wins over the previously unbeaten Marinelli at Big Tens. Massa was third at NCAAs last year as a freshman.

Keep an eye on Lock Haven’s Chance Marsteller, a former Oklahoma State wrestler who is seeded ninth with a 40-2 record.

My pick: Martinez.

174 pounds

Penn State’s Mark Hall and Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia are both unbeaten even though they met in the all-star dual at the start of the season.

The match didn’t count on their records, but Valencia did beat Hall. And Valencia is the No. 1 seed over Hall, who won an NCAA title last year as a freshman.

Hall and Valencia are two of the top young wrestlers in the country and both have bright futures ahead internationally.

Hall beat Valencia 4-3 in the 2017 NCAA semifinals before Valencia used a late takedown to down Hall 3-2 in November’s all-star dual.

Ohio State senior Bo Jordan lost to Hall in the 2017 NCAA finals. Jordan is the No. 6 seed and could meet unbeaten Missouri All-American Daniel Lewis, the No. 3 seed, in the quarters.

Lehigh’s Jordan Kutler is seeded fourth and Michigan’s Myles Amine is the 5 seed.

My pick: Valencia.

184 pounds

Penn State junior Bo Nickal is at the top of his game right now. The returning national champion is on a roll.

That continued when Nickal downed long-time rival Myles Martin of Ohio State in the Big Ten finals.

Martin beat Nickal in the 174-pound NCAA finals two years ago before both wrestlers bumped up a weight class last year.

Nickal and Martin are seeded 1-2, and it would be intriguing to see these two battle again in the finals.

They are followed in the seeding by Lehigh’s Ryan Preisch, North Carolina State’s Pete Renda and Michigan’s Domenic Abounader.

My pick: Nickal.

197 pounds

This weight class may be the most wide-open of any in the tournament.

Ohio State’s Kollin Moore is the No. 1 seed, followed by Cornell’s Ben Darmstadt, North Carolina State’s Michael Macchiavello, Virginia Tech’s Jared Haught and Penn State’s Shakur Rasheed.

I could see any of those top five seeds landing a spot in the finals.

How Moore and Rasheed finish in this division could also have a significant impact on the team race with Ohio State and Penn State battling for the team title.

Darmstadt, a freshman, has a tough match right away against West Virginia’s Jake Smith, who has been highly ranked but is not seeded.

All-American Willie Miklus of Missouri is the No. 6 seed. He could be a factor as well in this division.

My pick: Darmstadt.

285 pounds

Two-time national champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State has had his hands full with Michigan’s Adam Coon.

And with good reason. Coon outweighs Snyder by roughly 60 pounds.

Snyder avenged a regular-season loss to Coon in the Big Ten finals, finishing a takedown near the edge of the mat to earn a dramatic overtime win.

It won’t be easy for Snyder, a senior who is an Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion. Not to mention Coon, a past NCAA runner-up, is an excellent wrestler.

Penn State’s Nick Nevills and Duke’s Jacob Kasper are the next two seeds after Snyder and Coon. Iowa’s Sam Stoll is the 5 seed.

A Snyder-Coon rematch would be a treat for fans to watch. It would be great to see them battle one final time.

And who knows? It may determine who wins the team title this year.

My pick: Snyder.

Team race

Penn State and Ohio State feature deep and talented rosters. The difference may be how healthy key wrestlers are, most noticeably Nolf.

The Nittany Lions return five national champions, but the Buckeyes have the deeper team. The tournament may come down to bonus points and Penn State has a number of guys who are capable of putting big points on the board.

After the top two, a number of teams may be in the mix. Missouri, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Cornell, Lehigh, Virginia Tech and Arizona State are teams that could potentially contend for a trophy.

Look for Iowa to come back strong after a less-than-stellar showing at the Big Ten tournament.

My pick: Penn State.