Sesker Slant: Picking the champions at NCAAs

By Craig Sesker For the Predicament

The NCAA Championships are still 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 18 times.

This year’s NCAA Championships, set for March 21-23 in Pittsburgh, is setting up to be another outstanding event.

Top-ranked Penn State is favored with a loaded lineup that includes four national champions, but Ohio State, Oklahoma State and Iowa are among the teams who hope to challenge for the top spot.

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 nearly every session and ESPN will be broadcasting the entire event, including carrying it in prime time all three days.

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.

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

125 pounds

Iowa’s Spencer Lee won it all as a true freshman last year, but his road to repeat won’t be easy.

Lee lost twice this season to Northwestern’s Sebastian Rivera, included an overtime setback in the Big Ten finals. Lee also was pinned in a late season setback to Oklahoma State’s Nick Piccininni.

Lee will be the No. 3 seed at NCAAs behind Rivera and Piccininni, but it would be crazy to count him out.

Lee, a Cadet and Junior world champion, knows how to excel when the stakes are highest. He actually wrestled well in the Big Tens before Rivera rallied to win.

The key for Lee is to come out strong and secure the first takedown. He’s lethal in the top position and can take control from there.

Rivera is a strong bet to make the finals with the Lee-Piccininni semifinal expected to be an entertaining battle.

My pick: Lee.

133 pounds

This weight class is incredibly deep and loaded with more than a dozen wrestlers with the capability of making a big impact.

Junior world champion Daton Fix of Oklahoma State is the top seed. He’s a freshman competing in his first NCAA tournament in a bracket with experienced and proven standouts.

The seeding in this weight class was a little curious with returning NCAA runner-up Stevan Micic of Michigan awarded the No. 2 seed despite medical forfeiting to sixth at Big Tens.

The wrestlers who actually competed were penalized. Especially Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, who is now a No. 7 seed after falling to Big Ten champion Nick Suriano of Rutgers and past NCAA runner-up Ethan Lizak of Minnesota in the conference tournament.

Suriano is the 3 seed and Lizak the No. 6 seed. Ohio State’s Luke Pletcher is seeded fifth.

Don’t forget about Pittsburgh freshman Micky Phillippi, who is the No. 4 seed. He’s a wrestler who could make a big impact in front of his home fans.

An interesting second-round bout could match DeSanto against Penn State freshman Roman Bravo -Young, the No. 10 seed. If DeSanto wins, he could face Micic in a rematch of their heated battle from last year’s national tournament.

My pick: Suriano.

141 pounds

Two of my favorite wrestlers – Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Ohio State’s Joey McKenna – highlight this weight class.

Diakomihalis, a two-time Cadet world champion, turned in a courageous effort to win nationals last year. He won as a freshman despite suffering a severe knee injury during the tournament.

McKenna, a Junior world silver medalist, is a dynamite wrestler with an excellent arsenal on his feet.

As a wrestling fan, I would love to see these two studs battle it out on Saturday night.

Penn State’s Nick Lee can’t be discounted. He is seeded third and is a legitimate title threat. Lee is seeded third and would battle a familiar foe in McKenna in the semifinals.

Northern Iowa’s Josh Alber is the No. 4 seed who is eager to finish his career strong at his final NCAA tournament.

Missouri’s Jaydin Eierman, the No. 5 seed, also is capable of crashing the party in this event.

My pick: McKenna.

149 pounds

Two-time Hodge Trophy winner and three-time NCAA champion Zain Retherford of Penn State is finally gone from this weight class.

His departure sets the stage for a weight class that may be fairly wide-open at nationals.

Big Ten champion Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers is the No. 1 seed who has fared well in this event in the past.

Ohio State’s Micah Jordan and Duke’s Mitch Finesilver are seeded 2-3 at 149. No. 6 Austin O’Connor of North Carolina and No. 7 Kaden Gfeller of Oklahoma State also are on that side of the bracket along with No. 10 seed Pat Lugo of Iowa.

No. 4 seed Brock Mauller of Missouri is another guy who will definitely be in the hunt in this division. He will likely have to move past No. 5 seed Matthew Kolodzik of Princeton in Friday morning’s quarterfinals.

This weight class is as wide open as any, in my opinion, in this tournament.

My pick: Ashnault.

157 pounds

Penn State’s Jason Nolf is heavily favored here to win his third straight national title.

Nolf is coming off a lopsided win over No. 2 seed Tyler Berger of Nebraska in the Big Ten finals.

Nolf is a bonus-point scoring machine who has been dominant all season.

The battle here will be for second place.

North Carolina State’s Hayden Hidlay, the No. 5 seed, was second to Nolf last year with Berger taking third.

Nolf’s toughest match potentially could be against Hidlay in the semifinals. Hidlay likely would have to beat No. 4 seed Alec Pantaleo of Michigan in the quarters to earn a shot at Nolf.

Berger’s toughest challengers on the bottom of the bracket appear to be No. 3 seed Ryan Deakin of Northwestern, No. 6 Kaleb Young of Iowa and No. 7 Larry Early of Old Dominion.

My pick: Nolf.

165 pounds

The reward for Iowa’s Alex Marinelli for winning Big Tens and beating two-time national champion Vincenzo Joseph of Penn State in the finals?

One of the toughest draws you will ever see for a No. 1 seed at the NCAA tournament.

Marinelli’s road will begin with a likely first-round match against No. 33 seed Joe Smith of Oklahoma State. Smith, a two-time All-American, was ranked in the top five at 174 before dropping down to 165 for the postseason.

If anyone can navigate his way through a tough side of the bracket, it’s Marinelli. Fourth seed Evan Wick of Wisconsin is also on his side of the bracket along with No. 5 seed Chance Marsteller and No. 8 seed Mekhi Lewis of Virginia Tech.

Marinelli could face Lewis in the quarterfinals. Lewis won a Junior world title in 2018.

Marinelli is a tough, hard-nosed wrestler who will have to navigate his way through a challenging bracket in this tournament.

Joseph’s road isn’t quite as daunting, but he does have No. 3 seed Josh Shields of Arizona State and No. 6 seed Logan Massa of Michigan on his side of the bracket.

He also could face No. 7 seed Isaiah White of Nebraska in the quarters. Joseph beat White in overtime in the quarterfinals of last year’s NCAA meet.

My pick: Marinelli.

174 pounds

Penn State’s Mark Hall and Arizona State’s Zahid Valencia have won the last two titles in this weight class.

Now both juniors, Hall and Valencia are on track to meet again this year in the finals. Hall is an age-group world champion and Valencia is a Junior world silver medalist.

Hall won an NCAA title in 2017 before falling to Valencia in the 2018 finals.

Hall beat Valencia in a dual meet this season. Hall is unbeaten and will be the No. 1 seed.

Hall is very good in the top position and rode Valencia during their most recent match. Securing the first takedown and staying off bottom could be a big key for Valencia if they meet again.

Valencia will be the 3 seed behind No. 2 Daniel Lewis of Missouri. Lewis is a proven wrestler with a 24-1 record this season.

Michigan’s Myles Amine is the No. 4 seed and Lehigh’s Jordan Kutler is seeded fifth.

My pick: Valencia.

184 pounds

Ohio State’s Myles Martin won a national title as a freshman at 174 pounds in 2016.

Now he is looking to cap his career with another crown.

The unbeaten Martin is the No. 1 seed and looking to bounce back after losing to Penn State’s Bo Nickal in last year’s finals.

Martin’s top challengers are No. 2 seed Shakur Rasheed of Penn State, No. 3 Zach Zavatsky of Virginia Tech, No. 4 Emery Parker of Illinois and No. 5 Max Dean of Cornell.

Martin beat Zavatsky in the semifinals last year.

2017 All-American Drew Foster of Northern Iowa is the No. 6 seed in this weight class.

My pick: Martin.

197 pounds

Penn State’s Bo Nickal bumped up to this weight class this year and has continued to roll.

He’s 25-0 and the No. 1 seed after a dominant senior season.

Nickal controlled No. 2 seed Kollin Moore of Ohio State by a 10-3 score in the Big Ten finals.

Nickal is seeking his third national title. He’s another wrestler who has an aggressive, attacking style that is entertaining to watch. He’s also a dangerous wrestler with a big-move arsenal.

The battle here will be for second place between Moore, No. 3 seed Preston Weigel of Oklahoma State, No. 4 Patrick Brucki of Princeton and No. 5 Jacob Warner of Iowa.

Moore finished fourth at NCAAs in 2018.

Three-time All-American Willie Miklus of Iowa State is the No. 6 seed. Miklus transferred to ISU this season after competing for Missouri.

My pick: Nickal.

285 pounds

This weight class cleared out as well with three-time champion Kyle Snyder of Ohio State and two-time runner-up Adam Coon of Michigan completing their eligibility.

Minnesota freshman standout Gable Steveson had been ranked No. 1, but fell to Penn State’s Anthony Cassar in the Big Ten finals.

Cassar is seeded second and Steveson third at NCAAs.

Oklahoma State’s Derek White is the No. 1 seed. He is 28-1 this season.

Iowa’s Sam Stoll, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, wrestled only sparingly this season and is the No. 29 seed. He will battle No. 4 Jordan Wood of Lehigh in the opening round.

Michigan freshman Mason Parris, pulled out of redshirt after Christmas, is the No. 5 seed. Oregon State’s Amar Dhesi, third at nationals last season, is the No. 6 seed. Parris handed Dhesi his only loss this season.

This is another wide-open weight class where a handful of guys could contend.

My pick: Steveson.

Team race

Penn State has three No. 1 seeds, three No. 2 seeds and a No. 3 seed. Plus, two other wrestlers seeded in the top 12.

It would take a tremendous team effort for anyone to overtake the Nittany Lions in this tournament.

But crazy things can happen in this three-day extravaganza and you just never know how the matches will play out.

Ohio State and Oklahoma State are capable of making a run at Penn State, but they will need near-flawless performances to do it. Iowa and Michigan also have the firepower to make a strong run.

The Nittany Lions are wrestling close to home in Pittsburgh and they will have a huge cheering section rooting them on.

As always, it will be fun to watch.

My pick: Penn State.