NCAA college wrestling championships preview: Storylines and wrestlers to watch


The 2023-24 men’s college wrestling season comes to a triumphant culmination this week in Kansas City with the NCAA Division I wrestling championships. In total, 330 wrestlers will step on the mat in hopes of standing atop the podium on Saturday night. After a season of unpredictable upsets and intense rivalries, only 80 will reach the coveted All-American status and only 10 will be crowned the 2024 national champion of their respective weight class.

The championships begin Thursday at Noon ET on ESPNU and ESPN+ and continue through Saturday on ESPN, ESPNU and ESPN+.

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Five key storylines

1. Starocci going for four

The senior Nittany Lion Carter Starocci is seeking his fourth NCAA Championship at 174 pounds, but the biggest question is how healthy he is. After suffering an injury during the last dual of the year, Starocci medically forfeited out of the Big Ten championship. With the missed matches counting as losses, Starocci owns a 12-2 record and saw his NCAA D-I leading 64-match win streak come to an end. He is coming into the tournament as the 9-seed, a placement that could lead to a Starocci/1-seed Mekhi Lewis (Virginia Tech) quarterfinal matchup and a Starocci/4-seed Shane Griffith (Michigan) semifinal.

2. Returning champions

Seven previous NCAA champions are in the field, seeking another title to add to their legacy.

If Aaron Brooks and Starocci were to win their fourth titles, they will join a list of only five other wrestlers who boast four titles attached to their names.

3. Don’t sleep on these guys

Some of the best stories from the tournament start with the least expected wrestlers hitting their stride and going on a run. Who remembers 15-seed Kizhan Clarke (North Carolina) in 2022 who reached the finals as the lowest seed ever? The following guys could have their own Cinderella story this week and add some drama in the process.

  • 125 lbs: 12-seed Anthony Noto (Lock Haven); three-time MAC Champion

  • 133 lbs: 7-seed Nasir Bailey (Little Rock); Pac-12 champion

  • 141 lbs: 18-seed Cole Matthews (Pittsburgh); two-time ACC champion, upset 1-seed Jesse Mendez this season

  • 149 lbs: 20-seed Jordan Williams (Oklahoma State); injury defaulted at Big 12 championship; injured in the finals vs. 5-seed Ty Watters

  • 157 lbs: 14-seed Cody Chittum (Iowa State); impressive showing at Big 12 championship

  • 165 lbs: 13-seed Joseph Bianchi (Little Rock); Pac-12 champion

  • 174 lbs: 22-seed Peyton Mocco (Missouri); only returning All-American on his side of the bracket

  • 184 lbs: 18-seed Ryder Rogotzke (Ohio State); Pinned 6-seed Bernie Truax this season, took fifth at Big Ten championship

  • 197 lbs: 13-seed Levi Hopkins (Campbell); two-time SoCon champion, past six wins have all been by fall

  • HWT: 29-seed Nash Hutmacher (Nebraska); nicknamed “The Polar Bear”; defensive lineman for the Cornhuskers; his first college match was a win by fall

4. 125 lbs is anyone’s to win

With five different wrestlers ranked at No.1 in the season, no one was left unscathed. Matt Ramos (Purdue) held the coveted spot for the last six weeks of the regular season, which earned him the top seed at the Big Ten championship. Just when everyone began to wonder if the weight was Ramos’ to lose, 9-seed Dean Peterson (Rutgers) upset Ramos in a decision win. Braeden Davis, a freshman from Penn State ended up taking the Big Ten title and the 1-seed for the NCAA tournament. These guys are scrappy and unpredictable.

5. Penn State dominance

Coming off their eighth Big Ten title under legend Cael Sanderson, the Nittany Lions seek their 11th national championship team title in the past 13 seasons. The team qualified all 10 weights for the first time in 10 seasons and could break previous records of five individual titles, the largest margin of victory (+73.75 by Iowa in 1986) and most team points (170.5 by Iowa in 1997). The race for second and third place is where things could get interesting. Keep an eye on NC State, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa State to make potential pushes for a team trophy.


Weight-class spotlights

125 lbs

With the revolving door at No. 1 throughout the season as well as six returning All-Americans in the field, this weight could get wild in the first round. True freshman Braeden Davis (Penn State) earned the Big Ten title and everyone will be watching to see what he can do at his first NCAAs. Keep an eye on 2023 NCAA runner-up Matt Ramos (Purdue) and three-time ACC champion Jakob Camacho (NC State).

133 lbs

The reigning 133-pound EIWA conference champion, Ryan Crookham (Lehigh), posted a 18-0 record this season. His two best wins came over 2023 NCAA champion and world medalist Vito Arujau (Cornell), who dropped to the 6-seed in this year’s bracket. 1-seed Daton Fix (Oklahoma State) became the first five-time Big 12 champion this season and has appeared in the 133-pound NCAA finals three times throughout his legendary career for the Cowboys.

141 lbs

After winning the weight at Big Tens in a win over 2-seed Beau Bartlett (Penn State), Jesse Mendez received the 1-seed at NCAAs. Michigan’s Sergio Lemley took the 8-seed after he handed 3-seed Real Woods (Iowa) his first loss of the season. Keep an eye out for 18-seed Cole Matthews (Pitt) who boasts wins over Mendez, 4-seed Ryan Jack (NC State) and 6-seed Lachlan McNeil (North Carolina) this season.

149 lbs

1-seed Ridge Lovett looks to win Nebraska’s first national title since 2011 when legend Jordan Burroughs won for the Cornhuskers. Lovett’s only loss on the season came during his matchup with 2-seed Kyle Parco (Arizona State) on Feb. 6-seed Austin Gomez (Michigan) has had a great showing the last month, qualifying Mexico at 65kg for the 2024 Paris Olympics and taking second at the Big Ten tournament.

157 lbs

One of the deepest weights at the NCAA tournament this season, this bracket has all the makings to get funky. Penn State’s Levi Haines, who is a perfect 18-0 on the season, took the 1-seed with Arizona State’s four-time Pac-12 Champion Jacori Teemer at the 2-seed. Potential second round matchups include 9-seed Will Lewan (Michigan) vs. 8-seed Peyton Robb (Nebraska) and 3-seed Meyer Shapiro (Cornell) vs. 14-seed Cody Chittum (Iowa State).

165 lbs

Junior Keegan O’Toole has been the definition of Tiger Style for Missouri as he enters the tournament hungry for his third-straight title. If we’re lucky, we’ll see the fifth installment of O’Toole vs. 4-seed David Carr (Iowa State). O’Toole has taken the past two meetings, both by decision. Don’t forget about 2-seed Mitchell Mesenbrink, freshman for the Nittany Lions. He and O’Toole attended the same high school and are both products of Missouri great Ben Askren.

174 lbs

With Carter Starocci medically forfeiting out of Big Ten championships and those counting as losses this season, he was dropped to the 9-seed at NCAAs. The problem? The top half of the bracket contains 1-seed Mekhi Lewis, 4-seed Shane Griffith and 9-seed Carter Starocci, all of whom have won an NCAA championship. There is the potential to see Lewis vs.Starocci in the quarterfinals and Starocci vs. Griffith in semifinals — barring all participants are healthy and ready to go. The bottom half of the bracket? Previous All-American Peyton Mocco (Missouri) who took eighth last season sits as the 22-seed.

184 lbs

The clear No. 1 at this weight is Parker Keckeisen, a redshirt junior of Northern Iowa. He holds a record of 26-0 and an 88% bonus percentage in his matches which includes 10 tech falls over opponents. 7-seed TJ Stewart, a Virginia Tech freshman, took the ACC title and has been on an impressive run, his last loss coming Jan. 26 in sudden victory vs. North Carolina’s Gavin Kane.

197 lbs

Up a weight and going for his fourth title, 1-seed Aaron Brooks went 17-0 this season while picking up his fourth Big Ten title. The Penn State senior boasts a 94% bonus percentage and should he win the title, could be the front runner for the 2024 Dan Hodge Trophy. On the other side of the bracket is 2-seed Trent Hidlay (NC State) who has also bumped up a weight this season. Brooks and Hidlay have met in the past three NCAA semifinals and finals where Brooks holds a 3-0 record. Don’t count Hidlay out just yet though, he holds a 24-0 record, is a four-time ACC Champion and has a bonus percentage of 83%. Is it Hidlay’s year?

HWT

If you love drama, look no further than the heavyweights. Greg Kerkvliet, the redshirt junior from Penn State, took the 1-seed in this bracket after earning a 15-0 record and his second Big Ten title. 2-seed Yonger Bastida (Iowa State) is also undefeated on the season with a 24-0 record. He has taken to social media over the past few weeks declaring himself the Grim Reaper. The last person on his list? Greg Kerkvliet. Will we see a clash of the titans in the finals?



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