While everyone may be filling out their last-minute March Madness basketball brackets, it would be more than an oversight to not mention today also kicks off the beginning of the 2012 NCAA Division I National Wrestling Championships. The sport of wrestling has given so much to mixed martial arts, so why not return the favor with a little bit of coverage? Besides, tomorrow's MMA champions are today's wrestling standouts. Do yourself a favor and scout them before they become big sensations.
To help us make predictions for the field: Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren. Who better to break down this year's tournament than a man who is not only one of MMA's champions, but also won the tournament in 2006 and 2007?
For a full primer on this year's tourney (including brackets, betting odds and how to watch), SB Nation has you covered. For now, let's get right to Mr. Askren's predictions:
Most teams go two days early. It's kind of weird for me because it's the first time that I haven't been involved in years. I'm just going as a fan this year which should be fun. They get there two days early, get their practices in, get their weight down and get ready to rumble.
The Field This Year
There are a lot of number ones that stand out and haven't really been touched this year. I would venture to say, I haven't looked up stats, but I would venture to say that there is more undefeated wrestlers in the tournament this year than any in recent past.
The Top Teams
Who to watch: Oklahoma State, Penn State University, University of Minnesota
I would say [Penn State]. I would like to see Minnesota win it. I cheer for them, I like those guys but Penn State I would say would be the definite favorite.
Who to watch: Matt McDonough, Iowa University; Zachary Sanders, University of Minnesota
[Matt] McDonough is the clear leader. He's won it before, was a close second to Anthony Robles last year. I would like to see Alan Waters come through and pull it out from my alma mater of Mizzou. The problem is he lost to Zach Sanders of Minnesota twice and Zach Sanders has lost to Matt McDonough twice so I'm just not sure that it's gonna happen but that's what I'm cheering for.
Dark horse at 125lbs
It does happen every once in a while, but the majority of the time, a lot of these guys wrestle each other so I would say no. Maybe [Ryan] Mango, I don't know, I forgot where he's seeded but he might be the dark horse because he dropped from 133. He's definitely got the tricks in the bag but I don't know if he can put it all together or not.
Who to watch: Jordan Oliver, Oklahoma State; Tony Ramos, Iowa University; Logan Stieber, Ohio State University
Ramos beat him on a one hour weigh-in. Oliver cuts a lot of weight, everyone knows that. If he does, if Ramos does face Oliver which is a big question mark because he'd have to end up beating Logan Stieber, Oliver will have the whole day to recover and he'll be ready to go. Oliver looked dominant in his win over Stiever so I would be shocked to see anyone beat Jordan Oliver so I would say he's a big favorite.
Can Jordan Oliver wrestle internationally?
Definitely. I'm kind of disappointed to see him not do any summer wrestling these past two years. I thought he would have kind of mixed it up with some of the guys. I think he would do pretty well but I haven't seen him in the summers the last couple of years so I don't know where to put him at right now with all those other guys.
Who to watch: Kellen Russell, University of Michigan; Montel Marion, Iowa University; Michael Mangrum, Oregon State University
You know what? Russell, he wrestled a lot of people close last year but I definitely watched the Big 12 tournament and he looked better this year than last year that's for sure. I think that could have been a criticism of him last year but he looked really solid at the tournament.
141 pounds is a good weight for me because we had two former Arrowhead Warhawks in the tournament at 141 pounds. That's my high school. Nick Hucke's got Kellen Russell first round and then Jake Sueflohn, I think he's a 10 seed or something so I would actually say, I would venture to say that 141 pounds is one of the more open brackets in the tournament. A lot of these guys have beaten each other before, even all the way down to Hunter Stieber at number 5, he's the one who's been coming up this year and a lot of these guys went back and forth. I would say this is definitely one of the more open weights in the tournament. I think anyone, even down to [Borislav] Novachkov at 6, I think even he could pull it off.
Who to watch: Frank Molinaro, Penn State University; Jamal Parks, Oklahoma State University
He's definitely the clear cut favorite but like you said, the favorite doesn't always win. I think Jamal Parks at number two could give him a run for his money and then Cole Von Ohlen at number three, he was coached by one of my old college coaches and he's tough as nails on top and that's where Molinaro struggles, in the bottom position so that could be someone who could give him a good run for his money.
Who to watch: Kyle Dake, Cornell University
Not that [Kyle Dake] can't get beat, but I'd say it's highly unlikely that he gets beat.
I want to say [the rest of the field] are a step down below Dake. [Derek] St. John has some bright spots, [Jason] Welch has had some bright spots, but I don't think any of them got anything for Dake. He's just really strong everywhere.
Dake won the title at 141lbs as a freshman and 149 as a sophomore. Could he move to 165lbs next year?
I think it'd be very unwise of him to do that.
Who to watch: David Taylor, Penn State University
165 is just a really tough weight class. Well, ok, sorry, it's not a tough weight class this year. This year it's actually an easy weight class. David Taylor is dominating everyone and none of the other guys are standouts by any means. I don't think you've even got a handful of All-Americans in the bunch behind him.
[Robert] Kokesh, never an All-American. [Michael] Evans, never an All-American. [Bezkod] Abdurakhmonov, never an All-American, [Andrew] Sorensen, never an All-American. So, all these guys they're not that good, right? But then next year you got Andrew Howe - a champ and finalist coming back - and you got Tyler Caldwell, NCAA finalist coming in from red shirt. So, 165 between Taylor, Howe and Caldwell will probably be the toughest weight next year.
Who to watch: Ed Ruth, Penn State University; Nick Amuchastegui, Stanford University; Chris Perry, Oklahoma State
[Ed Ruth] has been as dominant as Taylor this year, but this is more where I think the seeding committee messed up. [Nick] Amuchestegui is undefeated and Amuchastegui beat Ed Ruth and placed higher than Ruth in the NCAA tournament last year. There's no reason Amuchastegui shouldn't have been number one. And that would've put Ruth and [Chris] Perry at 2 and 3 and Chris Perry's beaten Ed Ruth many times through their youth and high school and early in college stuff, so I would be shocked if Perry beat him again, but it wouldn't be too much a stretch of the imagination.
Like I said, Amuchastegui, he kind of put the hammer on Ruth last year - obviously Ruth's a year older, a year wiser - so we'll see what happens.
Who to watch: Quentin Wright, Penn State University; Steve Bosack, Cornell University; Robert Hamlin, Lehigh University
I say along with 141lbs this is the real toss-up weight. I would say everyone [seeded] 1 through 7 has a decent chance. Obviously 6 is Quentin Wright, he's a returning national champ. At number 2 is Robert Hamlin, he won it last year. 7 is [Josh] Ihnen, he beat Quentin Wright. Bosack was third last year, so you got a lot of really tough guys here. That's a tough one to pick. I don't know how it's going to shake out.
One guy that's hot right now is Kevin Steinhaus. Like I said, it's a tough one to pick.
Who to watch: Cam Simaz, Cornell University
People gave [Simaz] too much of a hard time. He didn't fall apart [at last year's national tournament]. [Ed] Kilgore was just that good. Kilgore's a stud. He's an Olympic red shirt, he's coming back next year. But this is one of those weights also where it's kinda Simaz at top and I think everyone else below him. I think after number 1 any of those guys can go in any order. I would be shocked if anyone beats Cam Simaz.
Askren's thoughts on Edinboro's Chris Honeycutt, who has expressed interest in MMA:
Yeah, Honeycutt, I don't think he's got the mat wrestling to go with Simaz. Simaz can wrestle everywhere: top, bottom, neutral. He's got the whole package. Honeycutt's got some holes in his game, so I would be surprised by that result if Honeycutt makes out with a win.
That being said, Honeycutt's going to be an outstanding mixed martial arts prospect.
Who to watch: Ryan Flores, American University; Zach Rey (defending national champion), Lehigh University
Flores beat Rey twice this year, so obviously he's got the upper hand there. And then Tony Nelson coming through on the bottom. He's tough also, so he's only got two losses. He can come through there. Number 9 is a guy I coached last year, Levi Cooper. He pulled some huge upsets at the tournament last year. He actually beat Zach Rey earlier this year, so maybe he can pull some more upsets and sneak in there as a dark horse.
Askren on what differentiates wrestling at 285lbs vs. the other weight classes:
285 is different that everywhere. It's just a different kind of match. There's not as much going. There's obviously not as much athleticism. The thing I tell guys is 'get as big as you can' because the bigger you get, the more athletes that are in other sports. I wrestled 174lbs, so I say once you get above 174lbs all the great athletes are playing football, basketball and baseball. I think that's what you see in the heavyweight weight classes. You do have some great wrestlers, but most of the really outstanding athletes are playing other sports.