Illinois wrestling prepares for tournament season


Illinois’ Jackson Morse grapples Kent State’s Tyler Buckwalter on the mat during the match at Huff Hall on Feb. 15. The Illini are currently preparing for the Big Ten Tournament. 

By Ethan Swanson

It’s tournament time for the Illinois wrestling team. 

The Illini’s 23-13 loss in their NWCA National Duals quarterfinal to then-No. 2 Missouri marked the end of the dual meet season, which Illinois finished 13-5, 6-3 Big Ten. Now, every Illini grappler’s dual record takes a back seat as they prepare for the Big Ten Championships in Columbus, Ohio, March 7-8 and ultimately the NCAA Wrestling Championships in St. Louis, March 19-21.

The Big Ten Wrestling Championships hold much more implications than just conference supremacy. 

“In the sport of wrestling, the Big Ten is like the SEC for football, except quite a bit better,” assistant head coach, Iowa alumnus and two-time NCAA champion Mark Perry said. “The Big Ten tournament is definitely the second-biggest event of the college wrestling season. It doesn’t get any tougher.” 

In wrestling, the Big Ten practically owns the month of March. As of Feb. 24, 10 out of the 14 Big Ten schools are ranked in the top 25 nationally in the USA Today/NWCA Coaches poll — six are in the top 12.

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    No league championship in any other sport is a better for predicting success on a national level. 

    In 11 of the last 15 seasons, the Big Ten team champion has gone on to win the NCAA team title. The Big Ten has also posted nine national runners-up in the last 15 seasons. The only other conference that has a team championship in the same time frame is the Big 12, with Oklahoma St. winning four titles from 2003-2006. The Big Ten is not dominated by one or two teams every year either. The league’s past 20 national team champions or runners-up have come from five different schools.

    The conference’s depth can, in part, be attributed to its coaching prestige. Nearly every head coach in the Big Ten has been part of a national championship as a collegiate wrestler and share the same achievement with those they coach. Just between Illini head coach Jim Heffernan and Perry stand eight All-American honors, four national team titles, three individual national championships, and two Iowa Male Athlete of the Year award winners.

    “Having coaches that have been there and succeeded at the highest level is great,” sophomore Zac Brunson said. “They share their experiences with us and help prepare us mentally and emotionally.”

    However, the correlation between success in the conference and success on the national level is most prevalent at the individual level.

    Since the 1999-2000 season, out of the 150 Big Ten title winners, 97 have gone on to place in the top three at the NCAA tournament. Of those 97, 50 claimed a Big Ten title and national championship in the same season. Even when a Big Ten champion at his respective weight class didn’t go on to place first at nationals, there has been 15 instances where another Big Ten wrestler claimed the No.1 spot at the same weight.

    The Big Tens are basically a mini-national tournament,” senior Jackson Morse said. “You might see three or four guys that are ranked in the national top 10 at your weight. If you win Big Tens, you’re probably top three in the country, for any weight.”

    The Big Ten’s dominance doesn’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon, as the conference has seen its greatest national achievements in just in the past five years. In 2012, seven of the 10 conference champions also placed first at nationals. In the 2013 and 2014 tournament seasons, all 10 conference winners finished fourth or better at the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten even produced two individuals that have won three-consecutive national championships, with Ohio State’s 141-pound Logan Stieber and Penn State’s 184-pound Ed Ruth claiming victory each of the past three seasons.  

    The Big Ten Championships do much more than crown a conference champion, they establish the favorites to win it all. Although the events are two weeks apart, The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments are likely to have practically identical results. Wrestling thrives in the Big Ten, and the conference tournament is where the majority of national champions will be produced this season and for many seasons to come.

    “It’s just such a power conference,” Perry said. “For wrestling, the Big Ten is just where it’s at.”

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