After winning Big Ten crown, Iowa’s focus now turns to ‘Unfinished business’ at NCAA Championships

The Hawkeyes have their 2021 conference title secured, so the team’s attention turns to winning the national championship, which it didn’t have the opportunity to do in 2020.


Ryan Adams for the Daily Iowan

Iowa’s Alex Marinelli returns Ohio State’s Ethan Smith during the finals of the Big Ten Wrestling Tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, PA on Sunday, March 8, 2021. The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten Title with a team score of 159.5. This is the 37 Big Ten Title in school history. (Ryan Adams/The Daily Iowan)

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands’ message all season long has been “getting to the finish.” After winning the 2021 Big Ten Wrestling Championships, the top-ranked Hawkeyes are one step closer to getting there.

The 2021 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Missouri will be held from March 18-20 and the Hawkeyes will seek to do what they didn’t have the opportunity to do last year: Win a national title.

“Now we’re going to St. Louis,” Brands said. “That’s really where their heads are, that’s where my head is. You’re going to get the recognition that you earn based on your performance. That is a timeless principle. That’s a principle that is true and correct. You’re going to get the accolades that you earn.”

Iowa won its 37th conference title over the weekend in State College, scoring 159.5 points (Penn State finished second with 124 points) and crowning four individual champions.

But the Hawkeyes made it this far last year.

Iowa won the 2020 Big Ten title on March 8 of last year. But as soon as the tournament ended, the Hawkeyes talked about their desire to win the “big prize.” In a crowded Rutgers Athletic Center full of wrestling fans, Brands, Spencer Lee, and Alex Marinelli were among the Hawkeyes who emphasized that success at nationals was the main focus for them rather than enjoying their success from Big Tens.

Four days later, the NCAA Wrestling Championships were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cancellation meant that Iowa, the heavy favorites to win the national title last season (and this season), could not claim its first NCAA championship since 2010. Instead, Brands was forced to tell his team that the season was over.

And ever since then, Iowa has been focused on getting back to this point and being in position to win its 24th national championship.

Iowa went 5-0 in the regular season before dominating at Big Tens. The Hawkeyes went 28-8 overall in the tournament, and Lee (125 pounds), Jaydin Eierman (141), Marinelli (165), and Michael Kemerer (174) claimed individual titles.

The team celebrated alone in the center of the mat on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center wearing “Big Ten Champions” T-shirts and hats.

But the celebration was short-lived.

“It’s great, but you know the mentality,” Kemerer said. “We’ve got work to do. We’ve got a bigger thing coming up in two weeks.”

“I’m regretting that match,” Eierman said of his 6-5 finals victory over Penn State’s Nick Lee. “It should have been way worse. But it’s a learning point and I’m going to be a different animal come March when I’m standing at those national finals ready for everybody.”

“We aren’t even wrestling at our highest level yet,” Marinelli said.

Lee is a two-time national champion at 125 pounds. His quest for his third national title was crushed last year by the pandemic.

Brands has said Lee may have been the most emotional of all the Hawkeyes on the team when he informed everyone of the NCAA Championships’ cancellation. That cost Lee the chance at going for this third title and at the time — before an extra year of eligibility was granted — it put into question whether he’d have the opportunity to be a four-time national champion.

In his return to the mat this season, Lee has done the things that make the question, “Who is the best college wrestler in the country?” rather simple to answer.

Lee went 4-0 in the regular season and 3-0 at Big Tens. In the semifinals, Lee pinned his opponent in 23 seconds (tying the quickest fall in program history) to advance. In the finals, Lee won his second-straight Big Ten title via 21-3 technical fall over Purdue’s Dylan Schroder.

“As soon as the match is over, it’s over,” Lee said. “Now, what matters is what’s next. And what’s next is getting ready for the NCAA Tournament… I don’t want you guys to think that I don’t appreciate winning these titles. That’s not it. It’s just when the match is over, it’s over. The only thing that matters is what’s next. And what’s next is the NCAA Tournament.”

Along with the four top seeds who placed first, Austin DeSanto (133) and Kaleb Young (157) finished in second place at Big Tens. Jacob Warner (197) and Tony Cassioppi (285) ended the tournament in third place, while Nelson Brands (184) came in fourth.

All nine Hawkeyes who placed earned automatic bids to nationals.

Max Murin, the Big Ten’s No. 2 seed at 141 pounds, went 0-2 on the weekend and put his odds of qualifying for NCAA into question. Brands seems confident that Murin — who entered this weekend 4-1 — will earn an at-large bid.

At-large selections are based on the following criteria: head-to-head competition, quality wins, coaches’ ranking, results against common opponents, RPI, qualifying event placement, and winning percentage.

Iowa won the Big Ten Championships by its largest margin of victory since 2010 and did so with only nine wrestlers placing. At least four Hawkeyes will be the favorites to win individual titles at the national meet, and if all 10 Hawkeyes do their jobs in St. Louis and finish at or above their seed, the battle for the team national championship could be even more short-lived than the hunt for the Big Ten title was.

It’s been a year in the making, but Iowa is finally back where it wants to be. The NCAA Championships are the next meet on the schedule. Lee, Marinelli, Kemerer, and every other Hawkeye wrestler can compete for what they wanted last year: The big prize.

And, as if there was any doubt before, Iowa’s performance at Big Tens made it clear that the big prize is its to lose.

The team’s travel plans to St. Louis are being arranged. And there’s no other place the Hawkeyes would want to be from March 18-20.

“We’re going to St. Louis in less than two weeks,” Brands said, “and we’re fired up.”