Hawkeyes enter as favorites; Minnesota looks to defend wrestling title

ST. LOUIS -- You can tell a lot about a college wrestling season by looking at the guest list for the pre-tournament news conference at the NCAA Championships.

Coaches don't get an invitation to this gathering based on reputation alone -- and this year was no different.

Oklahoma State's John Smith was not in attendance Wednesday, even though he has more national titles than any other active coach in the sport and carries godlike status in his home state.

"I remember making a recruiting home visit [to a prospect] in Oklahoma and there was a picture of Jesus on the wall and there was John Smith with his gold medals," Missouri coach Brian Smith recalled. "I remember thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?'"

Central Michigan's Tom Borrelli wondered the same thing Wednesday when the moderator asked the coaches to give an opening statement and looked his way first.

"I guess I'm supposed to start," Borrelli said. "I'm real happy to be here. I've been coaching at Central Michigan for 17 years and this is the first time I've been to this press conference, so I'm real excited."

Minnesota's J Robinson has been a regular at this get-together for years, but he showed up 12 minutes late -- perhaps symbolic of a season where little has gone exactly to plan for the Gophers.

For that matter, the abnormal has nearly become the norm across the country this season, generating what appears to be the most compelling national tournament in years. Several main story lines surround this year's meet, which begins Thursday at Scottrade Center.

Can Iowa complete its climb back to the top?

The Hawkeyes enter the tournament ranked No. 1. They haven't been in this position in eight years. Iowa claimed its last title in 2000 -- its 20th crown in 26 years -- in the same building where three of the team's current assistant coaches were All-Americans for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa went 21-1 in dual meets this season, claimed its first national duals title in 12 years and hasn't lost in a tournament setting.

"Are we back? I don't know," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "This is one fun year that we need to put an end exclamation mark on."

The Hawkeyes haven't finished within 40 points of the title since 2003, but they enter this year's meet with a tournament-high eight wrestlers seeded eighth or better. The best of the bunch this year has been sophomore Brent Metcalf, the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds.

"Are we the team to beat? Probably," Metcalf said. "We're aware of that, but at the same time, we need to perform and continue to do what we've been doing all year and put a notch on top of that."

Can Minnesota finally become the team everyone envisioned?

The Gophers were the consensus No. 1 team in the country at the beginning of the season. They had eight NCAA qualifiers back from the squad that captured the 2007 national title.

But injuries dogged Minnesota throughout the season. Once considered nearly unbeatable, the Gophers lost seven dual meets and failed to win an individual title at the Big Ten championships.

"We thought we had everything going for us, but things happen and you've got to keep fighting and get to the national tournament and hopefully everyone will wrestle their best and get it done," said Minnesota sophomore Jayson Ness, the No. 2 seed at 125.

The Gophers enter the tournament with medical concerns. All-Americans C.P. Schlatter and Roger Kish pulled out of the Big Ten meet after sustaining injuries in the conference semifinals. Both are expected to wrestle, but their effectiveness could be limited.

"The beauty for us is we don't have to worry about two more months of competition," Robinson said. "Three more days and we're done. We don't have to worry about trying to get somebody back in two weeks for a dual or the National Duals. There's a finality for us right now, which can work in our favor and that's the way we're looking at it."

Can anyone break the lock three schools have had on the title?

Ever since Arizona State won the 1988 national championship, Iowa, Oklahoma State and Minnesota have played tug-of-war with the title. The Hawkeyes finished on top nine times since then, the Cowboys claimed seven championships and the Gophers won three.

Michigan and Iowa State seem to be the leading candidates to break into the elite class. The third-ranked Wolverines are short on qualifiers (six) but long on top-level talents (five are seeded fifth or better). The No. 4 Cyclones qualified at all 10 weights in the process of winning their second straight Big 12 title.

"We're definitely wrestling at our best right now," Iowa State coach Cael Sanderson said. "I'm proud of the way our team competed at the conference championship. Each individual was at their best and that's exciting for me and exciting for our program and our fans and really exciting for the individuals competing here. We've got our work cut out for us. We need to get some upsets and we need points out of all 10 guys and we need to take advantage of every opportunity."

Fifth-ranked Nebraska, No. 6 Oklahoma State and Borrelli's seventh-ranked Chippewas could factor into the title chase, too.

"I think they can relax and compete hard and prove themselves," Borrelli said. "It's kind of a good position to be in, from our mind-set."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.