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March 19, 2014

Wrestling: What PSU needs to win 4 straight

Penn State hopes to enter elite company at the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla., March 20-22. With three national titles in their back pocket, the Nittany Lions are on the cusp of becoming only the third program in history to win four consecutive national crowns.

They'll begin their tournament run at noon (ET) Thursday, and it will end Saturday night. The entire tourney will be broadcast live, with the first three sessions and the medal round airing on ESPNU and ESPN broadcasting Friday's semifinals (8 p.m.) and the championship round Saturday (7 p.m.)

Blue White Illustrated will provide complete coverage of the entire tournament live from Oklahoma City in the Lions Den message board, but first, we take a look at how Penn State arrived at this point, explore a few tournament scenarios and what must happen if PSU is to achieve its fourth NCAA title.

What has happened…

Penn State hopes to enter elite company at the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Oklahoma City, Okla., March 20-22. BWI examines how it can be done, here.Penn State has shaken the college wrestling landscape during the past four years. With its 2011 NCAA championship, PSU became the first East Coast program in nearly 60 years to win a national title, and the Nittany Lions haven't stopped since. Led by the often written-about
but never-duplicated David Taylor and Ed Ruth, who were redshirt freshmen in 2011 and placed second and third, respectively, PSU has become the class of Division I wrestling.

Taylor has since won one individual championship in 2012 at 165 pounds, while Ruth has won the past two at 184. They played linchpin roles in every team title, too, and last year the race was particularly close, as the Lions edged Oklahoma State, 123.5-119.5. Taylor and Ruth combined to score a whopping 50 of those team points. To put that number in perspective, the two wrestlers by themselves outscored the tournament's eighth-place team, Oregon State, which finished with 48.5 points.

Nico Megaludis at 125 pounds also contributed 18.5 points for PSU in his run to the finals, while Matt Brown (174) played a crucial role, too, adding 20 team points and a runner-up finish. The four finalists return in 2014, and they have Penn State favored to shake the landscape even more. Only two other college programs (Oklahoma State and Iowa) have won four consecutive national crowns. On Saturday, Penn State could become the third.

"We have the opportunity to go for a fourth championship in a row," coach Cael Sanderson said. "We have three, nothing can change that, that's a done deal. If we want to win four, the opportunity is there. We just have to go score some points, wrestle with some fire and stick with the principles that got us to this point."

What has to happen…

Most, if not all, of the Nittany Lions' 10 qualifiers have to wrestle to or better than their seeding. Pre-scoring the tournament based on seeds alone without bonus points, Penn State wins handily, topping second-place Minnesota 89.5-82. Based on the seeds, Iowa would finish third and Oklahoma State, fourth.

But when does a bracket finish exactly according to its seeding, let alone 10 of them? Never. And if there's one thing the PSU wrestlers made clear after the NCAA brackets were released last week, it was that they couldn't care less about what number is beside their name.

"As long as everybody does what they're supposed to, keep winning matches and going for bonus points," Ruth said, "I feel like we'll be OK."

As a No. 2 seed, Ruth is expected to wrestle above his seed, while 285-pound junior Jon Gingrich nabbed a No. 14 seed after outperforming his seed at Big Tens, so he's another candidate to finish higher than his placement. Jimmy Gulibon (133) and James English (149) were unseeded, so a couple wins from them could almost act as bonus.

Despite Oklahoma State's fourth-place pre-score, many believe the Cowboys could be Penn State's biggest threat again. So Gulibon's first-round matchup vs. Oklahoma State's Jonathon Morrison at 133 could set the tone. Gulibon is unseeded, Morrison is ranked fourth, and Morrison has won the previous two meetings. But the last one was a close 2-0 loss for Gulibon, so people close to the program believe this could be the match in which the redshirt freshman turns it around. If he does, and gets a first-round win, it would be huge for PSU's early momentum.

Same goes for Zain Retherford's opening-round bout at 141. Despite being a No. 3 seed, Retherford drew Citadel's Ugi Khishignyam, who was a fourth-place finisher last year. Many observers have this circled as a potential early upset, so a win here for Retherford could be a needed confidence-boost for the true freshman.

What can't happen...

Taylor and Ruth can't hold anything back. If the Nittany Lions are going to win their fourth in a row, they need their two seniors to account for at least 50 team points again. They'll also need solid scoring from Megaludis, Retherford, Brown and 197-pounder Morgan McIntosh. So that means bonus points, bonus points and more bonus points will be required. Said Taylor, "We need them just like every year."

Nothing should change.

"Everyone wants to tighten up a little bit in the NCAA Championships," Taylor added. "It's natural to be nervous. It's natural to think a little a more, put more emphasis on your warm-ups, but the biggest thing you can't do is change what you've done your whole life -- every season, every dual meet, every match."

Penn State also can't have many -- if any -- of their competitors go 0-2 and exit the tourney without scoring team points. They always say, "Team titles are won in the wrestle-backs." So if a couple of Nittany Lion wrestlers are defeated in the opening round -- we mentioned Gulibon's and Retherford's difficult draws, and 157-pounder Dylan Alton could open with Michigan's Brian Murphy, who defeated him at Big Tens -- Penn State will need them to score points in the loser's bracket.

That's because Oklahoma State, Iowa and Minnesota will be tight on the Lions' tail. Nine Hawkeyes are seeded, six of whom are in the top five, and nine Gophers are seeded but with only three in the top five. The Cowboys have four top-five seeds and, like Penn State, were awarded eight total seeded wrestlers. It's likely PSU will have only two champions Saturday night, so Penn State has to hope its main competitors do not finish with many more than that.

What should happen…

Penn State should win. It should come down to the wire again, too, but the Nittany Lions are poised to claim their fourth consecutive crown. Then again, it's March. It's championship season, and brackets are involved, so really, who knows what will go down?

"At the NCAA tournament, crazy stuff happens every year," Taylor said. "They can predict what they want to on paper, but really, when it comes down to it, it's whoever wants it most and that's what makes it so exciting."

With that said, Taylor and Ruth really should win individual titles. According to Brian Muir of IntermatWrestle.com, Taylor is a -600 favorite to win the 165-pound bracket, the largest favorite of the field, while Ruth comes in second place with -300 odds. Ruth's No. 1 challenger could come in the semifinal -- Cornell's Gabe Dean, who beat Ruth at the Southern Scuffle in January -- but Ruth should be able to avenge that loss.

Based on the seeds, Taylor and Ruth are picked to be PSU's only finalists, but Megaludis has stormed to the finals in each of his first two seasons, so he can never be counted out, and Brown and McIntosh have proven themselves capable of beating almost anyone in their bracket.

If those five avoid any major upsets, and if some other PSU wrestlers create a few upsets in favor of the Nittany Lions, then they should be able to seal the deal.

PSU Qualfiers

125 No. 3 Nico Megaludis Jr. Murrysville, Pa./Franklin Regional (26-3)
Final RPI: No. 2 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 2
133 Jimmy Gulibon Fr. Latrobe, Pa./Derry Area (17-13)
Final RPI: No. 12 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 15
141 No. 3 Zain Retherford Fr. Benton, Pa./Benton (29-1)
Final RPI: No. 1 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 2
149 James English Sr. York, Pa./Central York (11-5)
Final RPI: NR Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 26
157 No. 13 Dylan Alton Jr. Mill Hall, Pa./Central Mountain (18-5)
Final RPI: No. 6 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 11
165 No. 1 David Taylor Sr. St. Paris, Ohio/St. Paris Graham (29-0)
Final RPI:No. 1 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 1
174 No. 5 Matt Brown Jr. West Valley City, Utah/Cyprus (28-4)
Final RPI: No. 5 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 5
184 No. 2 Ed Ruth Sr. Harrisburg, Pa./Susquehanna Township (29-1)
Final RPI: No. 3 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 2
197 No. 3 Morgan McIntosh So. Santa Ana, Calif./Calvary Chapel (27-3)
Final RPI: No. 2 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 3
285 No 14 Jon Gingrich Jr. Wingate, Pa./Bald Eagle Area (22-8)
Final RPI: No. 12 Final Coaches Poll Individual Rank: No. 14

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