Last March, organizers of the NCAA Wrestling Championships were hoping for record crowds of more than 45,000 at U.S. Bank Stadium, with possibly 10,000 making the drive from Iowa to witness what was expected to be a Hawkeyes coronation. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, forcing the cancellation of college wrestling's big event.
Ten months later, the Hawkeyes (1-0) roll into Minneapolis with another dominant, top-ranked team. This time, it's for a Big Ten dual meet against the Gophers (2-1) at 8 p.m. Friday at Maturi Pavilion. The matchup, which will be televised by the Big Ten Network, features an Iowa team that has three No. 1-ranked wrestlers in its lineup and all 10 among the top eight in InterMat's ratings. The Gophers, No. 15 in InterMat's dual rankings, counter with four wrestlers ranked in the top 14.
Leading the Hawkeyes is 125-pounder Spencer Lee, a two-time NCAA champ and the 2020 winner of the Hodge Trophy as the nation's top college wrestler. Lee will face No. 12 Patrick McKee, who shared Big Ten co-wrestler of the week honors with Lee after defeating then second-ranked Rayvon Foley of Michigan State 10-6 last weekend.
Two other matches to watch: fifth-ranked Gophers 157-pounder Brayton Lee against No. 6 Kaleb Young; and in the feature bout, top-ranked Gophers heavyweight Gable Steveson vs. No. 3 Tony Cassioppi.
Steveson, a contender for a U.S. Olympic team spot who defeated top-ranked 125-kg U.S. freestyle wrestler Nick Gwiazdowski in December, went 15-0 last year on his way to the Big Ten title. He's 3-0 this year and coming off a weekend in which he pinned one opponent in 13 seconds and scored an early second period technical fall over the other in a match he had nine first-period takedowns.
Iowa coach Tom Brands believes Cassioppi, who lost 7-5 and 9-4 to Steveson last year, can pull off the upset.
"Gable Steveson is probably one of the most vilified wrestlers out there," Brands said, "but … if he was on your team, you would love him. … It's a tall task when you go up against somebody like that.
"When they're trying to beat you as bad as they can beat you in front of a live television audience, you've got to step up. Does that put pressure on Tony Cassioppi? I hope so.''