ILLINI NCAA Tournament Preview


WHAT:  NCAA Wrestling Championships

WHEN:  Thursday, March 16, Session 1 starts at 11:00 am (Central) FULL SCHEDULE

WHERE:  The Bok Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma 

WHY:  Dominate Division One Wrestling

WHO:  Lucas Byrd, Danny Braunagel, Edmond Ruth, Dylan Connell & Zac Braunagel

TICKETS:  $25 to $350 (each)

TV/STREAMING:  ESPNU (Morning coverage) ESPN (Evening coverage) ESPN+ (Streaming)







THE ILLINI TEAM

Five ILLINI will be wrestling in the NCAA Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They have a combined record of 118-44. Represented are two All American honors (Lucas Byrd) and two Honorable Mention All Americans (Danny and Zac Braunagel) and a Round of 12 (Zac Braunagel). 

Of the 118 wins, 43 included at least one bonus point. That's a 36.44% bonus rate. 

This is Zac Braunagel's fourth year qualifying for the Big Party and Danny Braunagel's third. Little Brawny was injured last season. Lucas Byrd has been to the NCAA tournament twice, while it will be the first time for both Edmond Ruth and Dylan Connell. 

As a team, the ILLINI finished in 25th place in 2022 with a total of 17.5 points. Lucas Byrd finished in fifth place to earn his second All American award. Zac Braunagel lost by a point in the Round of 12. 


A DAY IN HISTORY

It is Saturday, March 19, 2022. 

Besides being National Tequila Day and the start of National Agriculture Week, the war in Ukraine has reached its 23rd day. In America, Heat Waves by Glass Animals tops the Billboard charts, and if you think you got away from him, you didn't: Justin Bieber is #7 with Ghost

At the movies, The Batman is in its 16th day of release but still crushing it at the box office on this Saturday with $16,004,510 in ticket sales. The video game Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy was released the day before, and your kid brother can no longer move any of his fingers. They will need to be amputated. 

The biggest news on this day, though, is Lucas Byrd pinning Virginia Tech's #4 seed Korbin Myers in the NCAA tournament in the fifth-place match while leading 4-2. You can see it here:







RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE

One ILLINI missing from the NCAA Wrestling tournament is Danny Pucino. He certainly had a resume that deserved an at large bid, but the coaches on the committee, who I hate, gave the bid to a wrestler who lost 4-6 in his conference tournament to a guy Danny beat 4-1, then this Rider fellow medical forfeited out of the MAC tournament. 

Before the B1G tournament, Pucino had a 13-7 record against D1 competition. He was #24 in both the RPI and Coaches' Poll. Solidly within the benchmarks.

He's Italian.

He has beaten the following wrestlers already in the field: Northwestern's Frankie Tal-Shahar (5th BTT), Purdue's Parker Filius (4th BTT), and Kal Miller of Maryland (9th BTT). Additionally, he beat Javion Jones of NIU (3rd MAC) head to head, and Jones was in the 141 at large pool. This was by a solid 4-1 score.

Six of his nine losses were to wrestlers who are currently top twelve in the weight at wrestlestat.com. His two worst losses are to fellows who won auto bids to the NCAA Tournament (Miller, 9th at BTT; Zargo, 7th at BTT).


THE ILLINI BRACKETS

For today, we will just go through first- and maybe second-round matchups for the ILLINI wrestlers. In the next couple of days, we can examine each bracket more carefully. We start off with two-time All American Lucas Byrd. 


LUCAS BYRD

The ILLINI has a first-round matchup with Air Force's Cody Phippen. Before entering the Academy, Phippen wrestled for Air Force Prep. He's been the starter for the Falcons for four years now, but this is his first appearance at the Big Party. 

Strangely enough, he wrestled his first two years for Air Force at 125, then the next year at 141, before settling down to 133 this season. He has a career mark of 55-29. 

His best wins came against the #31 and #34 wrestlers on wrestlestat.com, but that #34 wrestler was Wyatt Henson of Oklahoma, whom he majored. This year he has lost to the #19 (Connor Brown), #67, #53, #36, #3 (Vito Arujau) and #104 (Boo Dryden) wrestlers. His win percentage on the year is 76%, while he bonuses at at a 52% clip, making him relatively dangerous. 

Wrestlestat.com predicts a 10-3 win for Byrd. Phippen is 3-3 against common opponents, while the ILLINI is 6-1, with the lone loss coming during Byrd's redshirt year to Alan Hart of Missouri. 

Beat this flyboy, and we'll see a sweet revenge match with Michael Colaiocco. Here's what that looks like in the bracket and how Byrd is the Wyrd stacks up against Voldemort (Hogwarts, 99-1, #1 on Intermat):





DANNY BRAUNAGEL

As the 19th seed, Little Braunagel will face the 14th-seeded Peyton Hall of West Virginia in the first round. On wrestlestat.com, the Mountaineer gets a lot of love as the #8 wrestler, while Brawny is undervalued at #31. 

Yet, it is the ILLINI who holds the head-to-head win over his rival. 

That Braunagel win happened at the Midlands by the score of 7-6. A word of caution about that, though, as Hall did take a medical forfeit at the tournament. 

Still, they are both 12-8 versus common opponents, and Hall had a very rough time at the Big 12 tournament, suffering two medical forfeits. 

This is Hall's third year in the Big Dance, finishing 8th last season and Round of 12 the year before. Wrestlestat.com predicts a 10-4 win for the bad guy. The question: Is Hall ready to go? 

Get the upset over Hall, and the Brawlnagel will get another crack at Dean Hamiti. Here's how all of that looks like on a bracket and how Danny matches up with Chewbacca:







EDMOND RUTH

The first-round matchup for Ruthless is Phillip Conigliaro of Harvard. The Crimson wrestler is in his fourth season starting, and he made it to the Round of 12 last year at 165. He's had a little less success at 174. His 11-6 record this time around doesn't come close to his 22-6 and 31-7 seasons at the lower weight. 

Wrestlestat.com is predicting a 6-5 win for the good guy, and it also indicates that Edmond is 9-2 against common opposition, while Conigliaro is 6-2. This year, the Harvard lad has lost to the #16 wrestler (by major), #43, #17, #8, #56 and had a medical forfeit. He did beat #14 Michael O'Malley and #17 Nick Incontrera in the EIWA tournament. 

But at the same tournament was when he lost by major to the #16 wrestler and lost a decision to #43. 

The one thing you can say for sure about this Harvard Crimson is that he must not be good at turning or cheap tilts. His bonus percentage for his career is 13.95%. But up at 174, it has dropped to 5.88%. 

Get past this fellow, and we will most likely see round three of Ruth versus Bailee O'Reilly, and this time, Edmond gets him. Here's how this shakes up on a bracket and how Edmond does in an epic "Versus" battle against Baby Goats:





DYLAN CONNELL

As the #23 seed, Dylan will face Travis Wittlake of Oklahoma State in the first round. The Cowboy is the #10 seed and sports a 19-5 record. The wrestlestat.com algorithm is calling for a 9-3 win for the bad guy. Connell will have to rely on his strength and will need to protect his legs against this foe, as Wittlake wrestled at 165 last season.

Of course, the Cowboy is most famous for his run a couple of years ago at 165, where he came from the ten seed to finish fourth at the NCAA tournament. 

This is his fifth year in the Cowboy lineup and his fourth year as a starter. As noted previously, he started three years at 165. This is Wittlake's third NCAA tournament, placing fourth two years ago with that crazy run and earning Covid AA status the year before that. 

Against common opposition, Connell is 1-6, while Wittlake is 3-4. Dylan did as good or better than his rival in a few of those losses. It looks like the Cowboy will rely heavily on takedowns, as his bonus percentage has dropped off considerably since moving up in weight. He's got a career 25.66% bonus rate, but up at 184, he's 16.67%. 

Here's how all of this looks in a bracket along with a cool "Versus" battle between Dylan and Korg:







ZAC BRAUNAGEL

The Brawlnagel has Andy Smith of Virginia Tech in the first round. The Hokie has a 15-7 record on the season and a more modest 37-21 career mark. 

Smith has a couple of very nice wins against #4 Tanner Sloan and #13 Isaac Trumble this year, but he's also had losses to the #33 and #25 wrestlers.

When he first started wrestling in college, the Hokie was up at 285. (He doesn't look like it now). Thicc Zac will need to use his quickness to take this guy out.

The best analog for this wrestler is probably Wisconsin's Braxton Amos, but Smith appears to be a little smaller and a little less agile than the Badger.

Get past him, and Zac will likely let the fireworks fly against Lehigh's Michael Beard in the second round.

Here's how that all looks on a bracket along with a monumental "Versus" battle between Zac and the robot from that robot movie, I think he was called Iron Giant or something:






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