Editor’s Note: Dan Gable has dealt with plenty of winning and losing experiences at the NCAAs as both a wrestler for Iowa State and head coach at Iowa. He recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about the 2013 national tournament and what will be critical elements to winning as a team and individual championships.
WIN: How would you break down the team race?
GABLE: There are four teams that are kind of above the rest: Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma State. Teams like Ohio State or Missouri are teams that are not hoping to sneak in but feel they should be there. They may not have enough firepower.
The key is consistency, where the better teams accomplish “major” things more than once. Those four teams have been consistent and they have beaten each other during the season.
If there is any team that already has countable (NCAA All-American) points, that is Penn State. When you can say names like (returning champions) David Taylor, Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright, you have guys who have been consistent all year. Penn State appears to have automatic points while the other teams will have to earn them more.
Oklahoma State has Jordan Oliver. You can put him in a category with those Penn State guys. He really has not slipped much since losing last year’s NCAA championship match that he could have won, based on an official’s call. But he did show some vulnerability in his National Duals match with Dylan Ness.
Penn State has the edge with top individuals, but that doesn’t necessarily win the team title anymore. The last time the Nationals were in the state of Iowa (2001), Minnesota won a team title without a champion or finalist.
I don’t know if Penn State has an edge on overall team balance, where nearly every weight class could produce points. Oklahoma State, Minnesota and Iowa are those kinds of teams. When you speak of team depth, you might want to give the edge to any of the other three schools.
And if you look at Iowa, the Hawkeyes are more than a balanced team. They had two wrestlers — Matt McDonough and Derek St. John — who were ranked No. 1 pretty much all year until the last couple weeks. And they also have a wrestler like Tony Ramos, who just went to overtime against one of the better wrestles in the country like Ohio State’s Logan Stieber.
Iowa did not look good at the National Duals, but did look pretty good at the Big Ten tournament, except for those four final matches. If Iowa can feed off their Big Ten success, placing nine in the top four of their weight classes and feed off the Iowa atmosphere, they could do well in Des Moines.
WIN: How much of a home-mat advantage does Iowa have?
GABLE: I don’t know because I don’t know what fans will have the tickets. It’s a pretty small arena. I was talking to a guy at the Big Tens from a little town in Iowa. He told me that they normally have a group of 40 people who go to the Nationals, but only ten of them got tickets. If wrestlers from Iowa State and Northern Iowa stay in the tournament, the Hawkeyes could pick up some of those fans. That’s what happened at the 1997 Nationals in Cedar Falls, where in the end it seemed like it was all Iowa fans (in the UNI-Dome).
WIN: Normally, people say the teams that produce the most bonus points are the teams that win. But because these top four schools are close in balanced talent, will it be more important to win the close matches?
GABLE: Everything is important, especially when there are four teams that could win. Bonus points are always a factor and that’s what I like about tournament scoring. The fans are really in tune to those points, probably more than the wrestlers That is a matter of mentality and one I have not seen in those other three teams other than Penn State. Some of them are not strong enough to go from a five-point lead to eight.
But more than bonus points, it’s about the number of athletes teams like Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma State can keep alive and scoring any points until the end.
WIN: There is a former NCAA champion competing in eight of the ten weight classes. Is this one of the most talented fields the NCAA has had in a long time?
GABLE: Earlier in the year, I was more set on who I thought was going to win the team and individual championships. I’ve changed my mind a little bit on that because I’m trying to figure out who is an automatic champion.
That’s also a sign that younger wrestlers have taken the challenge. At 125 pounds, you have a kid (Jesse Delgado) from Illinois who has stepped up and challenged McDonough and took over the weight.
But he still has to wrestle a style to win. All it takes is for the other guy doing a better job of forcing his style. McDonough did a better job of becoming an offensive wrestler in the past when he won his two national championships and when he was more consistent. That means he still has it. These former champions have to figure out how they won before. When they do that, it will give them their best chance to win again.
WIN: McDonough is also one of four former champions who are not ranked No. 1 at their weight class. One is Penn State’s David Taylor, who must beat the likes of three-time champ Kyle Dake to win again. A lot of people are looking forward to them wrestling in Des Moines. What are your thoughts on their rivalry?
GABLE: I was kind of surprised that the pace of their previous matches was not at the level that Taylor usually wrestles. There seems to be a lower level of intensity that I thought would be brought to that match. It seems like there is more precision and (they’re) are more calculated.
I know the wrestling will be good in their match, but I’m not sure how much scoring we will see. It seems to me that Dake has controlled the mental part of the matches and the pace, which gives him the edge. If the pace got faster, that would be more of a Taylor advantage.
WIN: When Dake pinned Taylor in a freestyle match during the 2012 Olympic Trials, did that take something out of Taylor?
GABLE: It could have. There were quite a few offensive moves going on, but Dake was winning all those situations. That could affect how Taylor competes against him now.
WIN: If Dake wins his fourth championship at four different weights in four straight years right out of high school, how would you rank him among the best ever?
GABLE: Dake’s accomplishment would be a great feat and almost the highest that a college wrestler can earn, but Cael Sanderson was an undefeated four-time champion who won the Outstanding Wrestler award each year. I had a loss, but I was able to dominate wrestlers with a large number of pins.
Also guys like Cael and myself continued to wrestle after college, winning Olympic gold medals. Dake hasn’t had a chance to do that yet and if he does that, he will have to do it through (2012 Olympic gold medalist) Jordan Burroughs.
WIN: Speaking of which, Kent State’s 2011 champion Dustin Kilgore is ranked No. 1 at 197 after taking an Olympic redshirt. What do you think of him?
GABLE: You have a kid who took a year off and enhanced his wrestling by spending time at the Olympic Training Center and wrestling all over the world. A probable match between him and (Quentin) Wright is one that people will want to watch.
WIN: You would think returning champions would have an advantage in the finals against someone who has never been there. Is there a difference?
GABLE: There is a difference and the ones who are more successful are the ones who do a better job of getting over the happiness of making the finals. When wrestlers overcome barriers, like reaching the NCAA finals, it’s a feeling they have never had before. And because of that, they may wear themselves down.
There is a long time between a Friday night semifinal and the Saturday night final. There is a lot of emotion and draining or satisfaction knowing that you are going to go before the entire wrestling world. That focus has to stay the whole weekend. It can be distracting because of that break.
WIN: How does an NCAA finalist deal with that 24-hour period after winning a semifinal?
GABLE: It depends if that possibility of winning a championship was real for a long period of time or was it simply a dream. It’s got to be part of a whole lifetime of getting ready. It should have been played out 365 days or more ahead of that. If he is fifth-year senior, he pretty much has a finger on his own pulse and doesn’t really need the coach as much.
It’s what is current, which helps the coach and athlete in making the right decisions. You don’t want surprises and there are no quick fixes.