Q&A: Shane Sparks previews Big Ten Wrestling Championships

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Q&A: Shane Sparks previews Big Ten Wrestling Championships

The 2015 Big Ten Wrestling Championships are Saturday and Sunday in Columbus, Ohio.

[ MORE: Watch on BTN/BTN2Go! | View championships brackets ]

Penn State will be eying its fifth straight Big Ten championships crown, but, the competition will be stiff, led by Big Ten dual match champ Iowa, which just suffered its first loss of the season in the recent NWCA National Duals final.

To preview the action, BTN.com caught up with BTN wrestling analyst Shane Sparks. Visit Sparks’ web site, like his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter (@ShaneSparksBTN).

BTN.com: How many teams have a realistic shot of winning the crown?

Sparks: This could set up to be one of the best team races in recent memory. Top ranked Iowa, No. 2 Minnesota and No. 4 Ohio State are all capable of winning the Big 10 Crown.

BTN.com: Is regular-season champion Iowa your favorite?

Sparks: Based on the rankings and the balance of their lineup I would give the edge to Iowa. Nine Hawkeyes are ranked in the top 10 in the country and Mike Kelly is No. 15 at 157. Minnesota is led by their five seniors who are all ranked in the top five at their respective weight classes, but unlike Iowa, the Gophers have a few weight classes that could struggle in this tournament. Ohio State has all ten wrestlers ranked in the top 15 with five in the top ten. Hunter Stieber at 149 pounds has only wrestled a few matches all season because of injury. His performance is key to the Buckeyes’ success. Iowa has been the most consistent all season and that is why I would give them the edge at this point. It is impossible to predict how this will shake out. The Big Ten field has 80 nationally ranked guys in the top 20. Every single second of this tournament will contribute to a championship.

BTN.com: How do you think the Hawkeyes will bounce back from their first loss of the season the last time out?

Sparks: Iowa is the most battle-tested team in the country. Its last match with Missouri could have went either way. The Tigers were able to win the close matches. I don’t see Iowa suffering any kind of setback from that loss and expect them to wrestle tough as they always do. That loss reminded them how critical it is for them to be more offensive. With bonus point being so important in the Big Ten and NCAA Championships, I would expect a key focus in the Iowa room has been to open things up a little bit and score more points. Get on the legs.

BTN.com: What needs to happen for Penn State to continue its four-year run in this event?

Sparks: I just don’t see it for Penn State this year. They chose to red-shirt All-Americans Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford along with some very talented freshman. With Matt Brown at 174 and Morgan McIntosh at 197, the Lions will however play a key role in helping determine who does win the team race. Penn State will be right back in both the Big Ten and NCAA championship picture next season. They will be loaded!!

BTN.com: How about a possible sleeper team?

Sparks: I am curious to see what team has the most individual champions, which will in turn greatly contribute to the outcome of the team race. Illinois has Jesse Delgado (125) and Isaiah Martinez (157), both ranked tops in the nation. Robert Kokesh holds the top spot in the rankings at 174, with James Green third at 157. Wisconsin boasts Ryan Taylor (133), Isaac Jordan (165) and Connor Medbery (Hwt), who are all ranked in the top three of their respective weight classes. Northwestern brings the returning NCAA Champion at 149 pounds in Jason Tsirtsis and 3X All-American Mike McMullen at Hwt. I earlier mentioned the horses that Penn State brings to these championships with Brown and McIntosh. Michigan has Domenic Abounader (184) at a wide open weight class along with Adam Coon (Hwt), who are both threats to win titles. This is going to be so exciting to watch play out. So many guys are capable of winning individual titles.

BTN.com: Which weight class is the most wide open?

Sparks: 184 pounds may be the most “wide open.” Most weight classes have a few guys that you fully expect to be in the mix where you would be surprised if one of those wrestlers didn’t win. Sam Brooks is the only Big Ten wrestler in the top 10 at No. 8. After Brooks, six guys are ranked between 11 and 19. I also would add heavyweight, as you have four of the top six. In addition to the style of wrestling, those guys have all beaten each other at some point the last couple years. That weight class is anybody’s guess.

BTN.com: Of all of the possible individual matchups, across all weight classes, which one do you most hope to see, and why?

Sparks: I want to see Isaiah Martinez of Illinois and Dylan Ness of Minnesota at 157. Martinez is undefeated and having a sensational season, while Ness is one of the most exciting guys to watch in the county. This match would be great to see, but James Green of Nebraska may rain on this parade. This weight class has the top three ranked wrestlers in the country, so any matchup between these guys is going to be must-see wrestling. A possible matchup between first cousins Bo and Isaac Jordan at 165 pounds would also be a matchup I would be licking my chops to see.

BTN.com:  ____________ will bring home Most Outstanding Wrestler?

Sparks: A very tough decision, but I’m going with Robert Kokesh of Nebraska at 174 pounds. The top four guys in the country are in the Big Ten with Kokesh, Brown, Evans and Storley. For Kokesh to win he’ll most likely have to get past Logan Storley in the semi-finals. Storley is a tough matchup.

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BTN.com: Favorite Big Ten singlet?

Sparks: I like simple and my favorite color is red. For that reason I’ll go with Nebraska. I like the red with the white “N.” Penn State is a close second. I like the white around the waist.

BTN.com: Most passionate Big Ten fanbase?

Sparks: Gotta go with Iowa or Penn State. Both have done a great job.

BTN.com: Best coach interview?

Sparks: Tom Ryan.

BTN.com: Best wrestler interview?

Sparks: Robert Kokesh or Mike McMullen

BTN.com: Mike Evans has the best mustache since … ?

Sparks: Tom Selleck as Magnum, PI

BTN.com: Will a Big Ten team win the NCAA title for the ninth straight year?

Sparks: With the Big Ten having three of the top four ranked teams in the country I will take the odds and say yes, but this very well could be the year that Missouri takes home the team trophy. It is going to be a dog fight!!

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