Mad mats: Ohio State, PSU prep for epic NCAA wrestling clash

Tom Ryan has a unique bond with his Buckeyes wrestlers -- and he'll need every one of them to dig deep at this week's NCAA wrestling championships, where Ohio State and Penn State figure to have one of the great shootouts in tournament history. Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

Say this about Tom Ryan: The Ohio State wrestling coach isn't afraid to put himself out there.

The day after every match, he requires his entire starting lineup to write self-evaluations. There are no specific guidelines, but some basic questions are supposed to be answered. What went well in your match? What went wrong? How do you get better next time?

Then the coaches review and reconvene with each wrestler to discuss.

Here's the part that sets Ryan apart from most coaches: He does one, too, and then his wrestlers offer him feedback. Think about that for a second: How often does your CEO send a self-assessment your way and ask for you to critique? This is in a conference that birthed probably-weren't-open-to-self-evaluation types such as Dan Gable in wrestling and Bobby Knight in basketball and Bo Schembechler and Nick Saban in football.

Now that presents an obvious question. Given that Ohio State barely ever loses, isn't that a pretty easy weekly back-patting exercise? Fair point, but the Big Ten tournament champ Buckeyes did drop a dual meet this season 19-18 at Penn State in one of the best, most hyped matches in years. After that bitter, back-and-forth comeback upset by Penn State, Ryan stood in front of his squad and went through his self-eval from a dual that Ohio State probably should have won.

"I was a little more emotional than I should have been," he told the team. "I spent the whole week leading into that match saying it's just another dual, but then I didn't follow through on that idea during the actual match. I created a heightened sense of tension that impacted you guys. I was screaming too much during Nathan Tomasello's match, and I think that affected him. I wish I had been a little more steady."

His wrestlers all thanked him for his honesty and agreed that Ryan could have absorbed his own prematch message better than he did. Then heavyweight Kyle Snyder -- Olympic champion Kyle Snyder, best wrestler in the entire world Kyle Snyder -- said, on the positive side, that he appreciated that Ryan ran to the head table to clarify a call during his match. "I felt like I really knew you were present for me in that moment," Snyder said.

Any chance Woody Hayes and a football player ever had an exchange like that in Columbus?

The Buckeyes, including Ryan, spent time after the March 3-4 Big Ten championships evaluating themselves, too. But really, they ran away with the team title, had four of the 10 weight-class champions and qualified all 10 starters for this week's NCAA championships (March 15-17 on ESPN/ESPN app), so how much homework could everybody have? "More than you'd think," Ryan said. "If we're going to beat a great team like Penn State at NCAAs, we need to be at our full genetic potential."

He's right about that. The Buckeyes and Lions should stage an epic shootout this weekend that could go down as the best one-two battle in NCAA tournament history. The brackets are littered with probable national champs and tournament finalists from both schools -- there's a very real chance that every weight class features at least one Penn Stater or Ohio Stater, including a few weights in which finalists could be head-to-head PSU-Ohio State bouts. Both teams project to score around 120-130 team points. For a reference point, 130 team points would be the highest runner-up score in NCAA history, and 130 would have won 17 of the past 25 team titles. In other words, we're looking at two potentially all-time great teams on another collision course. Whoever finishes third -- probably Missouri, Michigan or Iowa -- projects to score in the 90-to-100-point range.

One big key for Ohio State: Snyder needs to win. At one point this season, the Buckeyes senior had the unprecedented distinction of being the best pound-for-pound wrestler in the world ... and the No. 2 guy in his college wrestling weight class. Michigan's Adam Coon clipped Snyder 3-1 in a dual meet earlier this season, shocking the Olympic champion and two-time NCAA champ. Snyder beat Coon in overtime last weekend at Big Tens to reassert himself as the No. 1 seed in Cleveland. But Coon is the clear No. 2, and that sets up what would be the biggest finals bout: Snyder is 225 pounds, and Coon checks in at about 280. Coon and Snyder are the kind of freak athletes who would have just blown up at the NFL scouting combine if they'd chosen football as their sports path. "Both guys are willing to take themselves to discomfort to get their hands raised," Ryan said. "It will be a skilled, tactical battle. Kyle needs to neutralize Coon's size and strength and pick his moments to attack and finish quickly."

Yet despite how loaded and deep Ohio State's 10 qualifiers are, Penn State probably deserves a slight edge heading into NCAAs, with a whopping five reigning national champs. The Nittany Lions have six guys seeded in the top three and always dominate tournaments with their ability to pick up bonus points (pins, technical falls and major decisions). Zain Retherford (149 pounds), Mark Hall (174) and Bo Nickal (184) are very likely finalists, with loads of bonus points along the way. If reigning champs Jason Nolf (157 pounds; still nursing a knee injury he suffered a month ago) and Vincenzo Joseph (165) get back to the finals, it will take a Herculean effort -- and quite a few Buckeyes upsets -- to supplant Penn State, which is going for its seventh national title in the past eight years.

If it's strange to think that Penn State could finish second at Big Tens and first in the nation two weeks later, well, that's exactly what happened between PSU and Ohio State last year, too. "Losing is never fun, but I think our guys are clear on what they want to do: They want to win the national championship, and this is the week to do it," Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said this week at media availability.

Here's a more in-depth look at what it'll take for each of the two main contenders to end the season on top:

How Ohio State can win the team title: The Buckeyes probably need Joey McKenna (141 pounds) and Tomasello (125) to get to the finals. Snyder has to win the heavyweight title, too, and it would be a major boost if Myles Martin wins at 184 by beating Penn State's Bo Nickal, which Martin hasn't been able to do this season. Then it's up to the depth of the Buckeyes' roster to do some dirty work in the consolation brackets and end up with a bunch of All-American finishes.

How Penn State can win the team title: Hold serve and hope for a healthy Nolf (even if he's 90 percent, he probably wins at 157). Make sure Nickal beats Martin for the third time this season. Retherford should win his third national title. Hall seems like a very likely finalist, even if his probable opponent, fellow unbeaten Zahid Valencia of Arizona State, will be a very tough out. Joseph, last year's 165-pound champ, could get to the title bout, too. If that all happens and talented freshman Nick Lee makes any kind of run at 141, there's almost no chance that Penn State loses.