COLUMBIA — When Ben Askren wrestled for Missouri two years ago, the majority of spectators who came to meets came to see him. Since his graduation, the Tigers have lacked a main attraction. This season, the Tigers are a team full of main attractions.
The team has seven wrestlers ranked in the top 20 and five ranked in the top 6 in their respective weight classes. The Big 12 is one of the toughest conferences in wrestling, with all five of its teams ranked in the top 15 nationally, but the Tigers said they are up for the challenge.
The team said they think they could send all of their starting wrestlers to the NCAA Wrestling Championships and believe that any, if not all of them, could be All-Americans. But before that they'll have to take the first step at the Big 12 Wrestling Championships on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb.
“Obviously it’s the toughest tournament in college wrestling with just five teams,” coach Brian Smith said. “Thirty percent of the dual meets were overtime matches, so it’s going to be very competitive. With the schedule we’ve had, we know it’s going to be tough.”
This year, the Big 12 will have 37 automatic qualifier allocations for the NCAA championships. All five wrestlers in the 285-pound, 197-pound and 165-pound divisions at the conference meet will qualify. But Missouri's wrestlers are not content with just qualifying.
Last season, Nick Marable and Max Askren were the only Tigers to win individual Big 12 titles in the 165-pound and 197-pound weight classes. Senior Michael Chandler has never won an individual conference title and says that task is on the long list of his goals.
In order to win, Chandler will have to beat Iowa State’s Cyler Sanderson and Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs in the 157-pound division. Chandler is 1-1 against Sanderson and 0-1 against Burroughs this season.
“If I wrestle my style, I’m going to win 99 percent of the time,” Chandler said. “I’m ready for all of my dreams to come true. Winning the Big 12 title and carrying that over to nationals and winning nationals. That’s the dream around here. We expect All-Americans and national champions.”
Max Askren is going for his third straight Big 12 title. He is facing arguably his toughest road yet. He is ranked fourth in the 197-pound division, but two ranked ahead of him will be competing on Saturday. Max Askren said he is excited for the challenge.
“I think it’s another place to test my abilities and to have fun and do what I like and do it against good opponents,” Max Askren said. “They’re very skilled and that’s the fun part of it.”
It’s been three weeks since the Tigers last wrestled and the routine has been an adjustment. Smith said the training, however, has stayed the same and will stay the same going into the Big 12 and NCAA meets.
“Some people at the end of the year try to do things differently,” Smith said. “We haven’t really changed anything and we’re not going to. We’re having success and these guys are going to have success.”
The Tigers have never won a Big 12 team title. This team gives them that chance.
First round matches start at 10 a.m. Saturday and final matches will start at 7 p.m. the same day.