The Big 12 Conference is the best wrestling conference in America. Period.
All five teams are ranked in the top-15 in the country with Oklahoma State (No. 1), Iowa State (No. 3) and Nebraska (No. 4) in the top-five. No. 7 Oklahoma is the fourth team in the top-10, while No. 15 Missouri brings up the rear.
“When you make it out of this conference, it’s a dogfight,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said.
At last year’s Big 12 tournament, 36 wrestlers out of 50 qualified for nationals and 23 earned All-American honors. Most conferences have 5-10 percent of their national qualifiers named as All-Americans, so the Big 12’s 64 percent is remarkable.
Based on rankings, the Big 12 should expect even bigger things this year March 17-19 in St. Louis. But they still must compete against one another on Saturday in Omaha, Neb.
Missouri, a long shot to win the Big 12, does not take its two-week layoff, since Eastern Illinois on Feb. 20, lightly.
“We went really hard for about a week,” sophomore Matt Pell (No. 12, 184-pounds) said. “They were more intense practices, just a bit shorter.”
The practices have been geared toward getting the team as prepared as possible before Saturday. Team members have been watching individual tapes of their matches during the season and have been working with coaches and teammates on moves and positions for certain situations.
Smith also dug into the archives in the past week to find matches of past Missouri wrestlers who have had success in the Big 12 Championships. They watched videos of last year’s tournament where Jeff Foust, Kenny Burleson and Ben Askren won championships.
Smith said he wanted the team to realize that all of the matches were “very tight.” He also wanted them all to notice the setting and the large crowd on hand. The Qwest Center holds 17,000 people and is nearly sold out.
“That’s something we really try not to think about,” Pell said. “We’re locked in to just going out and winning.”
Smith also showed a video of senior Tyron Woodley’s victory two years ago. Woodley went into the Big 12 Championships with a No. 4 seed last year and didn’t make it past the first round, finishing 0-2.
Woodley will look to amend last year’s showing. He enters this year’s tournament with the No. 1 seed and went through conference with an undefeated record in dual meets this season.
“I think it’s pretty good,” Woodley (No. 3, 165-pounds) said. “That’s crazy having to wrestle the morning match and then to have to wrestle the No. 1 guy in the semi-finals. It’s a lot easier to sit back and watch and be able to observe the opponents and see what you’ve got coming up in the next round. So, I think I’m sitting pretty well.”
At 174-pounds, No. 1 Chris Pendleton (OSU) and No. 2 Askren are expected to meet for the championship yet again. Askren beat Pendleton last year, but Pendleton beat Askren in the national championship match and handed him his only defeat earlier this season.
Askren considers Pendleton his measuring stick and he is well aware of the fact that the senior from Lemoore, Calif. wants to claim the Big 12 championship in his last attempt.
“I guess he’s just as good as I am because he handles everyone equally as easy,” Askren said. At the past two Big 12 Championships, Missouri has five individual champions of a possible 20. At a 25 percent clip and with five teams in the league, Smith is quick to point out that it is better than the average.
“(That statistic) was just to make them feel that going into this, even though we’re not the highest ranked team in the conference, we do perform well,” Smith said. “There’s been hearsay that we don’t perform well. I think we do. ”
Yet Smith still doesn’t want to lose sight of the ultimate goal—to qualify as many people for nationals as possible and perform well on the biggest stage.