IOWA CITY — Tom Brands said Saturday night his Iowa wrestling team would celebrate its Big Ten dual title.
“We go upstairs, we get some T-shirts and some hats, take a couple of pictures and move on,” he said after the top-ranked Hawkeyes dismantled No. 13 Minnesota, 35-6, winning eight of the 10 bouts in front of 12,608 fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
He wasn’t trying to be funny. He wasn’t taking this title for granted.
But this is Iowa wrestling and Iowa wrestling isn’t about winning duals or conference dual titles. This is a championship program defined by NCAA and, to a lesser extent, Big Ten tournament titles.
“I don’t mean that lightly,” Brands said. “I say that because that’s what you do.”
It’s what the Hawkeyes have always done, although it’s been 10 years since a new NCAA championship trophy has made its way to display case.
There have been good times since that 2010 title, good teams. But when you own 23 NCAA titles — 15 by Dan Gable and three each by Jim Zalesky and Brands — good is not good enough.
Brands has assembled a team this season that is better than good. It may even be great. The best Iowa team of all time? Let’s not get carried away, it’s mid-February and the only thing that matters in this sport happens in March.
But consider this ...
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— Iowa is 12-0 heading into its final dual of the season, next Sunday against No. 10 Oklahoma State.
“That’s a big dual,” Brands said, noting it doesn’t matter where the Cowboys are ranked. “It’s a program that has a lot of pride in the sport of wrestling, from a state that has a lot of pride in the sport of wrestling.”
— Iowa finished 9-0 in the Big Ten, a conference that boasts the Nos. 2, 4 and 6 teams in the country, not to mention the Nos. 12, 13, 15, 22, 23 and 25.
— Iowa shut out two of those Big Ten teams and won 75 of those 90 individual matches.
— It has 10 wrestlers ranked among the top nine in the country.
That latter point leads us back to the “all time best” question. Iowa has had nine All-Americans at the NCAA Championships six times, but not since 1995.
It has never had 10 All-Americans.
This team has the potential to do that. But, as any championship athlete will tell you, potential doesn’t win gold, silver or bronze, or a step on the awards stand.
“I think we like where we’re at, we’re ranked No. 1,” Iowa sophomore Max Murin said after his 6-4 overtime win over Minnesota’s fourth-ranked Mitch McKee, the highest-ranked wrestler Murin has ever beaten.
“We just have to stay healthy and keep improving every day. Do the necessary things to reach our goals.”
Staying healthy has been an issue. Murin was back in the lineup Saturday for the first time since Jan 18. Austin DeSanto returned after getting hurt in the Jan. 31 win over No. 2 Penn State. Freshman Abe Assad sat out Saturday’s dual, but Brands said he could have gone and will be back on Sunday against Oklahoma State. Michael Kemerer, ranked No. 1 at 174, has been in and out of the lineup.
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Making sure everyone is healthy for the Big Ten Championships, March 7-8 in Piscataway, N.J., will be a huge first step. But so will making sure everybody is at their best, fresh and ready to go.
Iowa hasn’t won the Big Ten tournament since 2015. That’s the first next big goal.
“There’s always things that nag at you,” Brands said when asked if he likes where his team is heading into the final phase of the season.
Iowa once used the “never satisfied” mantra during Gable’s reign. By the looks of things, it’s a slogan that would fit in 2020, too.
“We’ve got to get better,” Brand said.
Get better and, to use a word Brands uttered many times Saturday night, move “onward.” If these Hawkeyes can do that, then we can start having that “best ever” conversation.
Of course, there still is that little record of 170 points the Hawkeyes scored in 1997.
Onward is the only way to go.
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