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Wrestling (TMI): Wisconsin vs. Illinois preview

The Badgers host their final dual match of the regular season this weekend against llinois.

Syndication: The Des Moines Register Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

The No. 23 (dual meet) Wisconsin Badgers (8-4, 2-3 B1G) host the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-7, 0-4 B1G) on Sunday, Feb 11 at high noon for Senior Day in the last competition at the Field House for the season.

The dual meet can be viewed on B1G+, and fans can follow along with live updates on X.

Team Previews

Wisconsin went 2-0 this past weekend, crushing the Northwestern Wildcats and topping the Purdue Boilermakers in a seesaw affair with last-match heroics. After a rough, 0-3 start to the B1G season, team-wise, it felt like the ship is now righted as the final stretch of the season approaches.

This week’s dual meet rankings kept the Badgers at No. 23. The team’s tournament ranking dropped from No. 14 to No. 17, because of the pollsters’ slightly downgraded outlook on Wisconsin’s superstars. There is a group of teams from No. 13 to No. 17 that are very tightly bunched together, so any slight shift in individual rankings has a comparatively dramatic effect on the team’s ranking.

For the Fighting Illini, the team started the season with a narrow loss to Navy (who was very much overperforming early in the season, but still slots in at No. 30 in the dual meet ranking) and a win over No. 21 North Carolina, along with a couple of tune ups to go 3-1.

It’s been rough sledding for them ever since, though, as they’ve stacked up 7 (note: this was submitted before their dual meet with Minnesota, but it assumes that it was another loss for Illinois) losses in a row. That said, the orange and weird-blue colored team has faced Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 11, 18, and now Wisconsin at No. 23. That’s a pretty tough row to hoe.

The first dual meet between the neighboring states’ flagship universities was in 1915, and Illinois has taken a 42-29-3 lead in the series since then (boo, hiss), including stealing an ultra-close 18-17 win at the State Farm Center last year (no comment on State Farm vs American Family...).

Individual Matchups

As we’ve discussed before, dual meet results can easily give the wrong impression about a team’s tournament strength. For head-to-head competitions, it’s all about individual matchups, and the Badgers will need to be in top form to extend the team's winning streak to 3.

Rankings 1-33 are from Intermat, and ranks above 33 are from WrestleStat.

125 No. 4 Eric Barnett (20-3) vs No. 93 Justin Cardani (2-8)

After dropping from No. 2 last week, Barnett appears to be laser-focused on what he needs to do in the home stretch of the season to win a national championship.

Cardini should not be a problem in terms of getting the win, but we probably will need the bonus points from our stars, and this match will be no exception.

Barnett beat Cardini 9-0 and 12-2 in their two most recent head-to-head meetings.

Talking about him in this week’s press conference, head coach Chris Bono said, “Eric started it all for us in our first recruiting class and being our first Wisconsin kid to commit.”

In his last-ever match at the Field House, I’ll say the super-senior gets bonus points.

UW - 4, ILL - 0

133 No. 50 Nico Rivera (12-6) vs No. 30 Tony Madrigal (3-3)

Rivera needs this to bolster his NCAA resume and B1G tournament seeding.

Madrigal is a three-time NCAA qualifier who transferred from Oklahoma for his last (I think) year of eligibility, and he needs a few more matches (and wins) to go to the NCAAs again.

Both teams will need this match to escape the dual meet with a win. Who will prevail in this battle of the NCAA bubble wrestlers?

I know this is why I get paid the big bucks, but it looks like a coin flip. It landed tails...

UW - 4, ILL - 3

141 No. 153 Felix Lettini (3-13) vs No. 26 Danny Pucino (9-7)

Coach Bono said he gave Lettini last weekend off, because he was racking up a lot of losses and needed a reset. Lettini is pretty good, but he just hasn’t gotten over the W-hump yet.

This is a winnable match, but it’s hard to pick him until he shows it on the mat.

UW - 4, ILL - 6

149 No. 22 Joey Zargo (15-5) vs No. 93 Jake Harrier (3-7)

This looks like it should be a slaughter on paper, but when they met last year, Joey won via a 9-7 decision.

I’ll go conservative here and say only a decision win for the Badger. Note that Illinois has sporadically had true freshman No. 9 Kannon Webster (12-1) representing the team at 149. Webster would be a much tougher matchup for Joey, but it looks like he’s redshirting and has reached his max “wrestling days” this season.

UW - 7, ILL - 6

157 No. 181 Luke Mechler (7-12) vs No. 84 Joe Roberts (5-6)

These two met at the Midlands tournament in December, with Roberts prevailing 4-2. Roberts has been in three overtime matches, so he seems to be attracted to close calls.

Mechler has looked good in picking up wins and “almost win” losses. This is another toss-up, but I am not Luke’s father, so I’ll say history repeats itself.

UW - 7, ILL - 9

165 No. 5 Dean Hamiti (20-1) vs No. 48 Chris Moore (7-8)

In a weight class where there was virtually no movement in the rankings over the past week, DJ will again face an overmatched opponent.

Don’t worry, the tough ones are coming soon, and apparently, he has some new weapons in his arsenal for his matches against them. For this one, he’ll put on a fireworks display for the home crowd in his last Field House performance of the season.

UW - 12, ILL - 9

174 No. 12 Max Maylor (14-3) vs No. 8 Edmond Ruth (14-2)

Max just doesn’t match up well against the Illini guy. He’s 0-2 career against him, including a 12-3 loss at Midlands a month and a half ago.

On paper, this should be very competitive - in toss-up territory. However, as much as I’m rooting for a win here, I’m not predicting it.

Maybe the home crowd will make a difference...

UW - 12, ILL - 13

184 No. 16 Shane Liegel (17-6) vs No. 31 Dylan Connell (4-6)

Connell’s done well, content-wise, against some studs, which gets him ranked despite sporting a losing record.

He’ll be no walk in the park for Liegel, who will need to bring his A-game to come out on top. He will, in another close one, win it on Senior Day, with family (generations of UW royalty) and fans cheering him on.

UW - 15, ILL - 13

197 No. 98 Josh Otto (1-8) vs No. 229 Chase Waggoner (2-8)

It sounded like Otto would be back in the lineup here, so I’m going with him being in the lineup. Whoever the Badgers send out, we’ll need a win at this weight.

And it’s very possible. Much like Wisconsin, Illinois has put out a rotation of guys at 197, so the opponent is an educated guess.

It’s winnable for both sides, but in a reverse to the conservative calls earlier, I’ll put on my homer hat here and say we get it.

UW - 18, ILL - 13

285 No. 112 Gannon Rosenfeld (2-11) vs No. 157 Peter Marinopoulos (4-4)

Despite Gannon flexing his cannons last week, doubling his season win total and shooting up the ranks 43 spots from his previous No. 155, this is another toss-up.

On the other hand, if No. 14 Luke Luffman (8-3) recovers from his injury in time, he’ll be a tough opponent; six of his eight wins have been by bonus points.

Let’s go conservative again here and say the flatlanders get a decision.

UW - 18, ILL - 16

If that looks like a lot of lead changes, it is. I think this is how it will go - it’ll be a squeaker, hinging on those toss-ups, which wrestlers Illinois sends out, who gets bonus points in their wins, and the highest weights needing to seal the deal.

The realistic range of outcomes starts at “total slaughter” as UW wins 9 of 10, to “sad-face emoji” where the Badgers win 3 of 7, giving up an upset along the way. That’s a pretty big swing, so hopefully, the odds are ever in our favor.

With the home team celebrating the seniors, you can expect a lot of fanfare at the Field House for the last wrestling at home this season. It’ll be another huge crowd (the Balcony will be open), and the performances on the mat should dazzle and amaze (or give a heart attack to) the assembled (and B1G+ viewing) fans of the Badgers.