Men's Sports

The incredibly convoluted process of qualifying for the NCAA Championships

AMES — Qualifying for the NCAA Wrestling Championships can be a confusing, and somewhat convoluted, process.

First, a wrestler needs to earn an allocation for his conference at his weight by earning two out of the three “arms” of the allocation process.

The three arms are the coaches’ panel ranking, RPI (rating percentage index) and win percentage are the three arms (more on those later). But earning an allocation doesn’t assure a wrestler of going to the NCAA Championships.

Once a wrestler earns an allocation, they then need to go to their respective conference tournament and compete for the spot.

Wrestlers who earned an allocation, but do not qualify for the NCAA Championships because they underperformed at the conference tournament, can still earn an at-large spot from the committee because the NCAA only allocates 29 spots initially for the 33-person tournament, which leaves four at-large spots left at each weight. 

Contrast that wordy mess to the College Football playoffs where 13 old people go into a room, talk for a set amount of time, and reveal the top 25.

Then Gary Barta goes on TV to attempt to explain their decisions.

That just leads to the college football world getting mad on a Tuesday evening because there’s no transparency and no clear-cut standard for how teams are judged or ranked and the committee is essentially just stating their opinion on where teams should be ranked.

Wrestling, while initially confusing, has clear-cut standards for what an NCAA wrestler looks like and the process works, so let’s break it down so it’s more digestible.

To understand the allocation process, we first have to look at the criteria the NCAA has set forth, which are, again, the coaches’ panel ranking, RPI, and win percentage.

The coaches’ panel ranking is pretty much what it sounds like and is very similar to the coaches’ poll in football or basketball.

Fourteen coaches for each weight — two from each conference — rank the wrestlers at that weight.

To be considered for the ranking, a wrestler must have competed in at least five Division I matches at that weight, including at least one match within the last month.

To earn an allocation, a wrestler would need to be in the top 30 of the coaches’ panel ranking and then qualify for one other aspect (RPI or win percentage).

RPI is a calculation that consists of three aspects — win percentage, opponent win percentage (strength of schedule), and opponent’s opponent win percentage (opponents strength of schedule).

Win percentage is 25 percent of the equation, opponent win percentage is  50 percent of the equation, and opponent’s opponent win percentage is the final 25 percent of the equation.

A wrestler needs to compete in 15 Division I matches to earn an RPI.

Like the coaches panel, a wrestler would need to finish in the top 30 of RPI and qualify for one other aspect (coaches panel or win percentage) to earn an allocation.

Win percentage is simple (thank God).

Have a win percentage greater than .700 while competing in at least eight matches and you’re good. All a wrestler would need to do is qualify for one of the other arms (coaches panel or RPI) to earn an allocation.

Once they earn an allocation, a wrestler then needs to go to the conference tournament and compete for the allocations. Even if a wrestler doesn’t earn an allocation, they can still “steal” a spot.

Now that we’ve laid all that out, let’s use some real-world examples. 

Iowa State’s Kysen Terukina (125) earned an allocation because he had a coaches panel ranking of 18 and a win percentage greater than .700 — Terukina’s win percentage was .786 against Division I opponents.

Earning those two aspects of the allocation process was enough and it earned the Big 12 an allocation.

Overall, six Big 12 wrestlers earned an allocation at 125 pounds. So, Terukina would need to finish in the top six at the Big 12 Wrestling Championships to earn an automatic qualifying spot to the NCAA Championships.

Isaac Judge (165) did not earn an allocation (he wasn’t in the coaches panel ranking, he was No. 33 in RPI  — just outside of the top-30 — and his win percentage against Division I opponents was .450). Even though he didn’t earn an allocation, it doesn’t mean he can’t qualify for the NCAA Championships. 

The Big 12 earned four allocations at 165 pounds and Judge is the No. 7 seed at the Big 12 Championships. It wouldn’t take a miracle for Judge to out-wrestle his seed and finish in the top four to earn an automatic qualifying spot to the NCAA Championships and “steal” an allocation that someone else earned.

Now let’s dive into one hypothetical.

The Big 12 earned four allocations at 149 pounds.

Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen is seeded No. 3.

If he loses a couple of matches, suddenly he’s on the outside looking in with no way to earn an automatic qualifying spot — even if he ends his tournament with a win finishing fifth.

The Big 12 announced it won’t be doing “True Placement” matches, which means Degen wouldn’t have the opportunity to wrestle for that fourth-place spot even if he didn’t compete against the person who did finish fourth.

The decision to not wrestle “True Placement” matches has caused some uproar in the wrestling community.

Theoretically, if Degen finishes fifth, he’d still have a very good shot at an at-large spot.

Coaches’ panel ranking, RPI, win percentage, head-to-head competition, quality wins, conference tournament placement and results versus common opponents are the criteria the committee will be looking at when determining the at-large wrestlers. 

Degen is No. 17 in the coaches’ panel ranking and No. 16 in the RPI with a win percentage of .813. Add in the hypothetical fifth-place finish (one spot outside of automatically qualifying) and he’d have a great case for an at-large bid and would very likely earn one.

Those are all the ways a wrestler can earn a spot to wrestle at the NCAA Championships. Hopefully, I was able to lay all of this out clearly enough for everyone to understand. If not, please direct any comments, questions, concerns, frustrations, anger, and ire to Jacqueline Cordova. She’s the one that made me write this. 

Conversely, if you thought I did a good job and you now understand how qualifying for the NCAA Championships works, you can also send your praise and admiration to Jacqueline Cordova for making me write this.


Ben Visser