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Duke wrestling 2021 season preview

Redshirt junior Josh Finesilver is part of a long lineage of standout Duke wrestlers.
Redshirt junior Josh Finesilver is part of a long lineage of standout Duke wrestlers.

Overview

There's no sugarcoating it—Duke wrestling's 2019-20 season was bad. There's no other way to describe an 0-17 campaign. But with multiple captains returning from redshirt seasons, the Blue Devils have the leadership necessary for a bounce-back campaign, one that could see the team return to its status as a top-25 program.

Redshirt juniors Josh Finesilver—ranked No. 19 nationally in the 149-pound weight class—and Kaden Russell return after both taking redshirt seasons in 2019-20, the former an Olympic redshirt and the latter "to get stronger," according to head coach Glen Lanham. In addition to their contributions on the mat, the duo will add immense value in terms of "leadership" and having "direction in the locker room," things Lanham specified the team lacked greatly last season.

Nevertheless, there are still obstacles the team will have to overcome. Matt Finesilver—ranked No. 7 nationally in the 174-pound weight class—was also set to return from an Olympic redshirt, but tore his ACL in practice. Furthermore, four athletes have opted out of the season, including two former NCAA qualifiers. 

Thus, the Blue Devils remain young, but certainly improved from last year. While Duke lost 31-12 in its season-opener against Pittsburgh last Saturday, that's compared to a 50-0 defeat at the hands of the Panthers in 2020.

New wrestler to watch

Conor Becker

With such a young team, there's plenty of freshmen worth mentioning here. But perhaps the most intriguing is Conor Becker, who's taking on the intimidating task of replacing Matt Finesilver at 174 pounds. Becker played four sports in high school: football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and both track and baseball in the spring. Yeah, it's safe to say he's an athlete, and someone who has the potential to become a team leader down the road.

Returning wrestler to watch

Josh Finesilver

This title would almost certainly have gone to Matt Finesilver if not for his injury. But with him likely out for the season, the award will have to go to his twin brother Josh. With Matt out, Josh is likely Duke's best chance at extending its current streak of six consecutive full seasons with an NCAA All-American (the top eight finishers in each weight class). While Josh only ranks 19th in his weight class as of now, Lanham indicated that it "should be better than that when it's all said and done."

Both Josh and Matt come from a lineage of standout Duke wrestlers—their older twin brothers Mitch and Zach also wrestled for the Blue Devils from 2014-15 to 2018-19, with Mitch placing fourth at the 2019 NCAA Championships.

Most anticipated meets

ACC Championships, Feb. 28

NCAA Championships, March 18

Best-case scenario

Duke's best-case scenario is that Josh Finesilver extends the Blue Devils' All-American streak, one or two of his teammates join him as NCAA qualifiers and the program returns to the top 25 national status it saw in 2017-18 and 2018-19. 

Regarding the ACC, Duke is the only program out of the six in the conference ranked outside the top 25 right now, but if things go right the Blue Devils could jump one or two of those teams in the ACC Championships.

Worst-case scenario

The worst-case scenario is that Josh Finesilver enters the NCAA Championships as the lone Blue Devil qualifier, and ends up getting knocked out in Day One. This would likely push Duke into the bottom half of the roughly 70 teams that typically qualify for the NCAA Championships.

And in the ACC, the worst-case is quite simple: a winless record across the team's five dual meets and a last-place finish at the ACC Championships.

Prediction

1-4, 5th at ACC Championships, 32nd at NCAA Championships

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