Patrick McKee realizes the challenge is daunting. The Gophers senior 125-pound wrestler knows that his next opponent, Iowa's Spencer Lee, is a three-time NCAA champion and two-time winner of the Hodge Trophy as the nation's top collegiate wrestler.
And he's aware that Lee has won 49 consecutive matches and just pinned four consecutive top-10 opponents.
Still, come Friday at Maturi Pavilion (8 p.m., BTN), McKee will relish the challenge of facing the nation's most dominant college wrestler as the 11th-ranked Gophers take on the No. 2 Hawkeyes in a Big Ten dual meet.
"There's definitely a buzz going. We have a good team. They always have a solid team,'' McKee said of the dual. "… It's just a rivalry that runs very deep.''
The Gophers enter the dual having lost eight consecutive matches against Iowa, and to pull off the team upset, they'll likely need McKee, ranked No. 6 at 125 in the InterMat poll, to beat Lee, who pinned McKee in 1 minute, 53 seconds in 2021. The Gophers have the higher-ranked wrestler in only three of the 10 weight classes.
The marquee match will be McKee, the former St. Michael-Albertville standout who finished fifth at 125 in the NCAA tournament last year and third in 2021, against Lee, who has outscored his opponents 122-25 this season.
"He's wrestled really solid in these duals for us, and he's just in a really good spot,'' Gophers coach Brandon Eggum said of McKee. "So, it should be an exciting match.''
Lee has been at the pinnacle of college wrestling over most of the past six seasons. The Murrysville, Pa., native won NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019, then saw his chance at the 2020 crown disappear when the NCAA canceled the national tournament because of COVID-19. He was back atop the podium with his third NCAA title in 2021, this one secured only after he wrestled the entire tournament with two torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments.
Yes, both of them.
In a TV interview after his 7-0 championship win over Arizona State's Brandon Courtney, Lee gave a glimpse of his relentless mind-set.
"Eight days ago, I tore my ACL in my other knee. I'm wrestling with no ACLs,'' he said. "Whatever, man. I didn't want to tell anyone. Excuses are for wusses.''
Wrestling isn't a sport for the faint of heart, and Lee certainly embodies the Hawkeyes' physical style. He's aggressive from the opening whistle, quickly gets the first takedown and often uses moves called "tilts" to garner near-fall points. All 11 of his wins this season have been by bonus points — seven pins, two technical falls and two major decisions.
In 2021, when Gophers heavyweight Gable Steveson won his first of two Hodge trophies, he shared the award with Lee, who then missed last season to have his knees surgically repaired. Lee has resumed his dominance, outscoring opponents 575-66 in his 49-match winning streak.
"I haven't seen anybody better, ever," Iowa coach Tom Brands said last week.
Attacking the challenge
How can McKee pull off the upset? First off, he must weather Lee's early storm.
"In the few matches that he's lost in his college career,'' Eggum said of Lee, "it's been proven that you have to be smart and you have to stay physical. Pat needs to get into positions that hopefully score and draw the match out. The length of the match could be something that benefits him.''
McKee agreed that the longer the match goes, the better chance he has.
"I don't want to say he crumbles in the third period because that's obviously not true, considering all his wins, but he definitely struggles more in the third period and later in matches,'' McKee said.
When Lee pinned McKee in 2021, McKee acknowledged he didn't have the correct approach against such a physically strong brawler.
"I was like, 'All right, I'm going to come out attacking and wrestling the same way I wrestle anybody else,' '' he said. "But with him, you can't really wrestle the same way that you would against anybody else. He's really someone that you have to game-plan for.''
McKee and the Gophers have their plan. Now comes the challenge: executing it.
"This is a matchup we've been looking forward to,'' Eggum said. "He's got everything to gain in this and nothing to lose. And that's how we feel as a program.''