OKLAHOMA CITY — The numbers are up for Illinois. In a good way.
Jim Heffernan’s team has its most NCAA qualifiers in five seasons. And six of them will be back next year.
If it goes the way Heffernan hopes, the Illini will improve on last year’s ninth-place finish.
“We’ll see when we get there,” Heffernan said. “These guys are all in shape. They are well-prepared.”
Less than two weeks ago, the Illini competed in the best conference tournament in the country. They finished sixth at the Big Tens in Madison, Wis.
“We went through a really tough schedule and a tough tournament to get to this one,” Heffernan said. “The reason why we do all that is to prepare for this.
“I think we have seen about everybody we needed to see during the course of the year. There won’t be any surprises. We know who is good. We’ve got to wrestle now.”
Of course, Heffernan would like to come home with eight individual titles. But that isn’t realistic. He sets a more attainable goal.
“If these guys go and compete to the best of their ability and we get some guys on the awards stand and we get an opportunity for Jesse (Delgado) to repeat, those are all good things,” Heffernan said. “If guys wrestle to their capabilities, that’s a positive thing.
“These guys have all worked hard. You just hope they don’t hold themselves back, and you hope they give themselves an opportunity to do something great.”
The three days will go quickly.
“It’s a blur,” Heffernan said.
“There are so many things that happen. There are upsets. There are injuries. There are a million things. You can’t predict it.”
Heffernan is happy with the venue. Chesapeake Energy Arena will be packed, and each round will be televised on one of ESPN’s platforms.
“Oklahoma’s got great wrestling fans,” Heffernan said. “Tickets are half impossible to get, over 100,000 people there for three days, and that’s a good thing.”
Next year, the event returns to St. Louis. Put Heffernan in charge and that would become the permanent host of the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
“It keeps growing,” Heffernan said. “We can’t find a big enough arena at this point. That’s what you want for your sport.”
Heffernan expects a Big Ten team to walk away with the top trophy. Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma State are the four favorites, with the Nittany Lions ahead of the rest.
“They’re tough and deep,” Heffernan said.
The Illinois wrestling team is sending eight qualifiers to the NCAA meet, which starts Thursday in Oklahoma City. Here is a look at the Illini contenders, including defending 125-pound champion Jesse Delgado:
Hometown: Gilroy, Calif.
It is a good meet if ... he defends his national title, like he did at the Big Ten Championships. It won’t be easy. He is in a loaded weight class that includes several Big Ten rivals.
It is a good meet if ... he exceeds his No. 14 seed and makes his way onto the awards platform. That means a finish in the top eight and All-America status.
Hometown: Mount Kisco, N.Y.
It is a good meet if ... he forgets about the nine losses, concentrates on the 12 wins and advances two or three matches. That will set him up for an even bigger jump at next year’s meet in nearby St. Louis.
Hometown: Eugene, Ore.
It is a good meet if ... he outperforms the pre-meet projection as a No. 16 seed and joins Delgado, Richards and others on the awards stand. Coach Jim Heffernan has big plans for the Oregonian, who has three more years to go.
Hometown: Alto, Mich.
It is a good meet if ... he becomes the fourth Illini All-American at this year’s meet. Other than Delgado, the No. 12 seed is the highest ranked of Illinois’ eight competitors.
Hometown: Harrisburg, Pa.
It is a good meet if ... the guy from the Pennsylvania capital wrestles like one of the Nittany Lions. That means extending every match and threatening to reach the quarterfinals. Look at his photo. Confidence is not a problem.
Hometown: Fresno, Calif.
It is a good meet if ... the unseeded Californian wrestles like another Illini from the Left Coast, Delgado. He is one of the guys the Illini are counting on as they build in the future.
It is a good meet if ... Super Mario ends his career with a splash, advancing three rounds in another loaded field. He has known success in the past. No reason to think he can’t put together a string of wins.