The NCAA Wrestling Tournament begins Thursday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with the Iowa Hawkeyes seeking their fourth straight championship. Iowa’s in the rare position of “underdog” this year. Two east coast teams – Penn State and Cornell – are considered the favorites.

The Nittany Lions beat the Hawkeyes by one-half point to claim the Big Ten Tournament title earlier this month. Iowa coach Tom Brands believes his wrestlers have improved mentally and physically over the last week-and-a-half.

“When something bad happens, you right the wrong,” Brands said. “Now, we go on to another tournament and push guys into the finals and on top of the podium. It’s simple.” Penn State passed Iowa for the Big Ten title by crowning five individual conference champs. Nine Hawkeyes qualified for NCAA Tournament. Brands says all nine have a shot at winning their weight class.

“We’ve never been about team titles. The team title will take care of itself when the individuals do their job,” Brands said. “We had opportunities to knock (Penn State) off at critical moments. We have to do that, it was in our control. So, we have to get better and the next time it happens…seize the moment.”

The Hawkeyes’ are led by sophomore 125-pounder Matt McDonough. The defending NCAA champ is seeded 2nd at 125 this year. Brands says he appreciates how McDonough dominates his competition with little fanfare.

“He reminds me of (Mark) Ironside and some guys who are probably some of the more celebrated names in Hawkeye history, but were also not premadonnas,” Brands said. “He’s a pretty tough guy. When it comes right down to the bare bones of it, Matt McDonough is a pretty tough son-of-a-gun.”

The Hawkeyes’ Montell Marion is the 5th seed at 141 after placing 2nd at that weight last year. Iowa’s seven other competitors are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance. Iowa State qualified five wrestlers for the tournament, led by top-seed Jon Reader – who’s 34-0 at 174 pounds.

Northern Iowa has three wrestlers, including 184 pounder Ryan Loder – who’s seeded 6th. The opening round of wrestling begins at 10 a.m. Thursday. The tournaments runs through Saturday.